Friday, September 10, 2010

Only Partially Hopeless

. Friday, September 10, 2010

In response to this post, Felix Salmon writes:

Kindred Winecoff, for one, thinks that it’s hopeless to even dream that it might become reality.


If by "dream" Salmon is referring to governments willingly agreeing relinquish control over their domestic financial sectors to an international body that will dispassionately create and enforce a uniform regulatory standard that affects banks in all jurisdictions equally, then he's right: I think it's hopeless to dream that it might become a reality.

But it's not hopeless to dream that the BIS negotiations will yield a framework of rules and guidelines that national regulators will apply to their domestic banking sectors in a way that makes the system safer overall. We just need to understand that there will be some amount of flexibility built into the agreement that allows governments to resolve domestic challenges, which are not the same across all jurisdictions. And we need to understand that regulations made today are unlikely to be sufficient to handle threats to systemic stability 10-12 years from now (these negotiations tend to happen every dozen years or so).

Moreover, the fact that some fragmentation will remain is likely a good thing. Regulations need to reflect the realities of markets being regulated. A truly one-size-fits-all policy is not likely to be successful in its goals, and would almost definitely make international cooperation impossible. We should also keep in mind that the stricter the regulations are, the higher the incentive is to find loopholes and work-arounds. In my view, the biggest problem prior to the crisis was the lack of transparency in the banking system, especially the shadow banking system. Most of the largest, systemically important American banks had large enough capital ratios pre-crash that they probably would have met the new stricter requirements. (Economics of Contempt posted a thorough write-up of this last year.) But a lot of the reason why was because of some accounting tricks and regulatory arbitrage.

I don't want to leave the impression that what's happening in Basel isn't important. I think it is. But I think it's important in different ways that most finance and economics journalists (and even academics) think it is. In other words, I think it's important because of the distributional effects that are likely to emerge from the new agreement, as discussed here and here.

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Only Partially Hopeless
 
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