Fed Finalizes Master Account Guidelines

The weekly BPI Insights roundup has a useful summary of what is happening with respect to opening up access to Fed “master accounts”. This is a pretty technical area of banking but has been getting broader attention in recent years due to some crypto entities arguing that they are being unfairly denied access to this privileged place in the financial system. BPI cites the example of Wyoming crypto bank Custodia, formerly known as Avanti, which sued the Kansas City Fed and the Board of Governors over delays in adjudicating its master account application.

The Kansas Fed is litigating the claim but the Federal Reserve has now released its final guidelines for master account access.

The BPI perspective on why it matters:

Over the past two years, a number of “novel charters” – entities without deposit insurance or a federal supervisor – have sought Fed master accounts. A Fed master account would give these entities – which include fintechs and crypto banks — access to the central bank’s payment system, enabling them to send and receive money cheaply and seamlessly. BPI opposes granting master account access to firms without consolidated federal supervision and in its comment letter urged the Fed to clarify which institutions are eligible for master accounts.

The BPI highlights two main takeaways from the final guidelines:

The Fed does not define what institutions are eligible to seek accounts and declined to exclude all novel charter from access to accounts and services.

The guidelines maintain a tiered review framework that was proposed in an earlier version, sorting financial firms that apply for master accounts into three buckets for review. Firms without deposit insurance that are not subject to federal prudential supervision would receive the highest level of scrutiny. The tiers are designed to provide transparency into the expected review process, the Fed said in the guidelines — although the final guidelines clarify that even within tiers, reviews will be done on a “case-by-case, risk-focused basis.”

The key issue here, as I understand it, is whether the crypto firms are really being discriminated against (I.e has the Fed been captured by the banks it regulates and supervises) or whether Crypto “banks” are seeking the privilege of master account access without all the costs and obligations that regulated banks face.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Basel III complexity in a picture

The image below is drawn from a post on the Bank Underground blog that explores the extent to which the Basel capital framework has become more complex and harder to read

The overall conclusion (no surprises) is that Basel III is longer and harder to read. Somewhat counterintuitively, the authors conclusion from the image above is that there is one measure where Basel III is simpler compared to Basel II.

Basel II rules need more context than their counterparts with the average node having a chain length of .28 higher than Basel III. Relatedly, the table shows that alterations to rules in Basel III have a smaller knock on effect to rules further down the chain. While Basel III is significantly larger than the previous framework, its network is ‘simpler’, fewer references are made between rules, and chains are on average smaller.

Tony – From the Outside

Moneyness: How profitable is the world’s largest stablecoin?

Interesting post by JP Koning on the extent to which Tether is making any money. The short answer he concludes is not very even without the burden of conforming to regulation. The obvious question this begs is how profitable a regulated stablecoin would be.

— Read on jpkoning.blogspot.com/2022/07/how-profitable-is-worlds-largest.html

Tony – From the Outside

History of the Fed

I love a good podcast recommendation. In that spirit I attached a link to an interview with Lev Menand on the Hidden Forces podcast. The broader focus of the interview is the rise of shadow banking and the risks of a financial crisis but there is a section (starting around 21:20 minute mark) where Lev and Demetri discuss the origin of central banking and the development of the Fed in the context of the overall development of the US banking system.

The discussion ranges over

  • The creation of the Bank of England (23:20)
  • The point at which central banks transitioned from being simple payment banks to credit creation (24:10) institutions with monetary policy responsibilities
  • The problems the US founders faced creating a nation state without its own money (25:30)
  • Outsourcing money creation in the US to private banks via public/private partnership model (26:50)
  • The problems of a fragmented national market for money with high transmission costs (27:40)
  • The origin of the Federal Reserve in 1913 (31.50) and the evolution of banking in the US that preceded its creation which helps explain the organisational form it took

… and a lot more including a discussion of the rise of shadow banking in the Euromarket.

The topic is irredeemingly nerdy I know and it will not tell you much new if you are already engaged with the history of banking but it does offer a pretty good overview if you are interested but not up for reading multiple books.

Tony – From the Outside

Crypto sceptics unite

Stephen Diehl has done a post linking to a letter that a group of people working in the industry have submitted to US policy makers regarding how to engage with the crypto and DeFi movement. One of the key arguments Stephen makes is that the term “blockchain” has become so ubiquitous as to be largely meaningless.

My bias is that scepticism is virtually always the right starting place but Stephen notes that crypto scepticism is of course a broad church …

Crypto skepticism is not a homogeneous school of thought, and there is no central doctrine or leaders to this movement other than a broad north star of working to minimize fraud and protect the public from undue financial harm. There are crypto skeptics who think there might be some redeeming qualities in some crypto assets, and there are those who want it all to “die in a fire” and everywhere in between. The guiding principle of this letter is to find a middle way that at least most people can agree on and phrase it in a manner such that it can be best understood by our policymakers, who are deeply confused by even minimal jargon and technical obscurantism.

Countering the crypto lobbyists, Stephen Diehl

For what it is worth, I count myself in the camp who remain open to there being something of substance amongst the hype. Like any debate, the potential for crypto and DeFi to contribute something useful to future of finance can only benefit from agreeing on exactly what is meant by terms we use to debate the merits of the new, new thing. Stephen cites “blockchain”, to that I would add “digital money”.

Tony – From the Outside

Bank capital buffers – room for improvement

I recently flagged a speech by Sam Woods (a senior official at the UK Prudential Regulation Authority) which floated some interesting ideas for what he describes as a “radically simpler, radically usable” version of the multi-layered capital buffers currently specified by the BCBS capital accord. At the time I was relying on a short summary of the speech published in the Bank Policy Institute’s “Insights” newsletter. Having now had a chance to read the speech in full I would say that there is a lot to like in what he proposes but also some ideas that I am not so sure about.

Mr Woods starts in the right place with the acknowledgment that “… the capital regime is fiendishly complex”. Complexity is rarely (if ever?) desirable so the obvious question is to identify the elements which can be removed or simplified without compromising the capacity to achieve the underlying economic objectives of the regime.

While the capital regime is fiendishly complex, its underlying economic goals are fairly simple: ensure that the banking sector has enough capital to absorb losses, preserve financial stability and support the economy through stresses.

… my guiding principle has been: any element of the framework that isn’t actually necessary to achieve those underlying goals should be removed. …

With that mind, my simple framework revolves around a single, releasable buffer of common equity, sitting above a low minimum requirement. This would be radically different from the current regime: no Pillar 2 buffers; no CCoBs, CCyBs, O-SII buffer and G-SiB buffers; no more AT1.

In practice, Mr Woods translates this simple design principle into 7 elements:

1. A single capital buffer, calibrated to reflect both microprudential and macroprudential risks.

2. A low minimum capital requirement, to maximise the size of the buffer.

3. A ‘ladder of intervention’ based on judgement for firms who enter their buffer – no mechanical triggers and thresholds.

4. The entire buffer potentially releasable in a stress.

5. All requirements met with common equity.

6. A mix of risk-weighted and leverage-based requirements.

7. Stress testing at the centre of how we set capital levels.

The design elements that appeal to me:
  • The emphasis on the higher capital requirements of Basel III being implemented via buffers rather than via higher minimum ratio thresholds
  • The concept of a “ladder of intervention” with more room for judgment and less reliance on mechanical triggers
  • The role of stress testing in calibrating both the capital buffer but also the risk appetite of the firm
I am not so sure about:
  • relying solely on common equity and “no more AT1” (Additional Tier 1)
  • the extent to which all of the components of the existing buffer framework are wrapped into one buffer and that “entire buffer” is potentially usable in a stress

No more Additional Tier 1?

There is little debate that common equity should be the foundation of any capital requirement. As Mr Woods puts it

Common equity is the quintessential loss-absorbing instrument and is easy to understand.

The problem with Additional Tier 1, he argues, is that these instruments …

… introduce complexity, uncertainty and additional “trigger points” in a stress and so have no place in our stripped-down concept …

I am a huge fan of simplifying things but I think it would be a retrograde step to remove Additional Tier 1 and other “bail-in” style instruments from the capital adequacy framework. This is partly because the “skin in the game” argument for common equity is not as strong or universal as its proponents seem to believe.

The “skin in the game” argument is on solid foundations where an organisation has too little capital and shareholders confronted with a material risk of failure, but limited downside (because they have only a small amount of capital invested), have an incentive to take large risks with uncertain payoffs. That is clearly undesirable but it is not a fair description of the risk reward payoff confronting bank shareholders who have already committed substantial increased common equity in response to the new benchmarks of what it takes to be deemed a strong bank.

I am not sure that any amount of capital will change the kinds of human behaviour that see banks mistakenly take on outsize, failure inducing, risk exposures because they think that they have found some unique new insight into risk or have simply forgotten the lessons of the past. The value add of Additional Tier 1 and similar “bail-in” instruments is that they enable the bank to be recapitalised with a material injection of common equity while imposing a material cost (via dilution) on the shareholders that allowed the failure of risk management to metastasise. The application of this ex post cost as the price of failure is I think likely to be a far more powerful force of market discipline than applying the same amount of capital before the fact to banks both good and bad.

In addition to the potential role AT1 play when banks get into trouble, AT1 investors also have a much greater incentive to monitor (and constrain) excessive risk taking than the common equity holders do because they don’t get any upside from this kind of business activity. AT1 investors obviously do not get the kinds of voting rights that common shareholders do but they do have the power to refuse to provide the funds that banks need to meet their bail-in capital requirements. This veto power is I think vastly underappreciated in the current design of the capital framework.

Keep AT1 but make it simpler

Any efforts at simplification could be more usefully directed to the AT1 instruments themselves. I suspect that some of the complexity can be attributed to efforts to make the instruments look and act like common equity. Far better I think to clearly define their role as one of providing “bail-in” capital to be used only in rare circumstances and for material amounts and define their terms and conditions to meet that simple objective.

There seems, for example, to be an inordinate amount of prudential concern applied to the need to ensure that distributions on these instruments are subject to the same restrictions as common equity when the reality is that the amounts have a relatively immaterial impact on the capital of the bank and that the real value of the instruments lie in the capacity to convert their principal into common equity. For anyone unfamiliar with the way that these instruments facilitate and assign loss absorption under bail-in I had a go at a deeper dive on the topic here.

One buffer to rule them all

I am not an expert on the Bank of England’s application of the Basel capital accord but I for one have always found their Pillar 2B methodology a bit confusing (and I like to think that I do mostly understand capital adequacy). The problem for me is that Pillar 2B seems to be trying to answer much the same question as a well constructed stress testing model applied to calibration of the capital buffer. So eliminating the Pillar 2B element seems like a step towards a simpler, more transparent approach with less potential for duplication and confusion.

I am less convinced that a “single capital buffer” is a good idea but this is not a vote for the status quo. The basic structure of a …

  • base Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB),
  • augmented where necessary to provide an added level of safety for systemically important institutions (either global or domestic), and
  • capped with a variable component designed to absorb the “normal” or “expected” rise and fall of losses associated with the business cycle

seems sound and intuitive to me.

What I would change is the way that the Countercyclical Capital Conservation Buffer (CCyB) is calibrated. This part of the prudential capital buffer framework has been used too little to date and has tended to be applied in an overly mechanistic fashion. This is where I would embrace Mr Woods’ proposal that stress testing become much more central to the calibration of the CCyB and more explicitly tied to the risk appetite of the entity conducting the process.

I wrote a long post back in 2019 where I set out my thoughts on why every bank needs a cyclical capital buffer. I argued then that using stress testing to calibrate the cyclical component of the target capital structure offered an intuitive way of translating the risk appetite reflected in all the various risk limits into a capital adequacy counterpart. Perhaps more importantly,

  • it offered a way to more clearly define the point where the losses being experienced by the bank transition from expected to unexpected,
  • focussed risk modelling on the parts of the loss distribution that more squarely lay within their “zone of validity”, and
  • potentially allowed the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) to more explicitly deal with “unexpected losses” that threatened the viability of the bank.

I have also seen a suggestion by Douglas Elliott (Oliver Wyman) that a portion of the existing CCB be transferred into a larger CCyB which I think is worth considering if we ever get the chance to revisit the way the overall prudential buffers are designed. This makes more sense to me than fiddling with the minimum capital requirement.

As part of this process I would also be inclined to revisit the design of the Capital Conservation Ratio (CCR) applied as CET1 capital falls below specified quartiles of the Capital Conservation Buffer. This is another element of the Basel Capital Accord that is well intentioned (banks should respond to declining capital by retaining an increasing share of their profits) that in practice tends to be much more complicated in practice than it needs to be.

Sadly, explaining exactly why the CCR is problematic as currently implemented would double the word count of this post (and probably still be unintelligible to anyone who has not had to translate the rules into a spreadsheet) so I will leave that question alone for today.

Summing up

Mr Woods has done us all a service by raising the question of whether the capital buffer framework delivered by the Basel Capital Accord could be simplified while improving its capacity to achieve its primary prudential and economic objectives. I don’t agree with all of the elements of the alternative he puts up for discussion but that is not really the point. The important point is to realise that the capital buffer framework we have today is not as useful as it could be and that really matters for helping ensure (as best we can) that we do not find ourselves back in a situation where government finds that bailing out the banks is its least worst option.

I have offered my thoughts on things we could do better but the ball really sits with the Basel Committee to reopen the discussion on this area of the capital adequacy framework. That will not happen until a broader understanding of the problems discussed above emerges so all credit to Mr Woods for attempting to restart that discussion.

As always let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Bank of England official floats “radically usable” buffer for bank capital

I came across this proposal via the Bank Policy Institute’s weekly “Insights” email update

I have not read the speech yet but the summary offered by the BPI suggests that the proposal is worth reviewing in part because it highlights that a key part of the Basel III framework remains a work in progress

Here is the BPI’s summary

Prudential Regulatory Authority chief Sam Woods suggested making the U.K.’s bank capital framework simpler and more flexible. In a speech this week, Woods said regulators should make capital buffers more usable – in other words, entice banks to dip into them to lend during stressful times. The suggested framework, which Woods compared to a concept car and dubbed the “Basel Bufferati,” would be “radically simpler, radically usable, and a million miles away from the current debate but which might prove instructive over the longer term.” It centers on “a single, releasable buffer of common equity, sitting above a low minimum requirement.” It would also replace automatic thresholds with a “ladder of intervention” and feature a mix of risk-weighted and leverage-based requirements. The buffer would be determined using the results of the stress tests that would sit on top of standardized risk weights, which is a concept similar to the current U.S. regime. Therefore, “a lot of the sophistication which currently resides in modelling risk-weights would move into stress testing.”

Tony – From the Outside

The Stablecoin TRUST Act

Stablecoin regulation is one of my perennial favourite topics. Yes I know – I need to get out more but getting this stuff right does truly matter. I have gone down this particular rabbit hole more than a couple of times already. This has partly been about the question of how much we can rely on existing disclosure regarding reserves (here and here for example ) but the bigger issue (I think) is to determine what is the right regulatory model that ensures a level playing field with existing participants in the provision of payment services while still allowing scope for innovation and competition.

JP Koning has been a reliable source of comment and insight on the questions posed above (see here and here for example). Dan Awrey also wrote an interesting paper on the topic (covered here) which argues that the a state based regulatory model (such as the money transmitter licensing regime) is not the answer. There is another strand of commentary that focuses on the lessons to be learned from the Free Banking Era of the 19th century, most notably Gorton and Zhang’s paper titled “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins” which I covered here.

Although not always stated explicitly, the focus of regulatory interest has largely been confined to “payment stablecoins” and that particular variation is the focus of this post. At the risk of over-simplifying, the trend of stablecoin regulation appears to have been leaning towards some kind of banking regulation model. This was the model favoured in the “Report on Stablecoins” published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). I flagged at the time (here and here) that the Report did not appear to have a considered the option of allowing stablecoin issuers to structure themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

Against that background, it has been interesting to see that United States Senator Toomey (a member of the Senate Banking Committee) has introduced a discussion draft for a bill to provide a regulatory framework for payment stablecoins that does envisage a 100% reserve model for regulation. Before diving into some of the detail, it has to be said that the bill does pass the first test in that it has a good acronym (Stablecoin TRUST Act where TRUST is short for “Transparency of Reserves and Uniform Safe Transactions”.

There is not a lot of detail that I can find so let me just list some questions:

  • The reserve requirements must be 100% High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) which by definition are low return so that will put pressure on the issuer’s business model which relies on this income to cover expenses. I am not familiar with the details of the US system but assume the HQLA definition adopted in the Act is the same as that applied to the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) for depositary institutions.
  • Capital requirements are very low (at most 6 months operating expenses) based I assume on the premise that HQLA have no risk – the obvious question here is how does this compare to the operational risk capital that a regulated depositary institution would be required to hold for the same kind of payment services business activity
  • Stablecoin payment issuers do not appear to be required to meet a Leverage Ratio requirement such as that applied to depositary institutions. That might be ok (given the low risk of HQLA) subject to the other questions about capital posed above being addressed and not watered down in the interests of making the payment stablecoin business model profitable.
  • However, in the interest of a level playing field, I assume that depositary institutions that wanted to set up a payment stablecoin subsidiary would not be disadvantaged by the Leverage Ratio being applied on a consolidated basis?

None of the questions posed above should be construed to suggest that I am anti stablecoins or financial innovation. A business model that may be found to rely on a regulatory arbitrage is however an obvious concern and I can’t find anything that addresses the questions I have posed. I am perfectly happy to stand corrected but it would have been useful to see this bill supported by an analysis that compared the proposed liquidity and capital requirements to the existing requirements applied to:

  • Prime money market funds
  • Payment service providers
  • Deposit taking institutions

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Note – this post was revised on 14 April 2022

  1. The question posed about haircuts applied to HQLA for the purposes of calculating the Liquidity Coverage Ratio requirement for banks was removed after a fact check. In my defence I did flag that the question needed to be fact checked. Based on the Australian version of the LCR, it seems that the haircuts are only applied to lower quality forms of liquid assets. The question of haircuts remains relevant for stablecoins like Tether that have higher risk assets in their reserve pool but should not be an issue for payment stablecoins so long as the reserves requirement prescribed by the Stablecoin TRUST Act continues to be based on HQLA criteria.
  2. While updating the post, I also introduced a question about whether the leverage ratio requirement on depositary institutions might create an un-level playing field since it does not appear to be required of payment stablecoin issuers

SWIFT …

… has been in the news lately.

This link takes you to a blog I follow written by Patrick McKenzie that offers a payment expert’s perspective on what SWIFT is, together with Patrick’s personal view on what the sanctions are intended to achieve.

This short extract covers Patrick’s assessment of the objective of the sanctions

The intent of this policy has been described variously in various places. In my personal opinion, I think the best articulation of the strategy is “We are attempting to convey enormous displeasure while sanctioning some banks which are believed to be close to politically exposed Russians, while not making it impossible for Russian firms generally to transact internationally nor sparking a humanitarian crisis either inside or outside of Russia.”

One of the key insights is that SWIFT manages the messaging that accompanies international payments and facilities their processing, not the transfers of money per se. The sanctions do not make it impossible to transact with Russia, they mostly make it operationally very difficult and not really worth the effort, especially at scale. Especially if you are a regulated bank who cares about your long term relationship with your regulator.

Another nuance that does not always come through in the newspaper reporting of the sanctions is the extent to which the compliance functions in banks are under pressure to interpret and anticipate the intent of the regulatory sanctions

Many commentators confuse the actual effects of severing particular banks from SWIFT with what they perceive as the policy goal motivating it. More important than either is, in my opinion, what it communicates about commander’s intent to the policy arms who are responsible for enforcing it.

Specifically, it communicates that Something Has Changed and that Russian institutional money, specifically “oligarch” money, is now tainted, and not in the benignly ignored fashion it has been for most of the last few decades.

Where there is some doubt or ambiguity, banks are likely to err on the side of caution.

Patrick’s post is worth reading if you are interested in this particular aspect of SWIFT and his blog worth following if you are interested in payments more generally.

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoin regulation

Another good post from JP Koning on stablecoin regulation. His key point, that regulation should follow the function of the activity rather than its form, is not a new contribution to the stablecoin regulation debate. There are lots of issues, ambiguities and areas for reasonable people to take different views on the question of what role stablecoins can or should play in the future of finance but this still seems to me like a sound organising principle.

What this means in practice is yet to be decided but here are a few preliminary thoughts:

  • I doubt that being regulated like a depositary institution (aka “bank”), as proposed by the recent President’s Working Group report, is the right answer – stablecoin issuers have adopted a variety of business models which tend to be quite different to the fractional reserve banking model adopted by most contemporary depositary institutions.
  • The issues Koning raises with the US Money Transmitter framework seem valid to me so that does not look like the right model either.
  • I am sceptical that the Free Banking model proposed by some stablecoin advocates will work as well as claimed but I recognise there is probably a bias at work here so I need to do some more work to properly understand how the Free Banking model works.
  • Part of the answer (I think) lies in establishing the right taxonomy that not only defines the different types of stablecoin business models but places them in a broader context that includes money transmitter businesses, depositary institutions (both the narrow bank kind and fractional reserve based models) and also the various forms of money market funds – this taxonomy would also distinguish systemically important business models from those which can be allowed to fail in an (ideally) orderly fashion

I included a link to JP Koning’s post above but if you are time poor then this extract captures the key point

“… the key point is that while there are times when stablecoins function like PayPal and Western Union, in other circumstances they are performing a role that PayPal and Western Union never do, which is to serve as the substructure for a set of financial utilities. Which suggests that stablecoins merit a different regulatory framework, one better fit for that function.

I don’t know what framework that should be. Banking, securities law, a special stablecoin license? But the old school money transmitter framework — which has very lenient requirements governing things like the safety of the transmitters underlying assets — is probably the wrong framework. If you serve as financial bedrock, you merit more robust regulation than Western Union.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside