Opinion

The Great Debate

Two years after Lehman, risk of financial collapse is still high

GERMANY/

By Mark Williams
The opinions expressed are his own.

Events unfolding in Europe — including Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and most recently Ireland — are alarming reminders that systemic risk is the most pressing of this decade.

While it’s been two years to this day since the death of Lehman Brothers almost brought down the entire financial system, global systemic risk — the chance that a single event or series of events can collapse the world financial system – remains quite high.

In response to this threat, international banking regulators just approved higher Basel III capital requirements as a step in reducing global systemic risk. Banks with more capital are being forced to make more room to absorb losses, helping to increase economic stability. Under this tougher standard, banks need to maintain a minimum tier one (core) capital ratio of 4.5 percent, more than double the previous requirement.

As further risk mitigation, dividend and discretionary bonus payments will be restricted unless core capital ratio is 7 percent or higher. Unfortunately the phase-in period for these stronger capital standards is from 2013 to 2019. So this multi-year time gap allows for plenty of systemic risk to persist and grow.

Domestically, the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July also attempts to address systemic risk by setting up a Financial Stability Oversight Counsel (FSOC) made up of major financial firefighters like the Fed, SEC, FDIC, and the Treasury. For the first time, managing systemic risk and its impact on the economy is an official U.S. regulatory policy.

Michael Lewis’ Big Short an unsettling experience

Henry Paulson didn’t see it coming. Nor did Timothy Geithner foresee the meltdown of the financial markets. According to Standard & Poor’s President Deven Sharma, testifying before Congress in the fall of 2008: “Virtually no one – be they homeowners, financial institutions, ratings agencies, regulators, or investors – anticipated what is occurring.”

Why? Perhaps “it took a certain kind of person to see the ugly facts and react to them – to discern, in the profile of the beautiful young lady, the face of an old witch,” says Michael Lewis, author of numerous best-sellers including 1980s Wall Street memoir  Liar’s Poker and now The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W.W. Norton, $27.95).

Lewis’ new volume is an entertaining and very edifying look at several such insightful people — the tiny handful of investors “for whom the trade became an obsession.” These were unusual, “almost by definition odd” folks, soon to make big money on the cataclysm: There is Steve Eisman, the former Oppenheimer analyst who regularly demonstrated a prodigious “talent for offending people,” notably in a tendency to trash subprime originators as early as 1997.

Big banks aren’t bad banks

— Mark T. Williams, a former Federal Reserve Bank examiner who teaches finance at Boston University School of Management, is the author of the soon to be published “Uncontrolled Risk” about the fall of Lehman Brothers. The views expressed are his own. –

Too big to fail has become nothing more than a political sound bite and the title of a best-selling book. Unfortunately, in the process big banks have gotten a bad rap. The proposed Obama administration plan to limit bank size is just another example of big-bank bashing by high-level politicians.

Policy that simply focuses on downsizing big banks overlooks an important point. The problem is not that banks are too big; it is that banks are taking excessive risk. This includes big and small banks. Since 2008, more than 170 banks have failed, including big banks such as Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and IndyMac. But most on this list – such as Citizens State Bank, Republic Federal Bank, and First State Bank — are smallish. They didn’t make big headlines. No books were written about them or movies made.

Obama disappoints on bank reform

— Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. —

President Obama announced he wants to prohibit banks from forming hedge funds, private equity funds and trading securities on their own accounts, and he wants to limit the size of banks and financial institutions generally.

Hedge funds, private equity funds and proprietary securities trading did not cause the banks to get into trouble, and the size of banks did not cause the credit crisis.

from The Great Debate UK:

2010: Another year, another crisis

copeland1- 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. -

If the financial crisis were a theatre production of Hamlet, we would now be at the end of Act III.

But look . . . the audience is already standing up, applauding wildly and putting on their coats. They obviously think it’s all over. Little do they know how much blood remains to be spilled . . .
Look at the facts.

from Commentaries:

Securitization survives the fall

A year after the government's seizure of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG , not to mention the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers that sent the global financial system into a tailspin, very little has changed to prevent debt from being sliced and diced, again and again.

This is a mistake. Although there were many factors contributing to the downfall of the global financial system, the repackaging of toxic debt into esoteric financial products was at the heart of the credit crisis when it erupted in 2007.

It's easy to forget, particularly when many are focused on anniversary tick-tock accounts of the last days of Lehman Brothers, how nasty CDOs -- or worse, CDO squareds -- became so incredibly popular in the first place.

from Commentaries:

‘Living wills’ easier said than done

In the wake of the widespread chaos that accompanied the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers last September, regulators have sought to find a better way to unwind global financial giants. One approach is that the banks themselves should prepare for their own orderly demise -- a kind of "living will".

That idea has been gathering steam of late. The G20 group of finance ministers and central bankers meeting in London over the weekend agreed to require "systemic firms to develop firm-specific contingency plans."

The concept has wide appeal. The crisis has convinced politicians and regulators of all colours that even large financial institutions must be allowed to fail without imposing a huge burden on taxpayers. Many bankers see such a regime as a preferable alternative to more intrusive regulation.

from Commentaries:

Banking? Keep it simple stupid

In 1873, Walter Bagehot wrote that "the business of banking ought to be simple; if it is hard it is wrong." He would have struggled to recognize today's banking system.

It is not just ever more ornate derivatives that bend the mind. Financial firms themselves have become fabulously complicated. Citigroup lists 2,061 subsidiaries and affiliates while the institutional chart of JPMorgan Chase is 267 pages long.

Complexity -- as Bagehot predicted -- has become a curse. If nobody can understand financial firms, they will become ever more accident prone.

Winning back the public’s trust

aron-cramer– Aron Cramer is president and CEO of BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. The opinions expressed are his own. –

The fall of Lehman Brothers last September triggered a collapse in financial markets, and then the real economy. It also signaled a further decline in the public’s trust in business. One year on, has anything changed?

At the start of 2009, only 36 percent of the U.S. public trusted business to “do what is right”—down dramatically from 59 percent one year before—according to surveys from the PR firm Edelman. But as of this July, trust levels in business had recovered somewhat, to 48 percent. Yet just as with the economic recovery overall, it is far too early to declare victory.

from Commentaries:

Time to get tough with AIG

It's time for someone in the Obama administration to read the riot act to Robert Benmosche, American International Group's new $7 million chief executive.

Since getting the job, Benmosche has spent more time at his lavish Croatian villa on the Adriatic coast than at the troubled insurer's corporate offices in New York.

And in the short term, Benmosche's vacation strategy appears to be paying dividends.

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