Posts Tagged ‘financial reform’

The Fed Sends 19 Biggest Banks Back to the Treadmill

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

The Federal Reserve‘s second round of stress tests requires the 19 largest U.S. banks to examine their capital levels against a worst-possible-case scenario of another recession with the unemployment rate hovering above 8.9 percent. The banks were instructed to test how their loans, securities, earnings, and capital performed when compared with at least three possible economic outcomes as part of a broad capital-planning exercise.  The banks, including some seeking to increase dividends cut during the financial crisis, submitted their plans in January.  The Fed will complete its review in March.

“They’re essentially saying, ‘Before you start returning capital to shareholders, let’s make sure banks’ capital bases are strong enough to withstand a double-dip scenario,'” said Jonathan Hatcher, a credit strategist at New York-based Jefferies Group Inc.  Regulators don’t want to see banks “come crawling back for help later,” he said.

The review “allows our supervisors to compare the progress made by each firm in developing a rigorous internal analysis of its capital needs, with its own idiosyncratic characteristics and risks, as well as to see how the firms would fare under a standardized adverse scenario developed by our economists,” Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said. Although Fed policymakers aren’t predicting another slump any time soon, they want banks to be prepared for one.  In January, the Federal Open Market Committee forecast a growth rate of 3.4 percent or more annually over the next three years, with the jobless rate falling to between 6.8 percent and 7.2 percent by the 4th quarter of 2013.  Unemployment averaged 9.6 percent in the 4th quarter of 2010.

The new round of stress tests are being overseen by a financial-risk unit known as the Large Institution Supervision Coordinating Committee (LISCC).  The unit relies on the Fed’s economists, quantitative researchers, regulatory experts and forecasters and examines risks across the financial system.  Last year, the LISCC helped Ben Bernanke respond to an emerging liquidity crisis faced by European banks.  “The current review of firms’ capital plans is another step forward in our approach to supervision of the largest banking organizations,” Tarullo said. “It has also served as an occasion for discussion in the LISCC of the overall state of the industry and key issues faced by banking organizations.”

At the same time, Bernanke expressed his support for the Dodd-Frank Act, which will add new layers of regulation to the financial services industry, as well as the Consumer Protection Act. “Dodd-Frank is a major step forward for financial regulation in the United States,” Bernanke said, noting that the Fed is moving swiftly to implement its provisions.  Additionally, the Fed wants banks to think about how the Dodd-Frank Act might affect earnings, and how they will meet stricter international capital guidelines.  Banks will have to determine how many faulty mortgages investors may ask them to take back into their portfolios.  Standard & Poor’s estimates that mortgage buybacks could carry a $60 billion bill to be paid by the banking industry.

In the meantime, the big banks are feeling adequately cash rich to pay dividends to their stockholders.  Bank of America’s CEO Brian T. Moynihan said that he expects to “modestly increase” dividends in the 2nd half of 2011.  “We’d love to raise the dividend,” James Rohr, CEO of PNC, said.  “We’re hopeful of hearing back in March from the regulators.”  JPMorgan CFO Douglas Braunstein told investors that the bank asked regulators for permission to increase the dividend to 30 percent of normalized earnings over time.  Braunstein said that JPMorgan’s own stress scenario was more severe than the Fed’s, and assumed that the GDP fell more than four percent through the 3rd quarter of this year with unemployment peaking at 11.7 percent.

Clive Crook, a senior editor of The Atlantic, a columnist for National Journal, and a commentator for the Financial Times, believes that United States fiscal policy itself merits examination.  Writing in The Atlantic, Crook says that “Fiscal policy needs a hypothetical stress test, just like bank capital.  Let’s be optimistic and suppose that the deficit projections do hold, and that a debt ratio of 80 percent can be comfortably supported at full employment.  What happens when we enter the next recession with debt at that level?  Assume another really serious downturn, and another 30-odd percentage points of debt.  Worried yet?  That’s why the problem won’t wait another ten years, and why sort-of-stabilizing at 80 percent won’t do.”

Global Financial Reform Hits a Roadblock

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Global financial reform efforts stalemated.  Two years after the global financial meltdown and collapse of Lehman Brothers, world leaders seem to have reached an impasse over crucial proposals designed to prevent the same devastating scenario from occurring in the future.  The stalemate is so serious that there may be little chance that needed changes will be made. Executives at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are disappointed with the slow movement and analysts warn that national interests could undercut badly needed real reforms.  Tension over currency rates is growing, and there is an increasing sense that major financial centers will create significantly different rules impacting their nation’s financial firms.  United States Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prefers a more unified approach to financial reform.

“Urgent action is needed to arrest the disturbing trend toward unilateral moves,” wrote Institute of International Finance managing director Charles H. Dallara in a letter to IMF officials.  The IMF fears that the global overhaul does not fulfill its promise to insulate the world from a repeat of the financial crisis.  “The more we continue with the present system, the more likely we are to have a relapse,” said Jos Vials, the IMF’s financial counselor and head of its capital markets department.  “Unless we deal with these problems, we will not have a safer system.”

The major points of contention relate to identifying and regulating firms considered to be too big to fail and how to create a system for some companies to collapse without requiring government bailouts.  The IMF’s financial experts believe that companies must be allowed to fail so they do not pursue risky strategies in the confidence that the government will rescue them if they get into trouble.  The only way to create effective regulations is to retain the idea of a moral hazard.

Obama Administration Sets Its Sights on Housing Reform

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Obama administration turns to reforming the root of the financial crisis – the housing market.  The Obama administration – fresh from its financial regulation reform legislative victory – is not resting on its laurels.  Next on the busy agenda is reforming the American housing market, which is viewed by many as the root of the financial crisis. In a response to collapsing housing prices and waves of foreclosures, the administration it looking at overhauling the government’s housing policy, although the specifics of the proposed legislation are still under discussion.

The new approach could include bigger downpayments and higher interest rates, as well as more barriers to lower-income people purchasing houses they cannot afford.  The goal is to create a more stable housing market that puts fewer taxpayer dollars on the line and lessens the risk that owners will be unable to pay their mortgages.  Reform also could bring changes to the financial markets as investors are forced to find new investment vehicles if the government removes incentives for putting their money in the mortgage market.  Since the financial crisis began in 2008, the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to keep housing afloat and assure that borrowers can get loans – and much of that money will never be recovered.  Since the federal government seized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage giants and the Federal Housing Administration have more or less been the sole sources of backing for new mortgages for nearly two years.

The Treasury Department’s new Office of Capital Markets and Housing Reform is studying options and has decided that federal policy should highlight “sustainable homeownership” rather than merely growing the rate of ownership.  According to Vincent O’Donnell of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, “My impression is that the administration at pretty much every level is serious about a balanced policy.  Their purpose is to make more workable rental housing programs.”

Anthony Downs On Financial Reform

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Anthony Downs discusses the ins and outs of financial reform.  The nation’s financial system needs significantly more regulation than exists now.  The lack of tough regulatory powers strongly impacted the recent financial crash and the Great Recession that ensued.  The good news is that the Obama administration is moving firmly in this direction with financial reform legislation a critical item on its agenda.  This is the opinion of Anthony Downs,  a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former President of the Real Estate Research Corporation.  In a recent interview for the Alter NOW Podcasts, Downs said that between 1980 and 2007, the value of international capital markets – including bank deposits, assets, equities, public and private debt – quadrupled relative to the world’s GDP, lifting millions of people out of poverty.  Although unprecedented, this growth relied heavily on borrowed money to finance higher living standards and highly leveraged loans with limited reserves backing them.  In the end, the growth was unable to be sustained.

The financial reform legislation currently undergoing reconciliation by a Senate-House conference committee is not a reinstatement of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act – which separated investment and commercial banking — because banks will still be allowed to deal with securities.  Under the new law, banks will have to register derivatives with some type of formal exchange and maintain records on who is borrowing money and under what terms.  This marks a significant change from before the Great Recession, when derivatives were traded with virtually no oversight.

Downs believes that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan contributed to the financial crisis in two ways.  In 2001, when Greenspan was informed that there was fraud in the subprime housing market and that he should do something about it, he refused to take action because he didn’t believe in regulation.  According to Downs, “that was a terrible mistake and meant that all the horrible loans made in the subprime market could continue unchecked.”  Greenspan’s second error was to maintain low interest rates for as long as he did at a time when an enormous amount of capital was coming into the United States economy from overseas.  Because investors were avoiding the stock market, they put their money into real estate.  That drove the price of properties sky high and destroyed the concept of intelligent underwriting and evaluating the risk before approving the loan.

 
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