Do banks really need to hoard liquidity?

October 7, 2009

That’s the provocative question posed by Willem Buiter. His latest, characteristically lengthy, blog post tackles the regulatory vogue for forcing banks to hold much greater reserves of liquid assets – in practice, government bonds.

Buiter’s missive follows new rules from Britain’s Financial Services Authority, which will force banks to increase their reserves of government bonds by more than a third. The rules have been met with predictable bleating from the industry, which accuses the regulator of undermining Britain’s competitiveness and promoting the fragmentation of the global financial system. Another concern is the FSA’s handling of the transition.

Buiter’s objections are more fundamental. He’s not convinced banks should be preparing to deal with a seizure in the markets. That, he argues, is the job of central banks:

It may be possible for private banks to hold enough liquid assets (government debt, effectively) on their balance sheets to survive even a major liquidity crunch without recourse to the central bank.  But that would be socially inefficient.  Banks are meant to intermediate short liabilities into long-term assets, and frequently into long-term illiquid assets.  It’s what their raison d’être is.

By contrast, Buiter says: “Providing liquidity is what God made central banks for.”

It’s an argument which deserves to be explored further, though it does raise some practical concerns.

The first is whether central banks are able to prop up individual lenders without making matters worse. After all, the run on Northern Rock started after  the Bank of England announced it was providing support to the mortgage bank. The Bank of England has since installed a permanent discount window similar to the one used by the Federal Reserve. But it remains to be seen whether banks will dare use it once markets have returned to normal.

Then there is the question of collateral. The crisis has forced central banks to lend against a much wider range of assets than they previously accepted. Buiter appears to be suggesting that in future central banks should be willing to accept all kinds of illiquid assets, almost regardless of quality, as long as they apply an appropriate haircut.

Britain’s embattled banks may welcome Buiter rallying to their cause. But they shouldn’t get too carried away. The LSE professor prefaces his argument with a lengthy call for a global regime to shut down failing banks and seize their assets.

Only this, he claims, can “turn our financial sector back into something that belongs in and sustains a market economy instead of a form of communism for the rich and well-connected.”



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