After the poohbahs of Basel propounded the final Accord on Monday, the knives came out for a deal many said was an all-out concession to global banking behemoths. There are, to be sure, some problematic parts of the new agreement. But, to say the new rules are gutted is to forget what Basel III replaces. The new capital and liquidity rules, even if trimmed down from the December consultative papers, are a far-reaching rewrite that will restructure global finance. Is it perfect, of course not. Is it better than what went before. Yes and then some.

The griping about Basel III reminds us of the Basel II battles, which of course lasted for so long that U.S. banks are still under 1988 credit- risk and 1996 market-risk rules in 2010. The seeds of the crisis lay in Basel I, not Basel II. II was better than I, but because everyone saw at least something wrong with it, the Basel debate droned on as the industry luxuriated in an increasingly irrelevant capital regime. If the perfect again beats the good on Basel III, then we’re not sure what capital rules will govern an industry all too easily seduced into systemic bets allowed by anachronistic regulatory-capital standards.

First, to what’s still tough about Basel III and to correct some factual mistakes in its critique. A blog we saw this week from a prominent and often-insightful industry observer said it does nothing about asset-backed securities (ABS), pointing rightly to the role these played in the cataclysm still upon us. There is, though, the resecuritization framework concluded in late 2009 and set to go live next year. It’s complicated, but tough, and it will go a long way to curtailing CDO-squared and all the fun stuff that did so much damage. Ordinary ABS are also in for a new world of hurt in the Basel III rules, with the weekend’s concessions doing little to blunt their force here.

Complaints also overlook another important – and concluded – part of Basel III: new trading-book rules. To be sure, Basel is showing some mercy, with the rules now set for implementation at the end of 2011 instead of late this year. However, the trading-books rules still remain potent – quantitative-impact assessments show capital hikes in the 600-700 percent range (and that’s before the sovereign debt crisis trashed much of what banks hold on their fixed-income desks).

All too much of the buzz on Basel badmouths it because of the concessions on the definition of capital. The rules will pull back a bit from the bloody-minded definition of “tangible” included in the December consultative paper, allowing a bit of intangibility to count as “quality” capital.

But, folks, let’s remember what went before and what’s to come. Instead of allowing capital to be comprised completely of stuff like deferred tax assets, now these squishy capital instruments can only total fifteen percent of what counts for regulatory purposes. Is that more lenient than zero? Of course. Is it tougher than now? You bet.

Another concession – on the liquidity ratios – also isn’t the cave-in that all too many comments suggest. To be sure, the regulators have taken the long-term liquidity ratio back to the drawing board. But, they are moving ahead with a short-term ratio with considerable clout. Think back to 2008, when Bear Stearns was brought low by overnight calls, Lehman Brothers funded long-term obligations with overnight money and Citigroup lacked liquidity at all for its structured investment vehicles. The short-term liquidity ratio will go a long way to ending these egregious borrow-short, lend-long risks. Is it perfect? Again, of course not. But, like the ABS, trading-book and “quality” capital rules, the final agreement on liquidity risk is a darn sight better than what went before – which was no regulatory rules whatsoever for liquidity risk.

So, what’s wrong with the weekend deal? In our view, it’s first the evasive tone about when the rules will go into effect and all the kow-towing to national discretion that suggests some big countries could excise large holes in the Basel III standards. Most worrisome here is the 2018 deadline for the global leverage rules. Given the way Basel works, banks now exempt from leverage – everyone but U.S. institutions – will rightly figure that the leverage ratio is hypothetical unless or until it’s finalized.

But, that problems remain isn’t to say that regulators collapsed under a barrage of big-bank lobbying. They blinked more than they should have on leverage, but the new rules are still tough on their own and a darn-sight tougher not only than what went before, but what will happen if debate drags on too long in hope yet again of Basel rules of unparalleled perfection in the eyes of all that behold them.

 

.