Opinion

The Great Debate

Are too-big-to-fail banks being cut down to size?

Financial institution representatives are sworn in before testifying at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington

The massive $16-billion mortgage fraud settlement agreement just reached by Bank of America and federal authorities — only the latest in a string of such settlements — makes it easy to lose sight of what good shape banks are in.

Banks are now far better capitalized, with tighter credit processes and better risk accounting. The bigger Wall Street houses have also jettisoned many of their most volatile trading operations. Yet most have still managed to turn in decent earnings. That is a tribute to the steady and generally thoughtful imposition of the new Dodd-Frank and Basel III regulations, the rules on “stress-testing” balance sheets and the controversial Volcker Rule that limits speculative proprietary trading operations.

And the feds are keeping on the pressure, as demonstrated by their rejection of almost all the “living will” plans submitted by the major banks, which are supposed to prevent the kind of disorderly collapse that Lehman Brothers went through in 2008.  These living will impositions are designed either to reduce the riskiness of bank holdings or to make the financial institutions post more capital and reserves to cushion against reverses.

A Bank of America sign is shown on a building in downtown Los Angeles, CaliforniaWhile these reforms were badly needed after the virtual wholesale deregulation of the 1990s, they almost all raise costs and limit flexibility. But that is far from the worst problem facing the banks. The regulatory impact on revenues and profits is likely to be dwarfed by the pain banks will experience after the inevitable removal of their current federal life-support systems.

The Federal Reserve has taken extraordinary measures to entice banks to lend money. It has used two main tools. The first, called quantitative easing or “QE,” has entailed the Fed buying massive quantities of securities normally held by private financial institutions. The second has been to keep the fed funds rate, or the rate at which major banks lend their short-term funds to each other, at unusually low levels.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Yellen shows her hand

The difference between the Federal Reserve Board of Chairwoman Janet Yellen and that of her immediate predecessor Ben Bernanke is becoming clear. No more so than in their approach to the problem of joblessness.

Bernanke made clear that in the post-2008 economy, his principal goal was the creation of jobs, not curbing inflation. He settled on a figure, 6.5 percent unemployment, as the threshold that would guide his actions.

While remaining true to the spirit of Bernanke’s principal goal, Yellen and the rest of her board refined the target in their meeting on March 18 and 19, a change in approach that at first sent the wrong signal to the stock and bond markets. At the press conference following the meeting, Yellen said she would not be raising interest rates “for a considerable time,” which could mean “something on the order of around six months.”

from The Great Debate UK:

Greenspan and the curse of counterfactual

Laurence_Copeland-150x150- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Suppose that, instead of appeasing Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, Neville Chamberlain had taken Britain to war, what would today’s history books say about the episode?

It is of course impossible to know. Perhaps something along the lines: “the British prime minister’s stubborn refusal to compromise resulted in a war which dragged on for 6 months at a cost of over 300,000 lives.....” Make up your own scenario.

Credit control will be much more intrusive in future

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

The international system of bank regulation, epitomised by the Basle II process and the light-touch principles-based regulation of Britain’s Financial Services Authority (FSA) has comprehensively failed.

In too many instances, light-touch principles-based regulation with an emphasis on banks’ internal risk controls turned out to be no effective regulation at all.

Fed unleashes greatest bubble of all

John Kemp Great Debate– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –

Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his predecessor Alan Greenspan have unleashed a series of ever-larger asset bubbles they cannot control.

Now the Fed’s decision to cut interest rates to between zero and 0.25 percent, coupled with a promise to keep them there for an extended period, and the threat to conduct even more unconventional operations in the longer-dated Treasury market risks the biggest bubble of all, this time in U.S. government debt.

Commodities and the Great Conundrum

John Kemp– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist.  The views expressed are his own –


By John Kemp

LONDON (Reuters) – By driving up long-term real interest rates, the forthcoming flood of U.S Treasury borrowing threatens to crowd out the amount of capital for investing in other asset classes, creating a much tougher environment for commodity prices over the next two to three years.

Like many other asset classes, commodity prices have benefited from an influx of funds in recent years driven by three related factors:

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