Will bank lending finally start to rise?

Big news over the weekend was the world’s banks being given an extra four years to build up their cash piles, and given more flexibility about what assets they can throw into the pot. This is a serious loosening of the previously planned regime and could have a significant effect on banks’ willingness to lend and therefore the wider economy.

For over two years, banks have complained that they can’t oil the wheels of business investment and consumer spending while being forced to build up much larger capital reserves to ward off future financial crises. That contradiction has now been broken (a big win for the bank lobbyists) and the impact on economic recovery could be profound.

However, there are no guarantees. Banks, in Europe at least, have also insisted that lending has remained low because there isn’t the demand for credit from business and households. If that’s true, increased willingness to lend might not be snapped up.

The uncertain economic state of play means the European Central Bank and Bank of England are unlikely to act at policy meetings later this week.
Safe haven German Bund futures have opened moderately higher having dropped dramatically last week after Washington navigated its way round the fiscal cliff and U.S. data was markedly upbeat.

The global regulators, meeting in Basel, agreed on Sunday to phase in a rule new rule on minimum holdings of easily sellable assets, known as the liquidity coverage ratio, from 2015 over four years, and widen the range of assets banks can put in the buffer to include shares and retail mortgage-backed securities (RMBS), as well as lower rated company bonds.

Why banks need (way) more capital

The mantra that regulation is holding back the U.S. economic recovery is playing into Wall Street’s efforts to prevent significant reforms of the financial industry in the wake two major crises – one of which continues to rage in the heart of Europe. The sector’s staunch opposition to reform was captured in JP Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon’s claim that new bank rules are “anti-American.”

A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests the opposition to substantially higher capital requirements is misguided. In particular, economist Patrick Slovik argues that a move away from the Basel accords’ “risk-weighted” approach to capital rules toward a hard-and-fast leverage ratio is the only way to prevent banks from finding creative ways to hide their true risk levels.

When the Basel accords first introduced the calculation of regulatory capital requirements based on risk-weighted assets, it was not expected that for systemically important banks the share of risk-weighted assets in total assets would consequently drop from 70% to 35%. Nor was it expected at the time that the financial system would transform high-risk subprime loans into seemingly low-risk securities on a scale that would spark a global financial crisis.  […] Tighter capital requirements based on risk-weighted assets aim to increase the loss-absorption capacity of the banking system, but also increase the incentives of banks to bypass the regulatory framework. New liquidity regulation, notwithstanding its good intentions, is another likely candidate to increase bank incentives to exploit regulation.

London-Basel express

Having wrapped up the two-day get-together in London, G20 central bankers moved down to the Swiss city of Basel (I counted central bank governors and officials from at least 9 countries onboard the same flight) to discuss more about the global economy for a two-day meeting.

The focus here again is the global economic recovery, which seems to be gathering momentum, and the timing of exit policy — which is essential in the future to avoid inflationary pressure.

The mood is decidedly more positive this time than the last time they met in Basel, where they warned that unprecedented attempts to stimulate economic may fail to bring a sustainable recovery.