Friday, February 19, 2010

A Perfect Storm of Ignorance
...The regulators seem to have been as ignorant of the implications of the relevant regulations as the bankers were. The SEC trusted the three rating agencies to continue their reliable performance even after its own 1975 ruling protected them from the market competition that had made their ratings reliable. Nearly everyone, from Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke on down, seemed to be ignorant of the various regulations that were pumping up house prices and pushing down lending standards. And the FDIC, the Fed, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Thrift Supervision, in promulgating one of those regulations, trusted the three rating companies when they decided that these companies' AA and AAA ratings would be the basis of the immense capital relief that the Recourse Rule conferred on investment-bank-issued mortgage-backed securities. Did the four regulatory bodies that issued the Recourse Rule know that the rating agencies on which they were placing such heavy reliance were an SEC-created oligopoly, with all that this implies? If you read the Recourse Rule, you will find that the answer is no. Like the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which later studied whether to extend this American innovation to the rest of the world in the form of Basel II (which it did, in 2006), the Recourse Rule wrongly says that the rating agencies are subject to "market discipline."

Those who play the blame game can find plenty of targets here: the bankers and the regulators were equally clueless. But should anyone be blamed for not recognizing the implications of regulations that they don't even know exist?

Omniscience cannot be expected of human beings. One really would have had to be a god to master the millions of pages in the Federal Register — not to mention the pages of the Register's state, local, and now international counterparts — so one could pick out the specific group of regulations, issued in different fields over the course of decades, that would end up conspiring to create the greatest banking crisis since the Great Depression. This storm may have been perfect, therefore, but it may not prove to be rare. New regulations are bound to interact unexpectedly with old ones if the regulators, being human, are ignorant of the old ones and of their effects.

This is already happening. The SEC's response to the crisis has not been to repeal its 1975 regulation, but to promise closer regulation of the rating agencies. And instead of repealing Basel I or Basel II, the BIS is busily working on Basel III, which will even more finely tune capital requirements and, of course, increase capital cushions. Yet despite the barriers to equity capital and loan-loss reserves created by the conjunction of the IRS and the Basel Accords, the aggregate capital cushion of all American banks at the start of 2008 stood at 13 percent — one-third higher than the American minimum, which in turn was one-fifth higher than the Basel minimum. Contrary to the regulators' assumption that bankers need regulators to protect them from their own recklessness, the financial crisis was not caused by too much bank leverage but by the form it took: mortgage-backed securities. And that was the direct result of the fine tuning done by the Recourse Rule and Basel II....