Opinion

The Great Debate

Don’t give the Fed a new job

williams_mark– Mark T. Williams, a former Federal Reserve Bank examiner, teaches finance at Boston University’s School of Management and is writing a book on the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers. The views expressed are his own. —

In the real world, outside the Washington Beltway, when someone does a bad job they do not get more work.  The Council of Institutional Investors and the CFA Institute Center for Financial Market Integrity task force report agrees with this fundamental point:  Don’t give the Fed the new job.  As an ex-Fed examiner, I applaud this conclusion.

Creating an independent Systematic Risk Oversight Board (SROB) to monitor firms that pose significant risk to the market would inject new honesty to regulatory supervision.  This sound proposal comes at a time when Treasury Secretary Geithner would like to give his former employer, the Fed, additional regulatory duties even if they have failed to earn this right.  The report also is critical of previous light-touch regulation.  The SROB would provide a firmer approach, not repeating the mistake made by the Fed of coming with a knife to a gunfight.

A new oversight board would provide a fresh approach to preventing banks and other financial firms like insurance companies from engaging in risky and financially harmful practices.  Importantly, the task force report recommends restricting risk-taking activities, forcing banks to refocus on their core competencies – taking in deposits and making loans.  Although banks can get into trouble making loans, such activities are more transparent and easier to monitor than the trading of derivatives that, in a flick of a finger, can blow up a firm.  The report also advocates strengthening capital adequacy standards, important for a cushion against losses and insolvency.

Traditionally, banks have made money only three ways — loan interest, fees for services, and trading.  It would be extreme to say that all banks should be restricted from trading.  But there are many that lack the expertise, capital, trained staff, or sophisticated monitoring systems needed to adequately measure, monitor and control risk.

Stress tests: The results are in, now what?

Mark_Williams_Debate– Mark T. Williams, who teaches finance at Boston University’s School of Management, is a former Federal Reserve bank examiner. The views expressed are his own. –

The market has anxiously waited over two months.  With the stress test results in, we now have our work cut out for us.  Not that these findings were surprising, as the 10 banks which made the government’s “need to raise additional capital now” list are the usual suspects, such as Bank of America (BofA), Citigroup, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Fifth Third, KeyCorp, and Capital One.  They were problem banks before the tests and they continue to be.  But this painfully drawn-out process has spawned four tangible benefits worth discussing.

First, the stress test results raise an important policy question:  Should our largest banks, those central to our economy, be allowed to take such large risks? These results paint a clearer picture of the level of risky lending practices that many of our 19 largest banks engaged in over the last decade. The government’s assessment provides added support to the need for re-regulation in this vital industry.  In the worst-case scenario, the Fed reported that these banks, which control the majority of our country’s deposits and loans, could need to raise approximately $600 billion in additional capital just to cover increased loan defaults.

Is the Fed up to examining your trillion dollar bet?

Mark_Williams_Debate– Mark T. Williams, a professor in the Boston University School of Management’s Finance & Economics Department, was a former Federal Reserve bank examiner in San Francisco and Boston. The views expressed are his own. –

Washington is doling out more than $1 trillion to banks, a hefty capital commitment putting taxpayer money at risk. Meantime, Congress is moving to expand financial sector oversight and the Federal Reserve Bank is likely to take on this additional duty.

As the government’s financial involvement increases, the Fed must be ready for this expanded role. Unfortunately, the current fleet of Fed examiners is in way over their heads. I should know: I used to be one.

Why did the SEC fail to spot the Madoff case?

mark_williams– Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at the Boston University School of Management, is a risk-management expert and former Federal Reserve Bank examiner. The views expressed are his own. –

With Congress now probing the Bernard Madoff case, some claim the SEC missed the risk because of under staffing. Even if that’s an issue, one SEC enforcement officer using basic risk-management skills, asking probing questions, searching for clear answers, and exercising timely follow up could have helped in detecting this fraud before it grew to such a staggering size.

The central flaw at the SEC is that its current oversight approach is not sufficiently risk focused. Moreover, any changes in approach have tended to be in response to a specific event instead of incorporating an overall risk-based approach across all areas under their regulatory purview.

Minimizing exposure to investment management fraud

williams_mark– Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at the Boston University School of Management, is a risk-management expert and former Federal Reserve Bank examiner.  The opinions expressed are his own. —

It looks like the oldest trick in the book was used to allegedly bilk wealthy investors, banks, charities, endowments, and hedge funds out of their money.  How could sophisticated investors have been duped by what could potentially be the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history?  The answer may center on their due diligence prior to signing up with the investment firm run by Bernard Madoff, accused of masterminding the massive fraud.

Due diligence is the rigorous process undertaken to evaluate the controls, credibility, and capabilities of an investment firm prior to putting money at risk.  This process doesn’t stop once a money manager is chosen, but continues over the life of the relationship.  The $50 billion in reported losses and the fact that this scheme went undetected for so long are stark reminders that there is no substitute for solid investor due diligence and ongoing monitoring.  Unfortunately, it has taken a down market to expose such fraud.

CDS market: contributor, not cause

williams_mark– Mark T. Williams is a finance professor at Boston University’s School of Management. The opinions expressed are his own. –

The Credit Default Swap market shares some blame, but it isn’t justified to make it the Beltway’s latest scapegoat responsible for the economic meltdown.

There is, however, a need for its regulation and a strong CDS clearinghouse as a direct response to a real and growing danger. One or two more defaults from CDS protection sellers could roil this already fragile market.

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