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How to deal with an insolvent bank

Sitting in a conference talking about living wills isn’t how you want to spend your typical day, but it did spark a whole bunch of thoughts in my mind.

The FSA issued their consultative paper 11/16 last summer.

The idea is that every bank with assets over £15 billion must produce a Recovery and Resolution Plan (RRP) by the end of this June.

The RRP = a ‘living will’.

I’m not going to delve into the depths of such matters – you can read all about it on the FSAs website - except to say that the RRP comprises a Recovery Plan and a Resolution Plan.

The Recovery Plan must include a sufficient range of material and credible options to address a range of crisis scenarios, and show how the institution would address these issues to continue operating in a stable way, avoiding capital shortfalls and pressures on liquidity.

The Resolution Plan would show how a firm would wind-down if it failed for any reason, including how it would avoid any impact to taxpayers and the public funds.

All well and good.

Or is it.

Whilst I like the idea of a living will for a zombie bank, it strikes me that we still haven’t gotten to the heart of the matter.

The question is really: what do we do with an insolvent bank that could bring down the economy of our nation?

The answer is not to let a bank become so big that it could bring down the economy of the nation.

So the real answer should actually be more to do with limitations on bank size, structure and asset base leverage, rather than getting it to open up a living will.

To me, this is what the Vickers report separating investment and retail banking, and the Volcker Rule shutting down prop trading is all about.

So the two work in tandem – a bank must shrink its size to be big enough to fail and, if it does, have a clear plan for how to deal with failure.

Yet even then, it doesn’t solve the issues.

For example, the average life of a company in the S&P500 is just 15 years today; most banks have been around for over 100 years.

The reason why banks have been around so long is down to governments regulating and maintaining them, rather than any c0mpetitive forces.

If banks weren’t protected by regulations, they would fail far more often, just as commercial firms do.

And if a large commercial firm fails – Rover, BP or Tesco – they just get acquired or shutdown. 

They don’t bring down the entire economy.

When a bank fails, it brings down the whole economy because the economy runs on finance.

Finance is the oil in commerce – no oil, no commerce.

That’s why banks aren’t allowed to fail.

It’s also why we realise the mistake when they do.

A small bank – a Northern Rock – can fail, but it won’t shake the fabric of the economy of system.,

A large bank – a Citibank or Royal Bank of Scotland – is different.

At the height of the banking crisis, UK bank liabilities were 400% of GDP: £5 trillion against GDP of £1.2 trillion – and the Royal Bank of Scotland alone had more liabilities (£1.8 trillion) than the UK’s GDP.

So now we get into the heart of the matter.

How do you deal with an insolvent bank that could break the economy?

A living will is one piece.

The separation of investment and commercial banking (Vickers) is another.

But the real test would be to go back to the trigger of this crisis: would these regulations have dealt with Lehman Brothers collapse any better?

There are two or three things that come to light in this area.

First, when Lehmans collapsed they had $400 billion of debt on their books.  That debt was linked to global credit default swap derivatives (CDS) and amplified by a factor of 20, according to Barclays Capital.

So for every $1 of debt that Lehmans were exposed to, the markets were exposed to $20 due to their AAA-rating backing derivatives traded through the OTC markets.

Hence, the real exposure of risk the markets felt on September 14th 2008 was a $8 trillion market collapse, not a small bank folding.

Do living wills, Vickers and Volcker deal with this spaghetti of complexity that each banks’ balance sheet is linked with?

Not yet.

Second, when Lehmans collapsed the company most wrapped up in their web of debt was AIG.  AIG Financial Products in London had been trading CDS to such an extent that most of the market exposure landed on their doorstep and dragged the firm down.

However, AIG Financial Products was also a complex web of structure.

AIG was the largest insurance firm in America, trading in risks through their London office which was registered for European operations in Paris.

So three regulators were meant to track the global risks being traded by one global firm through a web of global offices.

Fail.

Do living wills, Vickers and Volcker deal with this web of globality that each banks’ balance sheet is linked with?

Not yet.

The two points made here are making it clear that the regulators need a global level playing field if their attempts to regulate the markets successfully are going to truly succeed.

But a global level playing field is also impossible, as no country can agree with another on taxation, fiscal and monetary policies.

Just look at the EU right now, and the transaction tax, if you want to see why a global level playing field is not going to work.

Sorry to be a downer Messrs Osbourne, Barnier and Bernanke but, as one speaker said yesterday, “the worst mistake regulators can make is to believe in their own rules”.

Point taken.

 

Postnote: yes, I know that OTC Derivatives regulations with a single data repository is addressing some of the last points made here, but do bear in mind that they haven't yet agreed how to define 'speculative' versus 'commercial' derivatives locally, let alone globally, and you get a sense of why this isn't working yet.

 

About Chris M Skinner

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, the Finanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here…

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