Email exchange on bank leverage, regulation, and economic growth

Emailed to me:

What do you think would happen if we returned to a world where commercial bank leverage was much reduced? (E.g. 2X max.) Or, maybe equivalently, if central banks didn’t act as a lender of last resort? Is that “necessary” for a modern economy?

Asset prices would fall a lot (presumably). What else? How much worse off would current people become? (Future people are presumably somewhat better off, growth implications notwithstanding—they are less burdened with the other side of all these out-of-the-money puts that central banks have effectively issued.) > > How should we think about the optimization space spanning growth rates, banking capital requirements, and intergenerational fairness?

My response:

First, these questions are in those relatively rare areas where even at the conceptual level top people do not agree. So maybe you won’t agree with my responses, but don’t take any answers on trust from anyone else either.

I think of the liquidity transformation of banks in terms of two core activities:

a. Transforming otherwise somewhat illiquid activities into liquid deposits. That boosts risk-taking capacities, boosts aggregate investment, and makes depositors more liquid in real terms. Those are ex ante gains, though note that more risk-taking, even when a good thing, can make economies more volatile.

b. Giving private depositors more nominal liquidity, but in a way that raises prices and thus doesn’t really increase real, inflation-adjusted liquidity for depositors as a whole. There is thus a rent-seeking component to bank activity and liquidity production.

Less bank leverage, you get less of both. In my view a) is usually much more important than b). For those who defend narrow banking, 100% fractional reserves, or just extreme capital requirements, a) is usually minimized. Nonetheless b) is real, and it means that some partial, reasonable regulation won’t wreck the sector as much as it might seem at first.

There is however another factor: if bank leverage gets too high, bank equity takes on too much risk, to take advantage of bank creditors and possibly taxpayers too. Or too much leverage can make a given level of bank manager complacency too socially costly to bear. This latter factor seems to have been very important for the 2007-2008 crisis.

So bank leverage does need to be regulated in some manner, and the better it is regulated the more the system can dispense with other forms of regulation.

That said, the delta really matters. Requiring significantly less bank leverage, at any status quo margin, probably will bring a recession. The recession itself may make banks riskier than the lower leverage will make them safer. In this sense many economies are stuck with the levels of leverage they have, for better or worse. It is not easy to pop a “leverage bubble.”

I don’t find the idea of 40% capital requirements, combined with an absolute minimum of regulation, absurd on the face of it. But I don’t see how we can get there, even for the future generations. We’ll end up doing too many stupid things in the meantime; Dodd-Frank for all its excesses could have been much worse.

I also worry that 40% capital requirements would just push leverage elsewhere in the economy. Possibly into safer sectors, but I wouldn’t be too confident there. And reading any random few books on “bank off-balance sheet risk” will scare the beejesus out of anyone, even in good times.

Now, you worded your question carefully: “commercial bank leverage was much reduced.”

A lot of commercial bank leverage can be replaced by leverage from other sources, many less regulated or less “establishment.” Overall, on current and recent margins I prefer to keep leverage in the commercial banking sector, compared to the relevant alternatives. It may be less efficient but it is socially safer and held within the Fed’s and FDIC regulatory safety net, probably the best of the available politicized alternatives. That said, there is a natural and indeed mostly desirable trend for the commercial banking sector to become less important over time, in part because it is regulated and also somewhat static in basic mentality. (Note that the financial crisis interrupted this process, for instance Goldman taking up a bank charter. I would still bet on it for the longer run.)

Obviously, VC markets are a possible counterfactual. This all gets back to Ed Conard’s neglected and profound point that “equity” is what is scarce in economies, and how many troubles stem from that fact. Ideally, we’d like to organize much more like VC markets, partly as a substitute for bank leverage and the accompanying distorting regulation, and maybe we will over time, but there is a long, long way to go.

One big problem with attempts to radically restrict bank leverage is that they simply shift leverage into other parts of the economy, possibly in more dangerous forms. Should I feel better about commercial credit firms taking up more of this risk? Hard to say, but the Fed would not feel better about that, it makes their job harder. This gets back to being somewhat stuck with the levels of leverage one already has, until they blow up at least. There are pretty much always ways to create leverage that regulators cannot so easily control or perhaps not even understand. Again this bring us back to “off-balance risk,” among other topics including of course fintech.

I view central banks as “lenders of second resort.” The first resort is the private sector, the last resort is Congress. I favor empowering central banks to keep Congress out of it. Central banks are actually a fairly early line of defense, in military terms. And I almost always prefer them to the legislature in virtually all developed countries.

I fear however that we will have to rely on the LOLR function more and more often. Consider how it interacts with deposit insurance. If everything were like a simple form of FDIC-insured demand deposits, FDIC guarantees would suffice.

But what if a demand deposit is no longer so well-defined? What about money market funds? Repurchase agreements? Derivatives and other synthetic positions? Guaranteeing demand deposits is a weaker and weaker protection for the aggregate, as indeed we learned in 2008. The Ricardo Hausmann position is to extend the governmental guarantees to as many areas as possible, but that makes me deeply nervous. Not only is this fiscally dangerous, I also think it would lead to stifling regulation being applied too broadly.

But relying more and more on LOLR also makes me nervous. So I view this as a major way in which the modern world is headed for recurring trouble on a significant scale, no matter what regulators do.

I am never sure how much of the benefits of banking/finance are “level effects” as opposed to “growth effects.” It is easy for me to believe that good banking/finance enables more consumption at a sustainably higher level, in part because precautionary savings motives can be satisfied more effectively and with less sacrifice. I am less sure that the long-term growth rate of the economy will rise; if so, that does not seem to show up in the data once economies cross over the middle income trap. That said, if there were an effect, since growth rates slow down with high levels in any case, I don’t think it would be easy to find and verify.


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