Monday, 27 May 2013

The right way to regulate and rescue banks

When it comes to the question of how (or even if) we should rescue failing and insolvent banks, so far the choice on offer has been between two equally unpalatable brands of medicine. Either the State should do nothing (as the neo-liberal Right are forever demanding) and risk contagion spreading within the financial system as the collapse of one bank leads to the decreasing creditworthiness of others, or the State should act as ultimate guarantor for all deposits and thereby institutionalize moral hazard, effectively legitimizing every bad investment every bank or investor has ever made. As I pointed out in my last post, the central problem is a triangular paradox at the heart of the current bailout provisions. For an orderly restructuring of a bank to be achieved while protecting the wider banking system, the economy and the taxpayer, three key objectives need to be met.
(i) No taxpayer funds should be used in any bank rescue.
(ii) The bank's customers must still be able to access some deposits.
(iii) There must be no capital flight or run on the bank.

As I also pointed out previously, these three conditions are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Only two of the three can be achieved at any one time. If the bank remains open for business in order to service the day-to-day needs of its customers, and at the same time the taxpayer is to be relieved of any compensation obligation, the depositor will be forced to bear the cost of bank restructuring. The inevitable result will be capital flight as the depositors seek to avoid the impending financial penalties, and so the taxpayer will be forced to step in. If, however, the bank is closed for business to protect against capital flight, then the taxpayer will be protected but the wider economy will suffer as businesses and their customers run out of cash, many firms will be forced to close down, and the economy will start to slump.

There is though a second iniquity with the current system as I again outlined previously. This applies to customers who may have the misfortunate of receiving a once-in-a-lifetime large cash deposit (e.g. from a house sale or lottery win or business deal) that temporarily flows through their bank account at the very instant that the bank enters its state of crisis. So when the bank's restructuring or liquidation is complete these unfortunate souls will lose almost everything. Unlike conventional depositors, these customers have yet to make any investment decisions with regard to their new deposits. They are merely using their bank as a conduit through which to transfer the money to its final destination, a destination that may ultimately involve payment to a third party with no net gain for them (as for example during the process of moving house). So why should they be punished when they have not yet sought any high-risk reward? Clearly they should not. In which case, how can we then ensure that we protect these customers from suffering catastrophic and life-destroying financial penalties?

The answer to both this question and our initial capital flight problem is the same. Our initial paradox rests on the fact that we want bank accounts to operate in two distinctly different ways. On the one hand we want them to be fully accessible while at the same time we wish to prevent excessive withdrawals in a time of crisis. The solution, therefore, is to define two classes of account within each bank with each class having its own distinct rules with regard to its level of accessibility in return for differing levels of insurance protection. As a result one class will be applied to current accounts, with the other being for savings. This leads logically to the following 8-point plan, as this post will explain.

1) Set different compensation and access rules for current accounts and savings accounts. .
2) Current accounts to remain instant access.
3) Current account deposits to be fully insured by the Government.
4) Current accounts to be restricted to low interest rates.
5) The bank's own capital reserves (Tier 1 capital) to be set to cover at least 100% of all current account deposits.
6) Savings deposits to be used to cover bank losses when Tier 2 capital is exhausted.
7) Savings accounts to be time-locked in an emergency to prevent capital flight.
8) Bank restructuring to be by debt-for-equity swaps.

The key to the bank insolvency problem ultimately lies in the accessibility of the bank's different customer accounts. One type of account needs to be "instant access" so that normal banking functions can continue for most customers. But if the deposits in such an account are to be freely accessible, then they must be fully guaranteed by the State in order to guard against capital flight. As the generosity of this protection necessarily brings with it the risk of creating moral hazard, the guarantee must therefore be limited to only the most conservative of all investments. That means those carrying the lowest financial reward or yield. So a state-backed 100% deposit guarantee can only be applied to accounts with the lowest of interest rates, with the additional quid pro quo for the customer being that the guaranteed deposits remain available for instant withdrawal at all times.

However, while the taxpayer may act as guarantor in the above scenario, he must also be protected from having to fund the bailout. He may provide liquidity during the bailout process, but he expects to get all his money back (with interest) when it is complete. This means that the bailout must be self-financing. For this to be the case, the bank's own reserves of capital - its equity - must be greater than the liabilities that these reserves are required to cover, namely the current account deposits. In addition, the reserves it maintains would need to be of the same class as the deposits that they are designed to protect. That means that they would have to be in the form of cash, or government bonds that are highly liquid, easily convertible to cash and of secure value.

The next and complementary step is obviously to equate accounts with higher financial rewards with having a higher level of risk and therefore reduced level of state-backed guarantee. With no 100% guarantee over the security of their deposits these accounts will inevitable experience severe capital flight if they too are granted instant access. Therefore some form of time-lock must be imposed on such accounts such that no money can leave these accounts until the restructuring process is complete.

In the event of a bank suffering such increasing levels of bad debt that it begins to affect the very creditworthiness of the entire institution, then the following event sequence would play out. First the bank would freeze all high interest accounts while restructuring took place. This is a similar move to that imposed on the main Cypriot banks in March with the exception that in the Cypriot case the entire bank was closed for business, not just access to its savings accounts. The funding for any bailout would then come from deposits in these high interest accounts via a haircut. However, unlike the Cypriot case, the haircut would not be in the form of a simple forfeiture or confiscation, but should instead be a debt-for-equity exchange with depositors receiving new shares in the bank with the same market value as the total amount of funds that they stand to lose. The same deal should be granted to bondholders and the holders of any other form of the bank's debt. The only remaining question then concerns how the bank's new shares should be valued. Should it be determined by the price pertaining at the very instant that the bank's share were suspended prior to it ceasing to trade normally, or should it be set by the price pertaining at some earlier point in time when the bank's share price was still stable? Ultimately the answer will depend on a political decision as to which parties should be forced to forfeit the most: shareholders or creditors?

The advantages of this scheme are four-fold. Firstly it extends the haircut to other creditors of the bank like bondholders but on similar terms. Secondly, the large increase in shares results in a diluting of the share capital thereby extending the haircut to shareholders. As the value of deposits in the bank prior to its collapse will massively exceed its market capitalization, these measures will ensure that the shareholders suffer greater percentage losses than depositors as should be the case. The third advantage of this deal is that it ties in the depositors to the bank when the restructuring is complete. If depositors start a run on the bank once it reopens by removing their remaining savings, then they risk collapsing the bank and wiping out the value of the shares they received in lieu of their confiscated deposits. Finally, the new share issue ensures that once the bank reopens after its restructuring, not only will it be financially sound (as its liabilities will be much less than its assets), but it will be able to begin trading as normal immediately, as will trading in its shares.

With these measures in place the State would not in any likelihood actually have to bail out the bank. The State would merely stand as guarantor of last resort perhaps providing bridging loans or liquidity to enable the bank to smoothly implement the above process.

Finally, as the two types of account are clearly distinguished by their relative rewards (i.e. interest rates), with the risk associated with each account being dependent on that reward, it logically follows that the division line between the two account types should itself be set by the level of reward. As that reward is the interest rate in each case, so the division line must be based on an objective standard of this type, in other words a standard market interest rate (e.g. BoE base rate, or LIBOR, or base rate + x, etc.). Given the relative values of the Bank of England (BoE) base rate, current account interest rates and most savings rates at the current time, it is likely that under current market conditions the boundary line between our two classes of bank accounts would be set by the BoE base rate.

The mechanism outlined above therefore requires banks to hold two types or levels of capital. One must be highly liquid and sufficient to cover current account deposits. The second would be used to protect against bad loans. This is similar to the current system as introduced under the 1988 Basel I accords where Tier 2 capital was supposed to be used as a reserve of capital that banks could use to cover the cost of bad debts and defaults by customers, and Tier 1 capital was supposed to provide a capital reserve of last resort that would fund the winding up of any insolvent bank.

As we now know, Basel I rules were insufficient to prevent the collapse of banks and other financial institutions after 2007. The new Basel III rules are designed to strengthen financial regulation by forcing banks to hold more capital. Yet these new rules are fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, they take no account of asset price inflation and how that undermines the solvency of banks by allowing them to increasingly leverage their balance sheets to an extent that only becomes critical when there is a massive crash in asset values. But secondly, there is nothing in Basel III that provides for safe defaults of banks, or that will protect economies from the moral hazard that comes from cleaning up the mess arising from bad banks that are too big to fail.

The structure outlined here might just help do the latter, although other measures are needed as well. These would include provisions for other bank liabilities such as redundancy payments for staff as the bank downsized and rules for the protection and sustainability of pensions. There would also need to be a new set of rules concerning the level of deposit protection afforded to high-risk savings accounts and the necessary capital reserves needed to fund such protection. Imposing haircuts on small savers will never be politically acceptable, but the level of any deposit guarantee will have to be determined by issues of affordability and risk.

Equally important, though, is the need for better preventative measures. These should include new rules that actively discourage and de-incentivize acquisitions and mergers, as well as limiting the activities of overseas subsidiaries. Too many banking failures in the UK over recent decades have had their origins in policies of aggressive expansion. The remainder are generally due to sudden corrections in overheated markets in speculative assets, mainly in the property sector. In the case of asset price inflation, what is needed, therefore, is a new set of rules governing the risk-weighting of assets in measures of Tier 1 and Tier 2 capital ratios that are self-limiting as house prices or share prices increase more rapidly than the rest of the economy. Only then will our banks begin to exhibit the financial strength and resilience that we desire.


  1. I’m all in favour of a “two types of account” system as set out above, though I favour Laurence Kotlikoff’s version, rather than the above version. So I have a few quibbles as follows.

    Re point No.4 (“Current accounts to be restricted to low interest rates.”), I’d prefer zero interest. Reason is that interest can only be earned by investing or lending on money, i.e. putting it at some sort of risk. And that is incompatible with telling depositors they can have £X back for every £X they deposit.

    Of course if the money is invested in short term government debt, the risk is minimal. But a risk is still there: government debt can rise and fall in value, and as to Greek public debt, well we better not go there. So personally I favour just having instant access accounts matched by an equivalent sum of monetary base, which normally earns no interest.

    Re point No.7 (“7) (“Savings accounts to be time-locked in an emergency to prevent capital flight.”), Positive Money advocates something along those lines. However, I prefer Kotlikoff’s system in which depositors’ stake in savings accounts varies with the value of the underlying loans or investments. That’s made explicit under Kotlikoff’s system by having “savings accounts” simply consist of mutual funds (“unit trusts” in the UK).

    The beauty of unit trusts is that they can’t fail. That is, if some unit holders want to “run” they can, but that simply depresses the value of the units. As Mervyn King put it, “we saw in 1987 and again in the early 2000s, that a sharp fall in equity values did not cause the same damage as did the banking crisis.”

  2. Ralph, thanks for your comments.

    Re point No. 4: I have no real preference either way. I chose the low-interest/high-interest division simply because that is closest to the current situation in UK banking . The BoE base rate was chosen as a division point simply because it is the most quoted and official rate on the market, and it is likely to be close to the point in the interest rate spectrum where you would want the division to occur. But I do also concede that your proposal is more equitable in some ways. Zero risk = zero reward.

    Re point No. 7: If you are going to restrict investments to unit trusts then you are changing the very structure of the banking industry as I see it. How would banks fund mortgages or business loans with deposits under that scheme? Also I don't agree that unit trusts are risk free. If unit holders run then they depress prices for the remaining holders. That sparks a run. The reason why equity value falls in 1987 and 2001 did not cause the same banking collapse as now was two-fold. Firstly the losers were mainly investors so aggregate demand was relatively unaffected. Wall St didn't impact on Main St. Secondly, the banks hadn't loaned their funds to purchase shares on margin as they had in 1929, nor were they bogged down with complex derivatives based on real estate as happened in 2008. The problem with the unit trust approach is that it passes on the assessment of risk to the depositor who is ill-equipped to measure it. The banks will take them to the cleaners as they did with the mis-selling of interest rate swaps.