Friday, 3 April 2009

To regulate finance, try the market

This idea comes from Oliver Hart and Luigi Zingales at The Argument at Foreign Policy. Hart and Zingales ask How can we setup a regulatory system to ensure that this financial crisis is a one-time event. The first question Hart and Zingales ask is So what's wrong with bankruptcy for financial giants? A good question. Their answer
In a free-market economy, bankruptcy accomplishes two crucial goals: it resolves conflicting claims and it shifts control away from incumbent management. By penalizing owners and managers, bankruptcy gives firms an incentive to repay their debts, thus permitting them to raise capital in the first place. But for LFIs, bankruptcy is a dangerous option. Given their size and the dense web of derivative and short-term financing contracts that these institutions have, bankruptcy spreads uncertainty throughout the economy, as we saw in the case of Lehman Brothers. So, we want a system that achieves the goals of bankruptcy, but at the same time ensures that these other contracts are safe.
Next, how can this be achieved?
Here, we can learn from a common market practice: margin accounts. In a margin account, an investor buys stock and puts down only part of the cost. When the stock price drops, the broker who extended a loan for the rest of the stock price asks the investor to post new collateral. The investor then has a choice: He can post the collateral, thereby re-establishing the safety of his position, or he can liquidate his holding, allowing the broker to be paid in full.
But what does this have to do with the large financial firms that could get into trouble?
This analogy can help us figure out how much capital large financial institutions should be required to keep on hand. The answer: an LFI will have to post enough collateral (equity) to insure that its liabilities are always paid in full. When the fluctuation in the value of the underlying assets puts creditors at risk, the LFI's equity holders will be faced with a margin call: They will either have to inject new capital or lose their equity. In both cases the creditors will be protected
What is the difference between margin calls and this new capital requirement system? Basically, the trigger mechanism.
In a margin account, the broker looks at the value of the investments (which is easily determined since all assets are traded) and compares the value of the collateral posted with the possible losses the position might have in the following days. Creditors of LFIs, however, are often dispersed and so unable to coordinate to make a margin call. And since most LFI assets, such as commercial loans and home equity lines, are non-standardized and not frequently traded, their value is hard to assess. Another mechanism will be needed to determine when the margin is too thin.

One possibility is to leave the decision of when to make a margin call in the hands of a regulator. However, the risk here is twofold. Either the regulator is powerful, leaving financial institutions exposed to the risk of abuse, or the regulator is weak and will be unduly influenced by failing institutions and intervene too late.

Regulators should therefore rely on a market-based trigger: a credit default swap (CDS). Despite being viewed by many as a "financial weapon of mass destruction," CDSs are like any tool that can be used wisely or foolishly. In this context, they are potentially some of the best regulatory instruments available. A credit default swap on an LFI is an insurance claim that pays off if that institution fails and creditors are not paid in full. Since the CDS is a "bet" on the institution's strength (or weakness), its price reflects the probability that the LFI debt will not be repaid. Such CDSs, in essence, indicate the risk that a large financial institution will fail.

In our mechanism, when the CDS price rises above a critical value (indicating that the institution has reached an unacceptable threshold of weakness), the regulator would force the LFI to issue equity until the CDS price and risk of failure back down. If the LFI fails to do this within a predetermined period of time, the regulator will take over.
So what you end up with is a system not too dissimilar to bankruptcy, and it achieves the goals of bankruptcy, in so far as it disciplines the management and shareholders of firms, and does so without imposing any of the systemic costs. An interesting idea.

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