Tuesday, June 19, 2012

financial sector is eating out the economy

an out-of-control financial sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.

Comment on
Andrew G Haldane, 

“Control rights (and wrongs)”,
Wincott Annual Memorial Lecture, 

24th October 2011 

Martin Wolf

Andy Haldane has been the most brilliant analyst of the antecedents of the financial disaster that has fallen upon the western world since the summer of 2007. In a series of remarkable papers, he has applied insights from network theory, ecology and economics to the monster we have spawned. The conclusion to be drawn from his work is that an out-of-control financial sector is eating out the modern market economy from inside, just as the larva of the spider wasp eats out the host in which it has been laid.

For me, the moment at which this became evident was when I learned that the financial sector had allegedly generated more than two-fifths of US corporate profits shortly before the crisis. How could a sector that was merely allocating capital and managing risk generate so much of the business profits in the world’s largest economy? This had to be due to some combination of excessive risk-taking, accounting delusions and rent extraction. So, it appears, it was.

In this lecture, Mr Haldane provides a compelling account of the first of these elements. He provides an analytical history of the development of western – and, in particular – British banking over the past two centuries, to demonstrate the consequences of a progressive divorce between who controls the banks – shareholders and managers - and who bears the risk – society at large and, in particular, taxpayers.

The story is gripping, convincing and terrifying. It shows that each step along this road to ruin seemed eminently reasonable, if not inevitable, to sensible people. Yet the journey has ended up with over-leveraged, risk-taking behemoths, operated in the interests of short-term shareholders and management, which are both too big to fail and too big to save. The analysis raises profound questions about how we go from where we are.

Where are we?

Between one and a half and two centuries ago, in a country not so far away, it was common for equity to account for half of a bank’s funding and liquid securities to account for as much as 30 per cent of its assets. Financial sector assets accounted for less than 50 per cent of gross domestic product and the largest banks had assets of less than 5 per cent of GDP.

Fast forward to today. What do we find? Banks’ leverage ratio is in the neighborhood of 20 to 1 and has been very much higher, quite recently, while their assets are often complex, illiquid, or both. Banking assets reached five times GDP in the UK, just before the crisis. After the crisis, they are concentrated overwhelmingly in a small number of too-big-to-fail institutions (four supposedly British and one Spanish).

As leverage rose, so did returns on equity, from the low single digits to close to 20 per cent. “Arithmetically”, notes Mr Haldane, “virtually all of this increase in equity returns can be explained by increased leverage.”

Necessarily, this also means increased volatility: “while the variability of banks’ returns on assets has roughly trebled over the past century, the variability of returns on equity has risen between six and sevenfold.”

In short, we have moved from relatively safe, small banks within a small banking system to relatively unsafe, large banks within a huge banking system. Not only has this journey created huge dangers, but it has also made it very difficult for us to go back, however much we would like to do so.

How did we get here?

So what put us on this journey? The answer, Mr Haldane argues, is changes in incentives. Governments have wanted banks to be bigger and take more risk - and they have succeeded, beyond their wildest nightmares.
In the beginning, liability was unlimited. At the end, liability was strictly limited.

In the beginning, equity financed half the bank. At the end, equity financed maybe a twentieth of the bank.
In the beginning, managers and owners were more or less one and the same. At the end, managers were short-term hired hands richly rewarded for raising the return on equity, regardless of risk.

In the beginning, the tax regime had no effect on the structure of finance. At the end, it strongly rewarded increases in leverage.

In the beginning creditors knew they could lose their money. At the end, creditors had good reason to expect they would not.

In the beginning, banks lived and died in the market. At the end, regulators tried to make up for the failings of structural regulation and detailed supervision.

Given the capping of downside risk by limited liability, the incentive is to raise the volatility of returns. As Mr Haldane explains, “volatility increases the upside return without affecting the downside risk. If banks seek to maximize shareholder value, the incentives, then, will be to seek bigger and riskier bets. Or, put more directly, joint stock banking with limited liability puts ownership in the hands of a volatility junkie.”

The danger this creates is not only that banks are themselves made risky, but that volatile banks make the economy riskier, since the balance sheets of the banks are interwoven with those of the economy. That is why the Independent Commission on Banking, of which I was a member, concluded that the median cost of financial crises was the equivalent of 3 per cent of GDP, in perpetuity.

A particularly significant failure of incentives is the difficulty of imposing losses on creditors. This removes one of the most important disciplines on both shareholders and managers. The possibility of losses on debt contracts is “time inconsistent”: creditors can reasonably disbelieve the threat that they would be allowed to lose money. At the limit, the liabilities of banks become off-balance-sheet government debts. This makes the managers of banks the most highly paid and least regulated civil servants in the world. That is quite a bargain, at least for them!

As Mr Haldane argues, “For UK banks, . . . the implicit subsidy amounts to at least tens of billions of pounds per year, often stretching to three figures. For the global banks, it is at least worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year, on occasion four figures.”

Yet the subsidy does not benefit creditors, since they merely receive a lower coupon than if they were expected to bear the losses. Even long-term shareholders do not gain: the purchaser of a portfolio of global banking stocks twenty years ago is sitting on real loss. The beneficiaries of the subsidy are short-term shareholders skilled at trading volatility and, of course, managers with remuneration linked to returns on equity or share options. The result of the subsidy, meanwhile, is an enormous increase in leverage in the economy. The benefits of that are likely to be highly negative.

The management’s emphasis on return on equity – a return on liabilities that finance a tiny proportion of the balance sheet – gives the game away. Management is rewarded for raising volatility of returns on assets and (subsidised) leverage. Mr Haldane describes this emphasis on short-term returns as the “myopia loop”.

Before the crisis, managers could at least claim that they deserved their pay: had they not increased the real returns? Can they do so afterwards? Hardly. The apparent profitability was an illusion. The management were not adding value. They were playing games with risk (other people’s) and rewards (theirs).

Mr Haldane suggests that after two centuries ownership and control have been reunited. But the control and the ownership now rest with short-term traders in shares and management, neither of which have an interest in the long-term health of the banks.

If you are not frightened by all this, you have not been paying attention.

What is to be done?

Mr Haldane discusses four ways of changing incentives.

The first is to raise equity requirements substantially. There has been some progress in this direction. But it probably does not go far enough. David Miles, a member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, with two co-authors, suggests that the optimal capital ratio would be 20 per cent of risk-weighted assets. If this seems inordinate, remember that this may imply a true leverage ratio of as much as ten to one, depending on the risk weights in any particular case.

As the ICB notes, such a shift would impose private costs, because of the tax treatment of debt. The answer is to change the tax treatment, by making a normal return on equity tax deductible or, alternatively, withdrawing the tax deductibility of debt. Indeed, argues Mr Haldane, we could reverse the bias, since debt is so much more socially costly than equity. I agree.

The second way is make debt more equity-like. Mr Haldane argues that the bail-in debt, on which the ICB relies, would prove too costly to use, because of the damage done by bankruptcy. That depends on the triggers. US experience suggests that this need not be the case. But I agree that the point of bail in should be determined by market-based measures of capital adequacy. This might, as he argues, be better achieved with so-called contingent convertible debt instruments (Co-Cos). More broadly, my view is that bail-in debt can be accepted only if regulators believe they can carry out the conversion into equity, in a crisis. Otherwise, equity ratios should be raised.

The third possible reform is via changes in control rights. It is possible to envisage radical changes to voting rights, for example, that might give some votes to some classes of creditors, as well. Mr Haldane describes this as a hybrid of the mutual and joint-stock models.

A fourth possible reform, suggests Mr Haldane is to change the target return from equity to assets. That would certainly have a powerful and attractive impact. As he notes, if that had been the case in the US, remuneration would not have increased ten-fold between 1989 and 2007, but increased from $2.8m to $3.4m.

I think these are all attractive ideas. What would I like to see added?

My first additional suggestion is to reconsider limited liability, at least for investment banks. The advantages of partnerships are very great. Strong encouragement for partnerships, perhaps via the tax regime, would seem to make sense.

My second additional suggestion is to consider more carefully the split between retail and investment banking suggested by the ICB. The biggest benefit, in my view, is that it should reduce the time-inconsistency problem. Should a pure investment bank get into trouble, it would be more likely to be allowed to fail, provided the country had a resolution authority which could allow it to wipe out shareholders and longer-term creditors, while short-term trading was smoothly wound down. Since winding up retail banks would be more disruptive, the ICB suggests a higher capital ratio, as extra insurance.

In addition, the retail ring fence would allow the government to focus any subsidies for domestic lending, or insurance of such loans, on the UK retail subsidiary of the giant banks. Finally, the split should reinforce the difference in cultures between investment banking and retail banking, with the latter focused on longer-term customer relationships.

What does the paper omit?

No paper is complete. But this one has several important omissions.

The first omission concerns the long-term macroeconomics of leveraged economies. Defenders of the status quo on banking would argue that the subsidies benefit the economy by increasing credit supply and so economic growth. The evidence is, to the contrary, that the hugely expanded leverage of the economy has, made it more fragile, without generating a scintilla’s increase in long-term growth.

The second omission concerns the short-term macroeconomics of de-leveraging. Today, we find governments caught between a strong suspicion that the economy should be deleveraged and a fear that the result will be an even longer and deeper economic contraction. They want banks to lend less and lend more. How is this to be reconciled? This is obviously related to the speed with which capital ratios are raised and how banks are required to do that. Will it be by raising capital or by reducing lending? If they are to raise capital, do they have any hope of raising it in the market? I suspect the answer is: no. This means that solvent governments have to put in the money themselves or force retention of corporate earnings. Either way, the notion that shareholders control banks would be demolished. This is quite right, however, since shareholders do not bear all, or even most, of the risks.

The third omission concerns so-called shadow banking. There is little point, in making banks safer if the financial system as a whole becomes less safe. Is the history of financial regulation not one of constant extension of the regulatory boundary to keep up with regulatory arbitrage? That is, after all, how the lender-of-last-resort function developed in the 19th century. Similarly, the Federal Reserve felt obliged to bail out money market funds in the recent crisis.

The fourth omission concerns the international context. The UK is part of a global regulatory system, because it is an open economy, part of the European Union and home to one of the world’s two largest financial centres. The question then is whether it is possible for the UK to set its own regulatory rules, without risking massive international arbitrage. Again, this was one of the reasons for the ICB’s ring-fencing proposals. The answer is that the authorities have some freedom, but not as much as they would wish. A particular threat now is the Commission’s proposal for “maximum harmonisation”, which would prevent a country from making its banks too safe. This is a weird idea, but a live one.

The fifth omission is the role of regulation. I am thinking here of acts of commission – the rigging of risk weights to encourage lending to governments, for example – and of omission – permission for the creation of off-balance-sheet entities, to get round capital requirements. A more fundamental point, clear from Mr Haldane’s story, is that the fundamental incentives he describes were in place by the 1930s, but UK banking went amuck only in the 1990s and 2000s. The explanation surely is the deregulation of the 1980s. In retrospect, the decision to deregulate a sector suffering from such perverse incentives has proved to be a catastrophe. This is not the market economy, as I know it.

The sixth omission is perhaps the most profound: it is the question of sheer error. Mr Haldane works within the paradigm of orthodox economics. In this view, if things go very wrong, the explanation has to be one of perverse incentives. But he himself provides strong evidence, in the form of credit default swaps on bank debt (Chart 6), that the markets suffered from “disaster myopia. Investors did not misprice risk because of a belief that they would be bailed out, since the risk spreads rose when the bailouts actually occurred. They mispriced risk because they failed to recognize it.

If people are not merely rationally responsive to dangerous incentives, but stupid, the policy implications are profound. The core of the capitalist system – the financial markets – is inescapably vulnerable to manias and panics. This is a view I now hold. It is why macro-prudential oversight is so important. But I would also take the view that perverse incentives matter, as well, because they make people “rationally careless”. Such carelessness may be almost as important as folly in explaining the lazy tendency to follow the crowd.


This is an important and thought-provoking paper by someone at the forefront of rethinking our vexed relationship with banks. It describes a road to hell paved with good intentions. The banks have now grown so big and so dangerous that they have the capacity to wreck economies and bring down governments. Yet every step along the way has seemed rational.

The incentives generated by limited liability, tax-favoured debt, explicit guarantees for depositors and implicit guarantees for other creditors have resulted in a world in which a tiny sliver of equity gives control over huge balance sheets. Managers, in turn, have managed banks to give high, but risky, returns on that sliver. On that basis they have been richly rewarded in good times and allowed to keep their gains in bad ones. This is banking for risk junkies, as Mr Haldane asserts. We have barely survived this time. Next time, we may not.

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