Why regulators should be tough on bank capital

By Felix Salmon
September 7, 2010
John Carney today writes about what he calls "the deeper problem" behind the Basel III negotiations: "how regulators can assess capital requirements without a functioning market process".

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John Carney today writes about what he calls “the deeper problem” behind the Basel III negotiations: “how regulators can assess capital requirements without a functioning market process”.

Ideally, he says, “we wouldn’t have regulatory capital requirements at all”, and banks would voluntarily raise their capital levels because doing so would decrease their funding costs. But in an age of moral hazard and government guarantees, that doesn’t work.

But underlying all of this is the idea that there’s an art to setting an optimal capitalization ratio, so that it’s not too high and not too low. My feeling, by contrast, is that left to their own devices banks will always have too little equity and too much debt, for the reasons that Carney glosses and also just because they tend to trust each other too much, believing that in extremis they can always exit most of any given interbank position overnight.

Certainly I haven’t seen any correlation between leverage and profitability when it comes to the world’s banks. The most profitable bank I’ve ever covered on a regular basis is Brazil’s Banco Itaú, and it tends to have pretty conservative leverage. Meanwhile, Europe is full of extremely highly-levered banks which make relatively modest profits.

It seems to me, then, that excess banking-system leverage is something which happens in mature markets when the normal engines of bank profitability, such as loan growth, start running dry. In Carney’s ideal unregulated market, banks would start off with quite high capital ratios when economies are young and growing fast, and then slash that equity in a desperate attempt to preserve return on equity as their economies start to mature and growth slows down.

And while the emerging markets are no strangers to banking crises, the fact is that the most dangerous such crises are always the ones which take place in large, mature economies.

That’s where regulators — by which I mean the Bank for International Settlements, in Basel — have to step in, by forcing all countries to adopt a bare minimum capital requirement which will protect the system in two main ways: it will make bank failures less likely and less frequent, and it will improve the ability of the rest of the system to withstand any bank failure which does still occur.

Within reason, and so long as the requirement is imposed globally, there’s no reason that it can’t be very strict indeed; the noises coming out of Basel are a very good start. There’s very little downside to tougher capital requirements, and the people who complain about them most likely are probably just those who fear that their bonuses are going to fall. But that’s a feature, not a bug.


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As a banker all I can say to this post is AHMEN!

There is no reason that banks could not or should not have a 12% or even 15% Capital Ratios.

The only thing where we might disagree is that I do think banks should be able to offer the highest “value added” capital services like investment banking, commodities trading, private equity, and venture capital. JPMorgan, always 1st and foremost a commercial lender, has demonstrated a keen ability to offer all those functions and make money doing it. Further, they have done it without taking excessive risk or leverage.

If banks want to swim in the deep end of the pool than let them… just make them hold 20% capital.

Capital solves lots of problems!

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

isn’t the purpose of leverage to increase roe, rather than profits?

Posted by Worsel | Report as abusive

Felix, you made an excellent point:

“There’s an art to setting an optimal capitalization ratio, so that it’s not too high and not too low”

I agree. We always try to make it a science, and supervisors forget that it is an art too. It is not one size fits all.

George Lekatis

Posted by GeorgeLekatis | Report as abusive