Why the real economy needs a prudential authority too

Isabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) offers an interesting perspective on ways in which prudential initiatives in the areas of capital, liquidity and bail-in that have strengthened the banking sector post GFC might be applied to the “real economy”.

The global financial crisis taught us that laissez-faire finance, when left to its own devices, tends to encourage extreme fragility by under capitalising the system for efficiency’s sake and making it far more systemically interdependent.

Pre-2008, banks operated on the thinnest of capital layers while taking extreme liquidity risk due to the presumption that wholesale liquidity markets would always be open and available to them. It was in this way that they saved on capital and liquidity costs and increased their return on equity.  

Regulatory responses to the crisis understandably focused on boosting resilience by hiking capital buffers, liquidity ratios and also by introducing new types of loss absorbing structures. While it’s still too early to claim regulatory efforts were a definitive success, it does seem by and large the measures have worked to stymie a greater financial crisis this time around.

But what the 2008 crisis response may have overlooked is that bolstering banks to protect the economy means very little if the underlying real economy remains as thinly spread and interconnected as the financial sector always used to be.

The assessment that these banking initiatives “means very little” is possibly overstating the case.  The problems we are facing today would be an order of magnitude greater if the banking system was not able to plays its part in the solution.

The core point, however, I think is absolutely on the money, the focus on efficiency comes at the expense of resilience. More importantly, a free market system, populated by economic agents pursuing their own interests shaped by a focus on relatively short term time horizons, does not seem to be well adapted for dealing with this problem on its own. The lessons prudential regulators learned about the limits of efficient markets and market discipline also apply in the real world.

Isabella looks at the way prudential capital and liquidity requirements operate in banking and draws analogies in the real economy. With respect to liquidity, she notes for example,

“… the just-in-time supply chain system can be viewed as the real economy’s version of a fractional reserve system, with reserves substitutable for inventories.  

Meanwhile, the real economy’s presumption that additional inventories can be sourced from third party wholesale suppliers at a price as and when demand dictates, is equivalent to the banking sector’s presumption that liquidity can always be sourced from wholesale markets.

Though there is obviously one important difference.

Unlike the banking sector, the real economy has no lender of last resort that can magically conjure up more intensive care beds or toilet paper at the stroke of a keyboard when runs on such resources manifest unexpectedly.  

So what are our options? Companies could increase their inventories (analogous to holding more liquid assets) or build excess capacity (analogous to building up a capital buffer) but it is very difficult for companies acting independently to do this if their competitors choose the short term cost efficient play and undercut them on price. The Prisoner’s Dilemma trumps market discipline and playing the long game.

Isabella frames the problem as follows:

short-term supply shortages can only be responded to with real world manufacturing capability, which itself is constrained by physical availability To that extent crisis responses can only really take two forms: 1) immediate investment in the build-up of new manufacturing capacity that can address the specific system shortages or, 2) the temporary reallocation of existing resources (with some adaptation cost) to new production purposes.

The problem with the first option is that it is not necessarily time efficient. Not every country has the capability to build two new hospitals from scratch in just 10 days. Nor the capacity to create unexpected supply just-in-time to deal with the problem.

New investment may not be economically optimal either. What happens to those hospitals when the crisis abates? Do they stand empty and idle? Do they get repurposed? Who will fund their maintenance and upkeep if they go unused? And at what cost to other vital services and goods?

Isabella’s proposal …

That leaves the reallocation of existing assets as the only sensible and economically efficient mitigatory response to surge-demand related crises like pandemic flu. But it’s clear that on that front we can be smarter about how we anticipate and prepare for such reallocation shocks. An obvious thing to do is to take a leaf out of banking regulators’ books, especially with regards to bail-inable capital, capital ratios and liquidity profiles.

Isabella offers two examples to illustrate her argument; one is power companies and the other is the health system.

She notes that power utilities manage demand-surge or supply-shock risk with interruptible contracts to industrial clients. She argues that these contracts equate to a type of bail-inable capital buffer, since the contracts allow utilities to temporarily suspend services to clients (at their cost) if and when critical needs are triggered elsewhere and supplies must be diverted.

I think she has a good point about the value of real options but I am less sure that bail-in is the right analogy. Bail-in is a permanent adjustment to the capital structure in which debt is converted to equity or written off. Preferably the former in order to maintain the loss hierarchy that would otherwise apply in liquidation. A contract that enables a temporary adjustment to expenses is a valuable option but not really a bail-in style option.

What she is identifying in this power utility example is more a company buying real options from its customers that reduces operating leverage by enabling the company to reduce the supply of service when it becomes expensive to supply. Companies that have high operating leverage have high fixed costs versus revenue and will, all other things being equal, tend to need to run more conservative financial leverage than companies with low operating leverage. So reduced operating leverage is a substitute for needing to hold more capital.

Isabella then explores the ways in which the liquidity, capital and bail-in analogies might be applied in healthcare. I can quibble with some of the analogies she draws to prudential capital and liquidity requirements. As an example of a capital requirement being applied to health care she proposes that …

“… governments could mandate makers of non-perishable emergency goods (such as medicines, toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitiser) to always keep two-weeks’ worth of additional supply on hand. And companies could also be mandated to maintain some share of total supply chain production capability entirely domestically, making them more resilient to globalised shocks”

 Two weeks supply looks more like a liquidity buffer than a capital buffer but that does not make the ideas any the less worth considering as a way of making the real economy more resilient. The banking system had its crisis during the GFC and the real economy is being tested this time around. There are arguments about whether the changes to banking went far enough but it is clearly a lot better placed to play its part in this crisis than it was in the last. The question Isabella poses is what kinds of structural change will be required to make the real economy more resilient in the face of the next crisis.

Another example of FT Alphaville being a reliable source of ideas and information to help you think more deeply about the world.

Tony (From the Outside)

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

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