Finance cartels face digital currency shake-up | Financial Times

Cross border payment is one of the areas of conventional banking where challengers believe that crypto/DLT solutions can shake up the existing order. There is little doubt that the cross border payment status quo has lots of room for improvement but Gillian Tett (Financial Times) offers a nice summary of central bank projects that are potentially introducing other vectors of innovation and competition.

— Read on www.ft.com/content/4ab25f71-78ff-40a2-b47c-e04075ea81b4

Mortgage Mayhem – Net Interest

Marc Rubinstein has written another really interesting post on the economics of the American mortgage market which you can find here. The post is useful not only for his account of the mechanics of why the American mortgage market is prone to boom and bust but also for reminding us of some of the ways in which the American approach is very different from that employed in other markets. 

Lending to finance home ownership is an increasingly big part of most modern financial systems but the ways in which the process is done differ a lot more than you might think from casual inspection. I have previously flagged a post that Marc did on financing the American home. Read that in conjunction with a post I did on financing the Danish home. Marc also did an interesting post looking at the tension between competition and financial stability.

Tony – From the Outside

Another reason why monetary authorities might not like stablecoins

Marc Rubinstein’s post (here) on Facebook’s attempt to create an alternative payment mechanism offers a useful summary of the state of play for anyone who has not had the time, nor the inclination, to follow the detail. It includes a short summary of its history, where the initiative currently stands and where it might be headed.

What caught my attention was his discussion of why central banks do not seem to be keen to support private sector initiatives in this domain. Marc noted that Facebook have elected to base their proposed currency (initially the “Libre” but relabelled a “Diem” in a revised proposal issued in December 2020) on a stable coin approach. There are variety of stable coin mechanisms (fiat-backed, commodity backed, cryptocurrency backed, seignorage-style) but in the case of the Diem, the value of the instrument is proposed to be based on an underlying pool of low risk fiat currency assets.

A stable value is great if the aim for the instrument is to facilitate payments for goods and services but it also creates concerns for policy makers. Marc cites a couple of issues …

But this is where policymakers started to get jumpy. They started to worry that if payments and financial transactions shift over to the Libra, they might lose control over their domestic monetary policy, all the more so if their currency isn’t represented in the basket. They worried too about the governance of the Libra Association and about its compliance framework. Perhaps if any other company had been behind it, they would have dismissed the threat, but they’d learned not to underestimate Facebook.”

“Facebook’s Big Diem”, Marc Rubinstein – https://netinterest.substack.com/p/facebooks-big-diem
One more reason why stable coins might be problematic for policy makers responsible for monetary policy and bank supervision?

Initiatives like Diem obviously represent a source of competition and indeed disruption for conventional banks. As a rule, policy makers tend to welcome competition, notwithstanding the potential for competition to undermine financial stability. However “fiat-backed” stable coin based initiatives also compete indirectly with banks in a less obvious way via their demand for the same pool of risk free assets that banks are required to hold for Basel III prudential liquidity requirements.

So central banks might prefer that the stock of government securities be available to fund the liquidity requirements of the banks they are responsible for, as opposed to alternative money systems that they are not responsible for nor have any direct control over.

I know a bit about banking but not a lot about cryptocurrency so it is entirely possible I am missing something here. If so then feedback welcome.

Tony – From the Outside

The tension between competition and financial stability …

… is a topic on which I have long been planning to write the definitive essay.

Today is not that day.

In the interim, I offer a link to a post by Marc Rubinstein that makes a few points I found worth noting and expanding upon.

Firstly, he starts with the observation that there are very few neat solutions to policy choices – mostly there are just trade-offs. He cites as a case a point the efforts by financial regulators to introduce increased competition over the past forty years as a means to make the financial system cheaper and more efficient. Regulators initially thought that they could rely on market discipline to manage the tension between increased freedom to compete and the risk that this competition would undermine credit standards but this assumption was found wanting and we ended up with the GFC.

When financial regulators think about trade-offs, the one they’ve traditionally wrestled with is the trade-off between financial stability and competition. It arises because banks are special: their resilience doesn’t just impact them and their shareholders; it impacts everybody. As financial crises through the ages have shown, if a bank goes down it can have a huge social cost. And if there’s a force that can chip away at resilience, it’s competition. It may start out innocently enough, but competition often leads towards excessive risk-taking. In an effort to remain competitive, banks can be seduced into relaxing credit standards. Their incentive to monitor loans and maintain long-term relationships with borrowers diminishes, credit gets oversupplied and soon enough you have a problem. 

The Policy Triangle, Marc Rubinstein -https://netinterest.substack.com/

We have learned that regulators may try to encourage competition where possible but, when push comes to shove, financial stability remains the prime directive. As a consequence, the incumbent players have to manage the costs of compliance but they also benefit from a privileged position that has been very hard to attack. Multiple new entrants to the Australian banking system learned this lesson the hard way during the 1980s and 1990s.

For a long time the trade-off played out on that simple one dimensional axis of “efficiency and competition” versus “financial stability” but the entry of technology companies into areas of financial services creates additional layers of complexity and new trade-offs to manage. Rubinstein borrows the “Policy Triangle” concept developed by Hyun Song Shin to discuss these issues.

Hyun Song Shin, Economic Adviser and Head of Research, Bank for International Settlements
  1. Firstly, he notes that financial regulators don’t have jurisdiction over technology companies so that complicates the ways in which they engage with these new sources of competition and their impact on the areas of the financial system that regulators do have responsibility for.
  2. Secondly, he discusses the ways in which the innovative use of data by these new players introduces a whole new range of variables into the regulatory equation.
Jurisdiction

New entrants have been able to make inroads into certain areas of finance, the payments function in particular. Some regulators have supported these areas of innovation but Rubinstein notes that regulators start to clamp down once new entrants start becoming large enough to matter. The response of Chinese authorities to Ant Financial is one example as is the response of financial regulators globally to Facebook’s attempt to create a digital currency. The lessons seems to be that increased regulation and supervisions is in store for any new entrant that achieves any material level of scale.

Data

The innovative use of data offers the promise of enhanced competition and improved ways of managing credit risk but this potentially comes at the cost of privacy. Data can also be harnessed by policy makers to gain new real-time insights into what is going on in the economy that can be used to guide financial stability policy settings.

Conclusion

Rubinstein has only scratched the surface of this topic but his post and the links he offers to other contributions to the discussion are I think worth reading. As stated at the outset, I hope to one day codify some thoughts on these topics but that is a work in progress. That post will consider issues like the “prisoner’s dilemma” that are I think an important part of the competition/stability trade-off. It is also important to consider the ways in which banks have come to play a unique role in the economy via the creation of money.

Tony – From the Outside

p.s. There are a few posts I have done on related topics that may be of interest

Dee Hock, the Father of Fintech

Marc Rubinstein writing in his “Net Interest” newsletter has a fascinating story about the history of Visa. The article is interesting on a number of levels.

It is partly a story of the battle currently being played out in the “payments” area of financial services but it also introduced me to the story of Dee Hock who convinced Bank of America to give up ownership of the credit card licensing business that it had built up around the BankAmericard it had launched in 1958. His efforts led to the formation of a new company, jointly owned by the banks participating in the credit card program, that was the foundation of Visa.

The interesting part was that Visa was designed from its inception to operate in a decentralised manner that balanced cooperation and competition. The tension between cooperation (aka “order”) and competition (sometimes leading to “disorder”) is pervasive in the world of money and finance. Rubinstein explores some of the lessons that the current crop of decentralised finance visionaries might take away from this earlier iteration of Fintech. Rubinstein’s post encouraged me to do a bit more digging on Hock himself (see this article from FastCompany for example) and I have also bought Hock’s book (“One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization“) to read.

There is a much longer post to write on the issues discussed in Rubinstein’s post but that is for another day (i.e. when I think I understand them so I am not planning to do this any time soon). At this stage I will just call out one of the issues that I think need to be covered in any complete discussion of the potential for Fintech to replace banks – the role “elasticity of credit” plays in monetary systems.

“Elasticity of credit”

It seems pretty clear that the Fintech companies offer a viable (maybe compelling) alternative to banks in the payment part of the monetary system but economies also seem to need some “elasticity” in the supply of credit. It is not obvious how Fintech companies might meet this need so maybe there remains an area where properly regulated and supervised banks continue to have a role to play. That is my hypothesis at any rate which I freely admit might be wrong. This paper by Claudio Borio offers a good discussion of this issue (for the short version see here for a post I did on Borio’s paper).

Recommended

Tony – From the Outside

Friedman’s Legacy: From Doctrine to Theorem

This essay by Luigi Zingales (University of Chicago – Booth School of Business) offers a useful assessment of the rights and wrongs of Friedman’s shareholder responsibility doctrine.

Zingales argues that part of the problem with Friedman is that his argument is treated as a statement of doctrine to which one pledges allegiance as opposed to a theorem that can be used to analyse and understand what is happening in the real world.

Zingales therefore restates Friedman as a theorem for analysing the conditions under which it would be socially optimal for corporate executives to focus solely on maximising corporate profits. He refers to this as the “Friedman Separation Theorem” and argues that it holds if the following three conditions are met:

First, companies should operate in a competitive environment, which I will define as firms being both price and rules takers. Second, there should not be externalities (or the government should be able to address perfectly these externalities through regulation and taxation). Third, contracts are complete, in the sense that we can specify in a contract all relevant contingencies at no cost.

“Friedman’s Legacy: From Doctrine to Theorem” – Zingales – Pro Market 13 Oct 2020

Whether you agree or disagree with it, one of the great attractions of this doctrine/theorem is that it makes the life of a corporate executive much simpler. That gives the idea an obvious appeal.

Zingales notes that on a technical level, the Friedman Separation Theorem is a restatement of what economists refer to as the “First Welfare Theorem” (also known as the “Invisible Hand Theorem”) which holds that markets produce socially optimal outcomes under certain conditions.

Zingales argues that Friedman also recognised that he needed something catchier for his argument to impact public debate so he framed the argument around an appeal to the core American values of freedom, independence and the principle of “no taxation without representation” embedded in the story of the American Revolution.

Zingales works through each of the three assumptions he has identified as underpinning the Friedman Separation Theorem, highlighting the ways in which the are not valid descriptions of how the economy actually operates.

Zingales sums up his review by posing the question how should we interpret the practical implications of Friedman’s idea in 2020? His answer has two legs. Firstly he argues that we need to distinguish between small to medium size companies and their larger cousins which have power in various forms:

If you are a small to medium-sized company, .., a company with no market power and no real power to influence regulation or elections, maximizing shareholder welfare is the right goal to follow. Especially if this goal is pursued with attention not only to legal rules but also ethical customs, like Friedman advocated, but most companies ignored.

However, Zingales argues that we should also recognise the limitations of the Friedman Separation Theorem when we are dealing with corporate entities, and their executives, which have real power.

When it comes to super corporations, corporations that have market power, like Google and Facebook, or political power, like BlackRock or JP Morgan, or regulatory power, like DuPont or Monsanto, a single-minded pursuit of shareholder value maximization can be extremely bad for society.

This, Zingales argues, is the reason why he and Oliver Hart have advocated requiring boards of monopolies, like Google, or of firms too big to regulate, like Blackrock, to maximize social welfare, the utility of society as a whole, not shareholder welfare.

Zingales concludes that “Friedman was more right than his detractors claim and more wrong than his supporters would like us to believe”:

His “theorem” has greatly contributed to determining when maximizing shareholder value is good for society and when it is not. The discipline imposed by Friedman’s theorem also forces greater accountability on managers. In the world of 2020, the biggest shareholder in most corporations is all of us, who have their pension money invested in stocks. We are the real silent majority. Corporate managers finance political candidates, lobby for self-serving legislation, and capture regulation. They have the power to use our money to fight against our own interest. While Friedman did not anticipate these degenerations, he warned us against the risk of unaccountable managers. This warning will remain his most enduring contribution.

Irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with the proposed solution to the big company problem, Zingales essay is one of the better contributions to the Corporate Social Responsibility and Shareholder Value Maximisation debate that I have come across. It is a short read but worth it.

For anyone wanting to dig deeper, the collection of 27 essays that Zingales references in his essay can be found here.

Tony – From the Outside

Corporate social responsibility – going back to the source

The 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s 1970 essay has triggered a deluge of commentary celebrating or critiquing the ideas it proposed. My bias probably swings to the “profit maximisation is not the entire answer” side of the debate but I recognised that I had not actually read the original essay. Time, I thought, to go back to the source and see what Friedman actually said.

I personally found this exercise useful because I realised that some of the commentary I had been reading was quoting him out of context or otherwise reading into his essay ideas that I am not sure he would have endorsed. I will leave my comment on the merits of his doctrine to another post.

Friedman’s doctrine of the limits of corporate social responsibility

Friedman’s famous (or infamous) conclusion is that in a “free” society…

there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception fraud.”

My more detailed notes on what Friedman wrote can be found here. That note includes lengthy extracts from the essay so that you can fact check my paraphrasing of what he said. My summary of his argument as I understand it runs as follows:

  • Friedman first seeks to establish that any meaningful discussion of social responsibility has to focus on the people who own or manage the business, not “the business” itself.
  • If we focus on the corporate executives who manage the business as agents of the shareholders, Friedman argues that these executive should only use the resources of a company to pursue the objectives set by their “employer” (i.e. the shareholders).
  • What do the shareholders want the business to do?
  • Friedman acknowledges that some may have different objectives but he assumes that profit maximisation constrained by the laws and ethical customs of the society in which they operate will be goal of most shareholders
  • The key point however is that corporate executives have no authority or right to pursue any objectives other than those defined by their employer (the shareholders) or which otherwise serve the interests of those people.
  • Friedman also argues that the expansion of social responsibilities introduces conflicts of interest into the management of the business without offering any guide or proper process for resolving them. Having multiple (possibly ill defined and conflicting) objectives is, Friedman argues, a recipe for giving executives an excuse to underperform.
  • Friedman acknowledges that corporate executives have the right to pursue whatever social responsibilities they choose in their private lives but, as corporate executives, their personal objectives must be subordinated to the responsibility to achieve the objectives of the shareholders, their ultimate employers.
  • It is important to understand how Friedman defined the idea of a corporate executive having a “social responsibility”. He argues that the concept is only meaningful if it creates a responsibility that is not consistent with the interests of their employer.
  • Friedman might be sceptical on the extent to which it is true, but my read of his essay is that he is not disputing the rights of a business to contribute to social and environmental goals that management believe are congruent with the long term profitability of the business.
  • Friedman argues that the use of company resources to pursue a social responsibility raises problematic political questions on two levels: principle and consequences.
  • On the level of POLITICAL PRINCIPLE, Friedman uses the rhetorical device of treating the exercise of social responsibility by a corporate executive as equivalent to the imposition of a tax
  • But it is intolerable for Friedman that this political power can be exercised by a corporate executive without the checks and balances that apply to government and government officials dealing with these fundamentally political choices.
  • On the grounds of CONSEQUENCES, Friedman questions whether the corporate executives have the knowledge and expertise to discharge the “social responsibilities” they have assumed on behalf of society. Poor consequences are acceptable if the executive is spending their own time and money but unacceptable as a point of principle when using someone else’s time and money.
  • Friedman cites a list of social challenges that he argues are likely to lay outside the domain of a corporate executive’s area of expertise
  • Private competitive enterprise is for Friedman the best way to make choices about how to allocate resources in society. This is because it forces people to be responsible for their own actions and makes it difficult for them to exploit other people for either selfish or unselfish purposes.
  • Friedman considers whether some social problems are too urgent to be left to the political process but dismisses this argument on two counts. Firstly because he is suspicious about how genuine the commitment to “social responsibility” really is but mostly because he is fundamentally committed to the principle that these kinds of social questions should be decided by the political process.
  • Friedman acknowledges that his doctrine makes it harder for good people to do good but that, he argues, is a “small price” to pay to avoid the greater evil of being forced to conform to an objective you as an individual do not agree with.
  • Friedman also considers the idea that shareholders can themselves choose to contribute to social causes but dismisses it. This is partly because he believes that these “choices” are forced on the majority by the shareholder activists but also because he believes that using the “cloak of social responsibility” to rationalise these choices undermines the foundations of a free society.
  • That is a big statement – how does he justify it?
  • He starts by citing a list of ways in which socially responsible actions can be argued (or rationalised) to be in the long-run interests of a corporation.
  • Friedman acknowledges that corporate executives are well within their rights to take “socially responsible” actions if they believe that their company can benefit from this “hypocritical window dressing”.
  • Friedman notes the irony of expecting business to exercise social responsibility by foregoing these short term benefits but argues that using the “cloak of social responsibility” in this way harms the foundations of a free society
  • Friedman cites the calls for wage and price controls (remember this was written in 1970) as one example of the way in which social responsibility can undermine a free society
  • But he also sees the trend for corporate executives to embrace social responsibility as part of a wider movement that paints the pursuit of profit as “wicked and immoral”. A free enterprise, market based, society is central to Friedman’s vision of a politically free society and must be defended to the fullest extent possible.
  • Here Friedman expands on the principles behind his commitment to the market mechanism as an instrument of freedom – in particular the principle of “unanimity” under which the market coordinates the needs and wants of individuals and no one is compelled to do something against their perceived interests.
  • He contrasts this with the principle of “conformity” that underpins the political mechanism.
  • In Friedman’s ideal world, all decisions would be based on the principle of unanimity but he acknowledges that this is not always possible.
  • He argues that the line needs to be drawn when the doctrine of “social responsibility” extends the political mechanisms of conformity and coercion into areas which can be addressed by the market mechanism.
Friedman concludes by labelling “social responsibility” a “fundamentally subversive doctrine”.

But the doctrine of “social responsibility” taken seriously would extend the scope of the political mechanism to every human activity. It does not differ in philosophy from the most explicitly collectivist doctrine. It differs only by professing to believe that collectivist ends can be attained without collectivist means.

That is why, in my book “Capitalism and Freedom,” I have called it a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” in a free society, and have said that in such a society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception fraud.”

Hopefully what I have set out above offers a fair and unbiased account of what Friedman actually said. If not then tell me what I missed. I think he makes a number of good points but, as stated at the beginning of this post, I am not comfortable with the conclusions that he draws. I am working on a follow up post where I will attempt to deconstruct the essay and set out my perspective on the questions he sought to address.

Tony – From the Outside

Costco capitalism

I came across this blog post by Bryan Lehrer titled “Costco Capitalism” which I think offers an interesting variation on the discussion of companies seeking to do good, or even better, to “be” good.

It poses two questions:

  • whether some companies are built on “structurally fair” foundations that make it easier for them to be perceived as “good” or “fair” companies; and
  • what exactly does it mean to be an “ethical” company

This extract will give you a flavour of the author’s analysis of the Costco business model

Sustainable Capitalism? – What Costco shows us about the blurry relationship between ethical and fair

Costco shows that … simply providing your customers the feeling that they aren’t getting ripped off, and doing so in a way that matches mainstream views of acceptable externalities, is all that is required for success. If this sounds reductive, it’s because it is. The key to Costco’s success is just how straightforward the alignment of stakeholders within its business model are.

That being said, there are externalities associated with Costco’s business model, even if they aren’t viewed by the mainstream as such. The main thing here is a retail model that promotes rampant consumption, and the fallout from this which includes broad waste and sustainability concerns. Interestingly, because of Costco’s large purchasing power, dominance over its supply chains, and upper-middle class income of its shoppers, it generally has more progressive product standards than other retail brands in comparable price tiers.

Costco Capitalism, Bryan Lehrer

Lehrer argues that the foundation is to provide customers with “the feeling that they aren’t getting ripped off thereby building that elusive intangible asset of Trust that many companies routinely include in their statement of corporate values (e.g. “a Trusted Partner”). However, equally important is that the company can do this “in a way that matches mainstream views of acceptable externalities.

This qualification regarding externalities is the interesting part.

Other companies may have a credible claim to being able to provide a good or service cheaply but the often unasked question is what is the full cost of the good or service; i.e. is the low cost at the company/consumer level based on paying workers a subsistence wage with uncertain working hours, or reliance on an external supply chain with dubious environmental and labour standards. Lehrer notes that Costco could be vulnerable to criticism on a number of fronts (e.g. its business is, at its heart, a mass consumption model) but Costco is protected by virtue of adopting a position which fits community standards. Costco can afford to spend some of its efficiency dividend on progressive product standards but it is not necessarily pushing the boundaries of what might be done because it is also sensitive to what its customers are willing to pay for being good.

This framework (i.e. is our business built on an operating model that is structurally fair) offers a useful perspective when thinking about financial services companies. Initiatives such as the Bankers’ Oath have a contribution to make in addressing the cultural issues in banking but I suspect that there is as much value (potentially more) in exploring the structural features of the industry that create the pressure to cut corners in the pursuit of financial targets.

I don’t expect anyone will change their mind about bankers and banking in general on the basis of this post. I do hope to make the point that there are subtle structural challenges in banking that complicate the capacity to do good. Developing a better understanding of the structural issues is I think essential to crafting a lasting solution to the cultural issues. I don’t have any neat answers but I do feel that the issues covered in Bryan Lehrer’s analysis of Costco offer some insights.

Tony – From the Outside

Mortgage Risk Weights – revisited

I post on a range of topics in banking but residential mortgage risk weights is one that seems to generate the most attention. I first posted on the topic back in Sep 2018 and have revisited the topic a few times (Dec 2018, June 2019#1, June 2019#2, and Nov 2019) .

The posts have tended to generate a reasonable number of views but limited direct engagement with the arguments I have advanced. Persistence pays off however because the last post did get some specific and very useful feedback on the points I had raised to argue that the difference in capital requirements between IRB and Standardised Banks was not as big as it was claimed to be.

My posts were a response to the discussion of this topic I observed in the financial press which just focussed on the nominal difference in the risk weights (i.e. 25% versus 39%) without any of the qualifications. I identified 5 problems with the simplistic comparison cited in the popular press and by some regulators:

  • Problem 1 – Capital adequacy ratios differ
  • Problem 2 – You have to include capital deductions
  • Problem 3 – The standardised risk weights for residential mortgages seems set to change
  • Problem 4 – The risk of a mortgage depends on the portfolio not the individual loan
  • Problem 5 – You have to include the capital required for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book

With the benefit of hindsight and the feedback I have received, I would concede that I have probably paid insufficient attention to the disparity between risk weights (RW) at the higher quality end of the mortgage risk spectrum. IRB banks can be seen to writing a substantial share of their loan book at very low RWs (circa 6%) whereas the best case scenario for standardised banks is a 20% RW. The IRB banks are constrained by the requirement that their average RW should be at least 25% and I thought that this RW Floor was sufficient to just focus on the comparison of average RW. I also thought that the revisions to the standardised approach that introduced the 20% RW might make more of a difference. Now I am not so sure. I need to do a bit more work to resolve the question so for the moment I just want to go on record with this being an issue that needs more thought than I have given it to date.

Regarding the other 4 issues that I identified in my first post, I stand by them for the most part. That does not mean I am right of course but I will briefly recap on my arguments, some of the push back that I have received and areas where we may have to just agree to disagree.

Target capital adequacy ratios differ materially. The big IRB banks are targeting CET1 ratios based on the 10.5% Unquestionably Strong Benchmark and will typically have a bit of a buffer over that threshold. Smaller banks like Bendigo and Suncorp appear to operate with much lower CET1 targets (8.5 to 9.0%). This does not completely offset the nominal RW difference (25 versus 39%) but it is material (circa 20% difference) in my opinion so it seem fair to me that the discussion include this fact. I have to say that not all of my correspondents accepted this argument so it seems that we will have to agree to disagree.

You have to include capital deductions. In particular, the IRB banks are required to hold CET1 capital for the shortfall between their loan loss provision and a regulatory capital value called “Regulatory Expected Loss”. There did not appear to be a great awareness of this requirement and a tendency to dismiss it but my understanding is that it can increase the effective capital requirement by 10-12% which corresponds to an effective IRB RW closer to 28% than 25%.

The risk of a mortgage depends on the overall portfolio not the individual loan. My point here has been that small banks will typically be less diversified than big banks and so that justifies a difference in the capital requirements. I have come to recognise that the difference in portfolio risk may be accentuated to the extent that capital requirements applied to standardised banks impede their ability to capture a fair share of the higher quality end of the residential mortgage book. So I think my core point stands but there is more work to do here to fully understand this aspect of the residential mortgage capital requirements. In particular, I would love get more insight into how APRA thought about this issue when it was calibrating the IRB and standardised capital requirements. If they have spelled out their position somewhere, I have not been able to locate it.

You have to include the capital required for Interest Rate Risk in the Banking Book (IRRBB). I did not attempt to quantify how significant this was but simply argued that it was a requirement that IRB banks faced that standardised banks did not and hence it did reduce the benefit of lower RW. The push back I received was that the IRRBB capital requirement was solely a function of IRB banks “punting” their capital and hence completely unrelated to their residential mortgage loans. I doubt that I will resolve this question here and I do concede that the way in which banks choose to invest their capital has an impact on the size of the IRRBB capital requirement. That said, a bank has to hold capital to underwrite the risk in its residential mortgage book and, all other thinks being equal, an IRB bank has to hold more capital for the IRRBB requirement flowing from the capital that it invests on behalf of the residential mortgage book. So it still seems intuitively reasonable to me to make the connection. Other people clearly disagree so we may have to agree to disagree on this aspect.

Summing up, I had never intended to say that there was no difference in capital requirements. My point was simply that the difference is not as big as is claimed and I was yet to see any analysis that considered all of the issues relevant to properly understand what the net difference in capital requirements is. The issue of how to achieve a more level playing field between IRB and Standardised Banks is of course about much more than differences in capital requirements but it is an important question and one that should be based on a firmer set of facts that a simplistic comparison of the 39% standardised versus 25% IRB RW that is regularly thrown around in the discussion of this question.

I hope I have given a fair representation here of the counter arguments people have raised against my original thesis but apologies in advance if I have not. My understanding of the issues has definitely been improved by the challenges posted on the blog so thanks to everyone who took the time to engage.

Tony

What is wrong with Australian banking?

Spoiler alert, I am not going to provide a definitive answer to that question. I do however want to address a couple of the arguments advanced in an interview with Joseph Healy reported in the Chanticleer section of the AFR this week that I think bear closer scrutiny.

Healy has written a book titled “Breaking the Banks – what went wrong with Australian banking”. At this stage I can only rely on what was reported in the AFR so I may be missing some of the nuance of his argument. It is of course always good fun to see an “insider” spilling the beans on an industry but it is also important that we debate the questions raised on the basis of the facts as opposed to a good story. I have no intention of seeking to argue that there is nothing to see here; there are certainly major issues that need to be addressed. That said, some of the claims he asserts seem wrong to me. I offer an alternative perspective below – it is up to the reader to judge which perspective (dare I say set of facts) they find more convincing.

Let’s start with some elements of his thesis that seem to me to have a foundation of truth:

  • Banks operate under a “social licence” that imposes a higher set of responsibilities than what is dictated by a pure free market philosophy
  • The Cost of Equity for Australian banks is around 6-7% per annum and that banks should only earn a modest premium over their cost of equity in a competitive market

Healy cites the “fact” that major bank ROE around 12-13% is substantially higher than their cost of equity and the recent “failure to pass on the full 25 basis point rate cut” as evidence that the major banks are abusing their market power to extract unreasonable rents from the economy.

I don’t have any issue with the premise that banks (not just Australian banks) have a privileged position in the societies in which they operate and that this privilege carries responsibilities. It follows that earning a return that is materially higher than their COE begs the question how this can be justified. However, simplistic comparisons of a bank’s ROE at a relatively benign point in time with the COE that its shareholders require to be compensated for the risk they underwrite across the full business cycle is a fundamental error of analysis and logic. My reasons for this are set out in more detail in this post, but the key point is that this comparison conflates two things which are related but not the same thing.

The other problem I have is the argument that not reducing lending rates by the same amount as the change in the RBA cash rate amounts to a “failure to pass on” the rate cut. Fortunately I don’t need to lay out the detail of why this is wrong because Michael Pascoe and Stephen Bartholomeusz have both done a more than adequate job here and here.

All always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something but I have to call it as I see it. If you have not read the articles by Pascoe and Bartholomeusz then I can recommend them as well worth your time. Bank bashing is a long standing Australian past time and there is much legitimate cause for bashing them. Banking however is too important to allow yourself to join the mob (which sadly seems to include senior politicians) without understanding what criticism is legitimate and what is not.

Tony