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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Leonhardt: "Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis"

by Calculated Risk on 3/27/2010 05:36:00 PM

Here is a long piece from David Leonhardt in the New York Times Sunday magazine: Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis (ht Ann). A few excerpts:

To reduce the odds of a future crisis, the Obama plan would take three basic steps. First, regulators would receive more authority to monitor everything from mortgages to complex securities. This is meant to keep future financial time bombs, like the no-documentation loans and collateralized debt obligations of the past decade, from becoming rife. Second — and most important — financial firms would be forced to reduce the debt they take on and to hold more capital in reserve. This is the equivalent of requiring home buyers to make larger down payments: more capital will give firms a bigger cushion when investments start to go bad. Finally, if that cushion proves insufficient, the government would be allowed to seize a collapsing financial firm, much as it can already do with a traditional bank. Regulators would then keep the firm operating long enough to prevent a panic and slowly sell off its pieces.

Will this work? It is difficult to know. No one can be sure where the next bubble or crisis will come from or, as a result, how to prevent it.
And on the stress tests ...
The crisis has made Wall Street much more conservative. But this will not last. It never does. Left to their own devices, financial firms will again take on big debts and big risks. They have a lot of incentive to do so. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that if one set of stricter leverage standards had been in place during the five years before the crisis, it would have reduced the biggest firms’ profitability by almost 25 percent.

The model for setting future capital rules is the stress tests that the Fed conducted last year to gauge the strength of individual banks. Geithner convinced Obama to make those tests a core part of the financial-rescue strategy, and they ended up being something of a turning point in the crisis.
The stress tests, remember, were conducted when banks were financially and politically weak. When times were good over the previous decade, Fed officials — and not just Alan Greenspan — neglected to use the powers they did have. They came to believe the bubble rationales that Wall Street offered. It is not hard to see how that could happen again. The most telling case study may be Geithner himself.
The banks hate the stress tests because they will expose their risk taking (and therefore reduce short term profits) - and they will fight hard to not have the tests part of the regular regulatory practice. That is a strong argument for making the stress tests a regular practice. Publish the test scenarios - and the results for each bank.

Leonhardt covers a lot of ground ... a nice weekend read.