Are the new securitization regulations workable?

June 16, 2009

Binyamin Appelbaum has details of the new regulations surrounding securitization, and it all looks incredibly unworkable to me, especially the central plank:

Lenders would be required to retain at least 5 percent of the risk of losses on each package of loan pieces, known as an asset-backed security…

The plan also would prohibit firms from hedging that risk, meaning that they could not make an offsetting investment.

What on earth is a bank’s chief risk officer supposed to do with an edict that she cannot hedge a certain chunk of the bank’s balance sheet? I can see that she might not be able to explicitly create a synthetic CDO to bring that idiosyncratic risk down to zero. But if a bank has exposure from securitizing credit-card receivables, say, or commercial real estate leases, or student loans, or residential mortgages, then similar risk will reside elsewhere on the balance sheet, and the bank will — and should — just reduce the amount of that risk instead. It has the same result, from an all-over risk perspective, and the new regulation is rendered utterly toothless.

As for the idea that the ratings agencies should make it clear that ABS aren’t corporate bonds, well, as Agnes points out, that’s pretty silly: I think everybody knows that by now. The problem is that if there’s a separate second scale for ABS (and maybe even a third scale for munis), no one will have a clue what the new ratings are supposed to mean. It would be a bit like being given two apples, and told that one costs 15 foos while the other costs 17 bars.

I would rather encourage the ratings agencies to try and make credit ratings as laterally comparable as possible, and to try to set ratings so that you don’t have the enormous default-rate discrepancies that exist right now between different asset classes. Investors could then judge for themselves the degree to which the ratings agencies had succeeded.

My fear is that ratings agencies might start issuing separate credit ratings for munis, which will be considered much safer than the equivalent credit ratings on corporate bonds, just as a wave of muni defaults is about to hit. In general, the key here is to decrease the importance of the ratings agencies, rather than trying to regulate them on the grounds of how important they are.

But a couple of the proposals make sense: paying originators of securitized loans gradually, over time, for instance, rather than up-front when the loans are securitized; or standardizing contract language in the ABS market to make such securities easier to compare to each other. They just won’t make an enormous amount of difference.


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