James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

How to really end Too Big To Fail

April 13, 2010

Over at the must-read e21 site, Chris Papagianis provides an excellent counter to the Dodd-Obama financial reform plan. He prefers an approach devised by Oliver Hart and Luigi Zingales. Here are the key details via Papagianis:

1) Hart and Zingales would use credit default swap (CDS) spreads as a market-based default probability metric. The “spread” or premium on a CDS contract represents the market price of providing a financial guarantee against losses from a firm’s default.

2) In the Hart and Zingales framework, once the CDS spread rises above a pre-specified “critical threshold,” the regulator would force the institution in question to issue equity (offer new stock for sale) until the CDS spread moves back below the threshold.

3) While Hart and Zingales choose the right instrument for their trigger, their proposed remedial step should be strengthened. Instead of having the regulator demand that the institution issue new equity, the debt of the institution could automatically convert into equity. Say a large bank financed $150 billion of assets with $80 billion of deposits, $40 billion of senior debt, $20 billion of so-called junior debt, and $10 billion of equity. When the CDS on this bank surpassed the critical threshold, half of the bank’s junior debt would automatically convert to equity. Instead of having 6.7% equity (15-to-1 leverage), the bank’s assets would be financed with 13.3% equity (7.5-to-1 leverage). If that failed to bring the CDS below the critical threshold, the other half of the junior debt would also convert to equity.

4) The mandatory conversion would enhance systemic stability for two reasons. First, the risk that the debt would convert to equity would be priced into the debt, raising the systemic institution’s cost of capital and leveling the playing field with smaller banks. Secondly, the automatic conversion would eliminate the potential for regulatory forbearance caused by market conditions.

Me: I like this. It doesn’t depend on the omniscience of politically captured regulators, and it doesn’t involve bank bailouts by taxpayers. This would seem to be an antidote to Crony Capitalism.

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