Friday, May 24, 2013

European Parliament Approves Implementation of Basel III

On April 16, the European Parliament approved the packet of legislation known as CRD IV, which largely implements the Basel III banking reforms. This completes the political phase of the European legislative process -- formal adoption of CRD IV by the Council of Ministers is expected to occur in June. Assuming the schedule is met, CRD IV will become law effective January 1, 2014. Consultations on the form of detailed regulations ('technical standards') have now been launched.

CRD IV implements Basel III -- and does more. The term 'CRD IV' signals that this is the fourth generation of the EU's Capital Requirements Directive. The name is no longer precise: CRD IV is comprised of a Regulation (law that is uniformly applied throughout Europe) and a Directive (which requires national implementation and admits a certain degree of variation).

CRD IV increases the quantity and quality of regulatory capital a financial institution must hold. In most cases, transitioning to CRD IV requirements will place pressure on European banks to retain earnings, raise additional equity capital, dispose of assets or change their respective asset mixes. Under the existing version of the Capital Requirements Directive (which were adopted immediately prior to the onset of the 2007/2008 financial crisis), many European banks reduced their capital to extremely low levels. Reportedly some European banks had leverage ratios of over 40 to 1 -- that is, maintaining less than 2 percent of effective capital. Many of these same banks remain in crisis now -- a problem that in turn has infected the balance sheets of several EU Member States. CRD IV acknowledges the insufficiency of bank capital during the financial crisis. The new requirements are complex -- and involve a stack of charges and buffers. A minimum of 8 percent capital will now be mandated, computed with regard to a bank's risk-adjusted assets. Left undetermined for the time being is the overall leverage cap -- it is this simple metric that may prove to be the most meaningful limit on a bank's level of debt.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin

Neil Irwin's The Alchemists delivers on its promise: the book is a central banker's view of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis and the more recent (and related) Euro Crisis. Only the subtitle disappoints: The Alchemists isn't quite the story of the three central bankers depicted on its cover (Bernanke, Trichet and Mervyn King). Rather, The Alchemists offers a thorough treatment of Bernanke's crisis-plagued tenure at the Fed and insightful coverage of the ECB's Trichet - until Trichet morphs into Mario Draghi just in time for the worst of the Euro Crisis. Plus the odd bit of Bank of England's Mervyn King thrown in for comic relief. No doubt Irwin's project was inspired by Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, which treats four central bankers (their philosophies and their quirks) from the 1920s: the UK's Montague Norman, France's Emile Moreau, Germany's Hjalmar Schacht and the Fed's Benjamin Strong. Now these were central bankers: they dominated the monetary policies of their day.

Our contemporary central bankers lack some of the color of their predecessors (save Mervyn King, who is pretty darn colorful). Moreover, their field of action is much more circumscribed. They can be checked by other personalities within their respective institutions, by intimidating political leaders, and by uncooperative markets. These bankers do manage, at least in this account, to largely have their way in responding to the crises, through will and manipulation, and by playing on the palpable belief that no one else has any better idea of what to do.

Irwin's story begins with the shudders in the market in late 2007, when BNP is the first major institution to admit it had no real idea how much those tricky mortgage-backed securities were worth. The response by Trichet is immediate - and is the precursor of many more ECB interventions. Things get much much worse in the following year with the fall of Lehman Brothers. Lehman's collapse is marked by the surprising non-intervention of the Fed. Irwin's account of the abandonment of Lehman Brothers is thin - but he suggests that the Fed may have felt it had no clear legal basis to act. Bernanke no doubt learned many things from the Lehman Brothers fiasco, including (perhaps) the advantages of being a bit less scrupulous in respecting the limits of the Fed's authority.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tarullo on Basel III and Short Term Wholesale Funding

The Federal Reserve's Dan Tarullo has been a key player in post-Crisis U.S. bank reform and in the negotiation of Basel III, the set of international banking rules that guides regulation in major financial centers. In a speech made last Friday (May 3, 2013) Tarullo expressed some satisfaction with the U.S. and Basel III reforms -- and identified a risk needing further regulatory attention: runs on short-term wholesale funding.

Short-term funding has always constituted a vulnerability to the banking system. The traditional magic of banking involves the transformation of maturities -- banks borrow on a short-term basis and lend for the medium- or long-term. In ordinary times this works out splendidly -- as the short-term rates banks pay tend to be lower (over the long term) than the long-term rates they earn. And in ordinary times, short-term funding is quite stable.

The dominant form of short-term funding was traditionally bank deposits. Deposits are essentially loans made to a bank by its depositors. Deposits are legally short-term, but practically rest in the hands of banks for substantial periods. Short-term funding becomes problematic, of course, when depositors systematically demand repayment: this is the old-style bank run. Post-Depression era deposit insurance has largely eliminated bank runs, at least in the United States, and so the ordinary insured bank deposit is (from the perspective of the bank) a trusty source of short-term funding.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition by Arjun Appadurai

In this collection of essays, Arjun Appadurai links his role as leading globalization scholar to his practice as activist on behalf of the slum dwellers in his native city of Mumbai (or Bombay, the abandoned name Appadurai seems to prefer). Appadurai redeploys globalization theory (and more generally modernization theory, of which globalization is a part) as an ethical practice. He calls for cultivating the capacity to aspire among the world's poor -- an unabashedly cultural project with political and developmental implications. Appadurai argues that the poor must be enabled to aspire -- these aspirations will, in turn, define new and different trajectories from those promised by the passé globalist.

Globalization has failed in its predictions -- and so has failed as science. Globalization, it was thought, would lead to convergence and homogenization, more democracy and tolerance and less nationalism and violence. Yet the world we now see displays strong (and growing stronger) national states and continued developmental disparities. Those enabled by knowledge migrate; their home countries capture disappointing returns from their educational investments. New digital capacities have been harnessed by jealous ethnic groups to reinforce local identities; they can encourage aggression and conflict.