Last Updated Apr 17, 2009 7:16 PM EDT
Yet not all lightly regulated companies and instruments pose the same risks. Hedge funds, for example, did not pose excessive risks to the banks they traded with, and the vast majority of credit default swap derivatives were not written on troubled structured securities. These hedge funds and CDSes did not cause the collapse of financial institutions, but because of their potential to be misused, new rules should ensure that regulated companies use them safely.
Bank regulators should continue to and even increase monitoring of banks' exposure to hedge funds to guard against the potential that banks may lend too much money to hedge funds or be overexposed to the funds as derivatives counterparties. Regulators should also consider limiting the ability of banks to sponsor and manage their own internal hedge funds to guard against depositors' money being put at risk. What they should not be doing is adding to the regulations that already apply to hedge funds.
The deeper problems
Hedge funds and CDSes did not themselves create unmanageable risks. As I noted in my testimony before Congress last November, and as likewise recognized by several New York University financial economists, hedge funds did not initiate the financial crisis. Hedge funds have felt and will continue to feel major pain as a result of the crisis, but their lack of direct involvement in the financial crisis suggests that they're already properly regulated as private investment companies and well governed as limited partnerships. This is reflected in the fact that hedge funds' average use of leverage in recent years was an estimated 3.9 to 1 and was decreasing before the shakeout in the second half of 2008, whereas major U.S. investment banks kept increasing their leverage which ranged from 20 to 1 to as high as 33 to 1 (see this SEC Report, Appendix IX).
The main problem with CDSes, which allow any party to sell protection against credit risks that the buyer may be exposed to, was that they allowed banks and insurance companies to concentrate too much mortgage-backed security risk in their portfolios. Unmanageable losses from CDSes reflected but did not create the deeper problems in the structured securities owned by banks and the failure of private parties and regulators to diligently supervise that risk.
It was solely AIG's CDSes written on structured mortgage-related securities held by banks that led to the collateral calls ruinous to AIG and the federal bailout this past September, for example. Those CDSes made up only about 10 percent of AIG's total CDS obligations at the beginning of 2008. But the Office of Thrift Supervision, which oversaw AIG, failed to prevent the company's subsidiary from selling too many CDSes. To best prevent the over-concentration of CDS risk of the type that occurred with bond issuers and AIG, regulation should seek to limit the use of CDSes when sold by insurance companies or their unregulated subsidiaries and affiliates.
It would be a mistake to interpret the financial crisis as having shown that there is a simple relationship between risk and regulation. There is not. The task for policymakers is to make sure that sectors of the economy subject to different types of regulation have healthy relationships and creating a system where private risk management is encouraged and not taken for granted.
Follow Blog War on regulating the financial sector:
- Monday, April 13, Mark Thoma: Avoid the Next Crisis: Regulate Shadow Banks
- Monday, April 13, Houman Shadab: Don't Blame All the Shadow Banks
- Tuesday, April 14, Mark Thoma: Don't Leave the Door Open to Another Financial Crisis
- Tuesday, April 14, Houman Shadab: Why Too Much Regulation Increases Risk
- Wednesday, April 15, Mark Thoma: Getting in Front of the Next Crisis Requires Broad-Based Regulation
- Wednesday, April 15, Houman Shadab: Why Didn't Regulators See the Current Crisis Coming?
- Thursday, April 16, Mark Thoma: Why We Need Smart Financial-System Regulation Now
- Thursday, April 16, Houman Shadab: Shadow Banks Don't Threaten Healthy Banks
- Friday, April 17, Mark Thoma: Why Self-Regulation of the Financial System Won't Work
- Friday, April 17, Houman Shadab: Important Principles for a New Financial Regulatory System