Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tales from the Meltdown: Obama's Conservatism

Martin Wolf notes the essentially conservative nature of Obama's banking policies, and wonders if the Administration is even asking the correct questions:

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Thus wrote the Sicilian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in The Leopard. This seems to me the guiding principle of the Obama presidency. To many Americans, he seems a flaming radical. To me, he is a pragmatic conservative, albeit one responding to extraordinary times. In his own way, Mr Obama is following the path trodden by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Nowhere is his conservatism more obvious than in the handling of the economic crisis. What we have seen unfolding, from the president’s choice of Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner as his principal policy advisers, to last week’s “stress tests”, is classic conservative policymaking. The aim is simply to get the show back on the road. As Mr Obama told The New York Times: “I’m absolutely committed to making sure that our financial system is stable.” Stability is a quintessentially conservative aim. Many radicals on the right and left insist that undercapitalised banks should be recapitalised right now. But Mr Obama sees this as far too risky.

The results of the stress tests were a big step along the road the administration is taking. They impose enough pain to appear credible, but not enough to be disruptive. The 10 affected banks will easily raise the needed money: a total of $75bn (€55bn, £59bn). Their market valuations duly soared.
Has the government done enough to get the banks back on their feet? It depends on who you ask, and on what you mean by "on their feet".

There are two important numbers in the above analysis: possible losses, and the buoyancy of earnings. Yet there is a final number of no less significance: how much capital does a bank need? The answer is: how long is a piece of string? Since many of these banks are deemed too big to fail, taxpayers are risk-bearers of last resort. The capital requirement depends partly on how well the government wants to be cushioned against possible losses and partly on how well bond-holders want to be insured against the possibility that government might refuse a rescue.

...At the end of 2008, the ratio of total common equity to US banking assets was 3.7 per cent. Without the explicit and implicit insurance provided by government, it would surely have been higher. As the IMF notes, in the mid-1990s, before the leverage boom, the ratio was 6 per cent. In the 19th century, before deposit insurance, it was much higher still.

The conclusions are three: first, the government’s exercise is more conservative on losses than that of the IMF, albeit far less so than Mr Roubini’s; second, most of the capital to be raised will come from the earnings of a banking system able to borrow on the favourable terms arranged by the central bank and then to lend more expensively to its customers; and third, the target capital ratios – Tier 1 risk-weighted capital of 6 per cent of assets and Tier 1 common equity capital of 4 per cent – are not especially onerous.

The purpose of the exercise was indeed conservative: to make it credible, though not certain, that the existing banking system and assets can survive the likely battering. This has been done well enough to satisfy the markets. But these banks will also be unable to expand their balance sheet significantly in the near future.

...The more the crisis unfolds, the more evident it is that incentives in the financial system were (and are) badly distorted. I sympathise with the conservative approach to crises, but not if it leaves in place the plethora of perverse incentives that created them. At the end of this, then, there will be one big test: will the number of institutions thought “too big to fail” be as large as now and, if so, how will they be controlled? If the answers are still not clear, there will need to be yet more change.
(via Brad DeLong)

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