This week the eight largest U.S. banks were told they need to increase capital by about $68 billion. In some ways it is too little, too late in the government’s efforts to prevent another financial meltdown. Nonetheless, the regulations do provide an increased level of safety for taxpayers.
“Too big to fail” is a term that makes most of us grind our teeth. It was taxpayers, after all, who were required to pay trillions of dollars to rescue our financial sector after the 2008-2009 financial crisis precipitated by our largest banks. Ever since then, regulators have been looking at ways to prevent the same thing happening again.
Now, over five years later and despite massive lobbying efforts by these same banks, this week the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Reserve and the Comptroller of the Currency approved rules that would raise the ratio of capital required as percentage of total assets to 6% at our country’s largest banks. That would require the top eight banks to raise an estimated $68 billion in capital by either selling off parts of their businesses or raising equity via the stock market.
The idea behind raising capital levels is simple. The more capital an institution has to put up in order to participate in a risky trade, the less profit they make. In the past, banks could borrow or leverage their existing capital through derivatives or short-term funds called “repos” and buy or sell things like credit default swaps, collateralized mortgage obligations and other exotic, poorly understood financial instruments. With little capital down, the bank’s profits were tremendous—until they weren’t. The resulting house of cards they build practically buried us all.
Banks are blasting these new limits. Their spokesmen are arguing that it puts U.S. banks on an uneven playing field with their counterparts in Asia and Europe. These banks, they point out, are governed by the Basil III accord, which also takes into account both a leverage ratio and risk-based capital requirements. That Basil agreement, at 3%, they argue, is half the level now required for their American counterparts.
All the usual arguments have been trotted out—loss of competitiveness, less market liquidity, senseless regulations. Over-turning these rules will be the subject of intense lobbying within Washington’s corridors of power. Although the lobbying will be fierce, many of these same banks have already taken steps to adjust their capital base higher. In addition, these new regulations, if approved, will only begin to take effect in 2018.
What none of the banks will say is that the old system, where banks themselves set capital levels based on their estimate of the perceived risks of their assets, failed miserably. They have also conveniently forgotten that it was neither European nor Asian banks that triggered the meltdown. It was our largest eight banks that disregarded their own risk assessments in the name of greed.
In many ways, regulating the banks at this late date is similar to closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Still, the new rules are simple, straightforward and will make it harder for rogue traders and institutions to set off another financial Armageddon. These rules may and do create some unnecessary and nonsensical consequences such as holding large amounts of capital against safer assets like U.S. Treasury bonds. However, unfortunately, our banks have proven that they cannot regulate themselves in these areas. By their own actions, they have invited the devil, in this case, government regulators, to their door.