I was looking at the preferred asset classes under the Basel Accords in my previous post on why central banks are so determined to stave off a government default, and realised that every single asset class that is given less than a 100 percent credit risk weighting is now tainted by widespread default, scandals or bailouts.
The credit risk weightings mean that instead of reserving the standard 8 percent of capital in respect of a debt, the bank can cut that by the weighting applied to the asset class. Effectively, the reduction in credit risk weighting operates as a powerful subsidy to the borrowers and equally powerful incentive to over-leveraging the lenders.
As a baseline, all financial, consumer and corporate debt must be reserved at a credit rating of 100 percent of 8 percent, unless explicitly discounted. A weighting of 50 percent, for example, means that instead of holding $8 reserves on a loan of $100, the bank only needs to hold $4 of reserves. A zero weighting means they lend $100, but hold no reserves at all.
Mortgages get a credit risk weighting of 50 percent, and we all know how well the mortgage market is performing. Mortgages and mortgage backed securities became the largest asset classes globally in a matter of years thanks to the credit weighting subsidy and securitisation. If I recall correctly, our present long crisis started with the collapse of the sub-prime market and now all categories of US mortgages are impaired by the ongoing mess with MERS and fraudulent or missing documentation. Borrowing short to lend long brought down Northern Rock in the UK and many other over-leveraged mortgage banks.
Interbank debt gets a credit risk weighting of 20 percent. We've seen from the collapse of interbank lending that banks do not trust each other. At the same time, inter-bank exposures and credit derivatives mean that financial institutions are massively dependent on each other, such that bailouts are justified as essential to prevent systemic collapse. If Too-Big-To-Fail is predicated on the systemic impact of a bank's failure on other banks, it would seem that the 20 percent inter-bank risk weighting was and is unsound.
Government agency debt gets a risk weighting of 10 percent. Looking at Fannie and Freddie, and the serial scandals and bailouts they have occasioned over the past decade, it is hard to see how such a subsidy can be justified.
Finally, sovereign debt of Zone A states is zero weighted - no reserves required at all. Zone A includes any country in the EEA, full members of the OECD, or states that have concluded special lending arrangements with the IMF except that any state that reschedules its debt is excluded from Zone A status for five years.
So the current financial crisis started with bad mortgage debt, spread to bad bank debt, carried over into bad agency debt, and now encompasses bad sovereign debt. Each of these categories was given preferential capital weighting under the Basel Accords, and now all are open sores on the financial system and the stability of excessively indebted governments.
Not only did the Basel weightings encourage poor risk assessment, they directly contributed to the inadequate capitalisation of banks for the risks they assumed.
And yet, have you heard any regulator take responsibility for regulatory failures yet? I haven't. In fact, I've seen no historic analysis of capital requirements, deregulation of credit markets, securitisation, derivatives, demutualisation, or any of the other regulatory policy innovations which should reasonably be matters for review in assessing the causes of the current crisis.
As the bankers and regulators do not seem keen to be reflective about their own policies and conduct, it's hard to imagine that they can craft constructive reforms to make the system safer or more efficient in future.
I've downloaded the draft Basel Accord III, released this week, for leisure reading. Sadly, I'm trending to the view that all harmonised regulation is likely to end in disaster as it precludes independent judgement and sensible challenge to orthodoxy. Once something has been agreed by a big enough committee, it becomes impossible to question whether it makes sense. Ultimately the unintended consequences of incentives and distortions mean it won't make sense, but by then it's far too late to change course and break from the herd.