In the last post I proposed the radical – but disagreeable – proposition that the right way to regulate banks is to allow them to rip us all off.
I didn't expect any support – but surprisingly I got some. At least one commentator noted – as I would – that the only thing worse than bankers making outrageous profits is bankers not making outrageous profits.
Several Canadians saw their banking system (bureaucratic, dull, profitable and stable) more or less as I saw the Australian system.
In general – and one commentator actually raised this – I was suggesting we go back to a 3-6-3 banking world – where a banker took deposits at 3 percent, made loans at 6 percent and hit the golf course by 3 pm. That was a fair summary except that maybe I lean towards a 3-7-3 system.
Hong Kong was also raised. Hong Kong had a formalized 3-7-3 system – where the bankers knocked off early every day except Friday. On Fridays they went to the office of the governor of the currency board and set interest rates for next week. A truly cozy oligopoly.
The wealth from the great Hong Kong oligopoly is what allowed HSBC to become “the world's local bank” (and America's stand-over merchant).
Of course semi-socialist banking completely killed all Hong Kong entrepreneurship and turned Hong Kong into the poor colonial trash of Asia.
Ahem – actually it wasn't all that destructive.
But the Hong Kong example gives the next clue in how a post-crisis banking system should be regulated. If the Hong Kong subsidiary of HSBC – the extraordinary money machine – is separately capitalized then it will be bailed out. But if the Hong Kong monies are all lent to the much larger US Subprime market then – hey – it could still fail.
So what you need to do if you are Hong Kong is insist that the Hong Kong subsidiary is a separately capitalized subsidiary and cannot inject money into any other HSBC subsidiary without a 100% capital charge. The result would be that it would not matter whether the rest of the HSBC went to pot – the Hong Kong subsidiary – and hence Hong Kong – would be fine. Even if it were insolvent it would be worth someone's while to recapitalize it. HSBC Hong Kong was of course a goose laying golden eggs.
Some thought that Australia (and presumably Canada) were OK because of the commodity booms. Sorry – no dice. If you haven't noticed the commodity boom is over you are not watching the distress coming out of Western Australia.
One objection to having really large banks (often expressed by Simon Johnson) is that really large banks are good at regulatory capture and that is a bad thing. But I advocate much higher profitability for banks. Regulatory capture is to be encouraged so long as it allows the banks – in the manner of a utility – to apply too much capital for reasonable incremental returns. Regulatory capture in my view is a good thing.
Actually the only real objection I got was the one I expected which was the notion that Fannie and Freddie were my too-profitable-to-fail government mandated oligopoly and provided a counter-example. Even that notion is garbage. The peak profit net income of Fannie Mae was about 7 billion dollars – and it was typically in the 4-6 billion range. The peak net income of Freddie Mac was about 10 billion but it was typically in the 3-4 billion range. In almost every year the combined profit was under 10 billion. And for that they took credit risk on over 5 trillion of mortgages. They earned – at best – 20bps post tax on all risks they took. The pre-tax fee for taking credit losses was typically about 20bps.
The thing about Fannie and Freddie was that they were staggeringly unprofitable. If Fannie and Freddie had earned even half a percent total credit exposure then they would have been so profitable that they would not have failed now.
The problem with Fannie and Freddie is that they didn't convince regulators to increase their profit enough. Very sad – but for all their legendary prowess lobbying they just failed miserably to score. By the end they had regulators who were ideological warriors against their existence – a measure of their total lobbying failure. What we needed was regulators who were far more captured by Fannie and Freddie.
The shadow banking system as the real competitor
The real problem with Fannie Mae – and with American and English banking – was that the shadow banking system became huge and a devastatingly effective competitor. The shadow banking system shook margins to very low levels – so low that even Fannie and Freddie – with the seemingly overwhelming advantage of their quasi-government status – could barely eek out a profit.
And no amount of lobbying – no matter how competent – could undo the huge competitive threat that Fannie and Freddie were under. Fannie and Freddie's lobbying effort just wasn't up to it because the task was too hard. The financial engineers who dreamed up the shadow banking system were just too clever.
The Pandora's box of financial innovation
And herein is the ultimate problem – that some of my commentators picked up on. That is that the real driver of low margins in banking was the shadow banking system. The highly paid people were the brokers and traders and hedge fund managers who made all that work.
And at the moment the shadow banking system is in ruins – and as a result pre-tax, pre-provision pre-trading loss profitability of banks (or for that matter Fannie and Freddie) is rising sharply. And we are getting to the sort of world I envisage, that of fat lazy banks with “lazy balance sheets” who have completely captured their regulators.
But unfortunately markets don't look like that. Pandora can't put financial innovation back in its box – and when this crisis is over the shadow banking system will re-emerge to crush margins again.
Of course we can stop it. All those high-power, high-paid traders and brokers who are central to the shadow banking system should eventually be fired. They are not necessary in my hoped for 3-7-3 world. And they caused all the problems anyway. Firing them now should be done so long as it does not exacerbate the current crisis.
And when the competition is gone even Fannie and Freddie can double or triple their margins – and even they will wind up costing taxpayers very little.
Alas consumers will pay for the mistakes of the past – interest spreads (and hence rates paid by consumers) will be higher and that “tax” is what recapitalizes our system and keep us out of future messes. In first instance it is not good for consumers.
But it is not clear that consumers really benefited in the end from hyper low mortgage rates. They just seemed to get capitalized into the value of houses – and that was part of the creation of our current predicament.
Let me end with some stylised facts
This little rant of mine is contrary to the received wisdom both of my training (economics) and of the world we live in.
But I digress.
Economics is meant to be a science based on observation – but more often than not degenerates into an ideological slanging match. Here are a few observations:
- Highly regulated – indeed price fixed – banking did not visibly hinder economic growth in Hong Kong.
- Highly indebted countries with highly oligopolistic banking systems and quite a lot of financial regulation are doing relatively well at the moment – see Australia, Canada, possibly Israel.
- Fannie and Freddie may have made huge and seemingly formidable lobbying efforts – but those lobbying efforts failed miserably – with Fannie and Freddie combined profits never going about $10 billion for carrying about half of all mortgages in the United States. This number seems large but is trivial relative to the size of the exposure or the stated profits of competitors.
- The collapse of mortgage margins in the UK simply resulted in banks maintaining returns on equity by increasing leverage. Bank profits did not fall – but bank risk – and system risk
Some of these facts are uncomfortable because the facts do not fit my off-the-cuff economist's reaction. They don't fit my usual presumption that markets and deregulation are mostly good. And they argue that we are better off with nasty bureaucratic Australian banks than most the alternatives.
But – to paraphrase Keynes – when the facts are inconsistent with my theory I change my mind. What do you do sir?