Now raising intellectual capital

Do banks really need to hoard liquidity?

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.

Is the ECB too cautious or too reckless?

The European Central Bank has long been criticised for being too cautious in its response to the financial crisis. Didn’t the inflation hawks of Frankfurt raise rates in July last year just as the credit crunch was about to reach its climax? Despite their massive injections of liquidity into the money markets, Jean-Claude Trichet and his colleagues were pilloried as timorous clones of the Bundesbank for cutting rates too slowly and refusing to follow the Fed and the Bank of England into Quantitative Easing by buying government and corporate debt.

But after last week’s helicopter dump of a record 442 billion euros in liquidity in one-year lending on demand to banks at its 1.0 percent refi rate against a broad range of collateral, the bank suddenly stands accused by some critics of being more reckless than the Anglo-Saxon central banks.