On Monday, the Financial Stability Board is set to issue two pronouncements, one wrong for the U.S. and another that’s unnecessary here. As with all the other post-crisis edicts from global bank regulators, the latest from the FSB are complex compromises that, for the most part, will be ducked and dodged by many of their signatories. It’s time to rethink whether this global process really is the right way to craft a sound regulatory regime for the United States. If it’s become a losing game – and we think it has – then the U.S. should cut its losses, bail on Basel and just write the rules that work for us in hope other nations will do the same.
In fact, this is what the U.S. is doing in practice, if not appearance. When Secretary Geithner told other nations that the U.S. would plow on with its tough approach, he did this for two reasons: first, he has no choice but to implement Dodd-Frank and, in addition, Treasury and the FRB believe that other nations are planning “light-touch” rules even if they try to talk tough. But, Secretary Geithner has stopped short of pushing back from the Basel negotiating table. Perhaps hoping that more talk and still more fine dining in Switzerland will bring others around.
Can it? The Basel process started in the mid-1980s with one goal: the U.S. and U.K. wanted a global capital accord so that Japan couldn’t permit its under-capitalized banks to buy up the world. The goal then was simple (if hard to get): competitive equity. That has remained the principal driver of Basel actions ever since, with Basel II also premised on competitive parity, as well as on a touch-up to make the rules more genuinely risk-based. Basel II, of course, didn’t work out so hot, leading to Basel III. Basel III has two goals: competitive equity, yet again, but now also a global framework to prevent systemic risk resulting from banking centers with over-lax rules.
Let’s examine these goals one at a time. First, the proverbial level playing field. It never happened under Basel I because the Japanese signed on the bottom line and, then, took full advantage of every exception baked in to get their grudging agreement in the first place. Basel II didn’t have much time to prove itself on the playing field before the crisis hit, but the U.S. was, at best, a laggard. One might say “and a good thing too,” but that’s for other reasons and U.S. reluctance on Basel II proves that it didn’t meet the competitive-parity goal either.
Will Basel III do better? So far, the prospects are dim. The Japanese are keeping quiet, but working hard to get around the toughest parts of the rules. The European Union’s proposed directive to implement Basel III carves big holes in it. And, now, there’s a whole new issue: major banking centers – China, for example – that aren’t per se signatories to the Basel III rules and won’t abide by them in any case. So, we call Basel rules a bust on the first goal.
Now, on to the second, newer one: global standards avert systemic risk because bad actors have no place to run and hide. The problems achieving the competitive-parity goal – that nations implement the rules much as they like when they like –also undermines the global process’ ability to achieve its macroprudential aspirations. Since bankers remain astute at reading the details of these complex regulations, markets will work their way around burdensome ones wherever possible, and possible is quickly turning to probable as Basel III is taken from the drawing board in Switzerland into seeming implementation around the world.
We don’t come lightly to our suggestion that the U.S. should go it alone. In nursery school, we were taught to sing on UN Day, hardly the training for a neo-isolationist. But, The U.S. doesn’t need the G-SIFI surcharge about to be launched by the FSB. We’ve implemented Basel rules far more stringently than other nations, sometimes requiring three times more capital for complex holdings and, to boot, we’ve got Dodd-Frank demands that all firms meet various at-home capital and prudential surcharges. We also don’t need to sign a half-hearted cross-border resolution paper that promises to do something sometime about the sin of moral hazard. Again, Dodd-Frank has been there, done that. We’ve got orderly-liquidation powers in the FDIC that, for all the blather, really do doom too big to fail here. In sharp contrast, the EU as recently as yesterday reiterated that it stands behind its troubled banks with a safety net as big as the continent.
Mr. Geithner has premised the U.S.’s hard-touch rules on grounds that well-regulated banking centers prosper because capital flies to quality. We agree. If the U.S. has to be the most stringent regulatory regime because Dodd-Frank says so and Treasury wills it to be done, then let’s acknowledge this and build a better banking system without diverting efforts to lost causes and global grand schemes. Where the U.S. can agree with a major market center – the U.K. – let’s do it and level the playing field as much as we can. Where we can’t, let’s know it, call it so that other nations know their standards are sub-par and, then move on to balance the demands of Dodd-Frank with one major, undone task here at home: balancing rules with market needs so that banks can prosper even as they are prudent.