Over at the New Rambler Review (which I'm really enjoying), I've got a review of Philip Wallach's legal history of the financial crisis. The kick-off offers a riff on the crisis:
The government’s response to the financial crisis was an example of messy policymaking that occasioned a happy ending, although not everyone sees it that way. Some are unsure about the ending – they have decried the very modest meting out of punishment that followed the recovery of the economy. Others are unsure that the policymaking was messy – they are likely to think of the government’s response to the financial crisis as an inevitable manifestation of executive preeminence as the doer of last resort, institutionally capable of acting when courts and legislatures cannot.
But I will take a stable economy over a few prison sentences, especially when it is possible that you can’t have both at the same time. And you won’t convince me that the things government officials did during the crisis – last minute deals, concluded late at night and paired with creative reimaginings of underused statutes and regular resorts to Congress for more legislation – was the mark of the smooth progress of an imperial presidency.
Go over there and read the whole thing!
My colleague Peter Conti-Brown has an op-ed in the Times today regarding the Fed's crazy regional bank system. A taste:
Congress should let the Board of Governors appoint and remove the 12 Reserve Bank presidents, as they may do with other employees of the board. The 12 regional Feds would then become branch offices of our central bank, continuing to do research and data analysis, while leaving policy making to Washington.
This plan has several benefits. First, the next time the Fed makes an egregious mistake — like failing to predict the meltdown of the housing market — we would know for certain whom to hold accountable. Second, it would allow the Fed to modernize the distribution of the 12 Reserve Banks. There is strong evidence that the cities for the 12 banks were chosen as much for politics as economics. In 2015, do we really need two regional Feds (Kansas City and St. Louis) in Missouri, but only one (San Francisco) west of Texas?
Everything Peter writes about the Fed is worth reading, and this is no exception. Give it a look here.
I was looking at Dan Scwarcz's lastest paper on Shadow Insurance, which is a thing:
Shadow insurance – defined as life insurers’ reinsurance of policies with captive insurers that are not “authorized” reinsurers and do not maintain a rating from a private rating agency – creates important risks to policyholders, the insurance industry, and potentially even the broader financial system. Although the standard state regulatory safeguards help mitigate some of these risks, they leave other hazards of shadow insurance largely unchecked. Even granting that shadow insurance likely helps reduce the cost of insurance associated with the excessive conservatism of some state reserving rules, the practice ultimately undermines insurance markets by impeding accurate risk assessments and tradeoffs by policyholders, regulators, and other market participants.
Of course, there may be a real world reason for this - shadow institutions are in theory nimbly entering markets that heavily regulated incumbents can't serve well. This is the regulation is bad story of the growth of shadow finance.
Banco Santander's American sub is in trouble. Big trouble with the government. Supervisors think it is undercapitalized, doesn't adequately keep track of its money, and is led badly. The Wall Street Journal put the story about their concerns on A1.
So, what's next? A takeover? A fine? A lawsuit?
The Federal Reserve issued a stinging lecture to Spanish bank Banco Santander SA,faulting the lender’s U.S. unit for failing to meet regulators’ standards on a range of basic business operations.
Oh. A lecture. Well that doesn't...
The Fed didn’t fine the bank but reserved the right to do so later and required the bank to write a series of remedial plans.
So a warning or whatever...
the Fed had already scolded Santander for paying an unauthorized dividend earlier in 2014 without the Fed’s required permission.
[Santander CEO] Ms. Botín spoke for 15 minutes by phone with [Fed Governor] Mr. Tarullo on Nov. 10.
She met with him again in Washington on Dec. 10, when they talked privately for an hour
Oh, and meetings. Still, there have been resignations and promises to change the whole governance structure of the company. So these talking-tos must have been absolutely hair-raising. For drama, you really can beat bank supervision, amiright?
My article on the administrative law and practice of the FOMC is available on SSRN, and has come out as part of a great symposium in Law and Contemporary Problems, with articles by Jim Cox, John Coates, Kate Judge, and many other people smarter than me. Do give the paper a download, and let me know what you think. Here's the abstract:
The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), which controls the supply of money in the United States, may be the country’s most important agency. But there has been no effort to come to grips with its administrative law; this article seeks to redress that gap. The principal claim is that the FOMC’s legally protected discretion, combined with the imperatives of bureaucratic organization in an institution whose raison d’etre is stability, has turned the agency into one governed by internally developed tradition in lieu of externally imposed constraints. The article evaluates how the agency makes decisions through a content analysis of FOMC meeting transcripts during the period when Alan Greenspan served as its chair, and reviews the minimal legal constraints on its decisionmaking doctrinally.
In addition to being your one stop shop for the legal constraints on the FOMC, the paper was an opportunity to do a fun content analysis on Greenspan era transcripts, and to see whether any simple measures correlated with changes in the federal funds rate. In honor of Jay Wexler's Supreme Court study, I even checked to see if [LAUGHTER] made a difference in interest rates. No! It does not! But more people may show up for meetings where the interest rate is going to change, tiny effect, but maybe something for obsessive hedge fund types. Anyway, give it a look.
Greece is going to close its banks and stock market until it sorts out how to prevent its citizens from withdrawing their assets from their financial intermediaries post haste. This is a pretty old school technique - the US did some of these to prevent panic withdrawals during the Great Depression, and the UK did the same during the currency crisis of 1968, during which it also shut the London Gold Market for two weeks. New technology has made these holidays less oppressive - ATMs with withdrawal limits were kept open when Cyprus did this. But it is still quite the heavy hand of the state, and one of the first resorts when a bank run is really on. As they say, developing.
The AIG suit is over, and the shareholder who was zeroed out by the government won a judgment without damages. These kinds of moral victories are cropping up against the government: a Georgia judge just ruled that the SEC's ALJ program was unconstitutional, but easily fixed. The Free Enterprise Fund held that PCAOB was illegal, but not in any way that would undo what it had achieved. And now AIG. A right without a remedy isn't supposed to be a right at all, but it is true that this is incremental discipline of the government for business regulation excesses. That won't make any of these plaintiffs happy, however.
The Washington Post has a story on the AIG and Fannie and Freddie cases, which, as you might remember, use the Takings Clause to go after the government for its financial crisis related efforts. In theory, that's not the worst way to hold the government accountable for breaking the china in its crisis response - damages after the fact rectify wrongs without getting courts in the way. And I've written about both cases, here and here.
Anyway, the Post has checked in on the cases, and the view is "you people should be worrying more about the possibility that the government may lose.
Greenberg is asking the court to award him and other AIG shareholders at least $23 billion from the Treasury. He says that’s to compensate them for the 80 percent of AIG stock that the Federal Reserve demanded as a condition for its bailout. Judge Thomas Wheeler has repeatedly signaled his agreement with Greenberg. A decision is expected any day.
In the Fannie and Freddie case, the decision is further off, with the trial set to begin in the fall. The hedge funds are challenging the government’s decision to confiscate all of the firms’ annual profits, even if those profits exceed the 10 percent dividend rate that the Treasury had initially demanded. This “profit sweep” effectively prevents the firms from ever returning the government’s $187 billion in capital and freeing themselves from government control.
Earlier this year, Judge Margaret Sweeney refused to dismiss the case and gave lawyers for the hedge funds the right to sift through the memos and e-mails of government officials involved. Within weeks, Fannie and Freddie shares, which had been trading at about $1.50, started trading as high as $3 based on rumors that the documents revealed inconsistencies in government officials’ statements.
They checked in with me on the article, so there's that, too.
We've been speaking about banker ethics that week, though it is still unclear what, exactly, supervisors want when they call for it. Maybe the network-of-regulatory-networks the Financial Stability Board will come up with an answer. The G-7 has just asked it to develop a code of ethics that would apply to all of the banks across the world.
“This kind of malpractice has got to do with the dominant company culture but not just that -- it’s also about the behavior of individuals, who should not be absolved from responsibility,” Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann said in the German city of Dresden on Friday, announcing the G-7’s lead. The code “should be a voluntary self-commitment made by the financial industry, an international initiative,” he said.
“Currently a certain number of disparate codes exist in different jurisdictions, and they were often ignored,” Banque de France Governor Christian Noyer said after the Dresden meeting. “We need to pull all this together, so that we have a code that is coherent and applicable everywhere.”
It will be interesting to see how voluntary this voluntary code is. And how the FSB is going to harmonize the cultures of, say, Japanese conglomerates and American four branchers. But it is either an example of how financial regulation is increasingly done at the global level ... or an example of regulators saying: we give up! All our rules are meaningless! Please be nicer!
My soon to be colleague Peter Conti-Brown and Brookings author (and future Glom guest) Philip Wallach are debating whether the Fed had the power to bail out Lehman Brothers in the middle of the financial crisis. The Fed's lawyers said, after the fact, that no, they didn't have the legal power to bail out Lehman. Peter says yes they did, Philip says no, and I'm with Peter on this one - the discretion that the Fed had to open up its discount window to anyone was massive. In fact, I'm not even sure that Dodd-Frank, which added some language to the section, really reduced Fed discretion much at all. It's a pretty interesting debate, though, and goes to how much you believe the law constrains financial regulators.
as I discuss at much greater length in my forthcoming book, The Power and Independence of the Federal Reserve, the idea that 13(3) presented any kind of a statutory barrier is pure spin. There’s no obvious hook for judicial review (and no independent mechanism for enforcement), and the authority given is completely broad. Wallach calls this authority “vague” and “ambiguous,” but I don’t see it: broad discretion is not vague for being broad. In relevant part, the statute as of 2008 provided that “in unusual and exigent circumstances,” five members of the Fed’s Board of Governors could lend money through the relevant Federal Reserve Bank to any “individual, partnership, or corporation” so long as the loan is “secured to the satisfaction of the Federal reserve bank.” Before making the loan, though, the relevant Reserve Bank has to “obtain evidence” that the individual, partnership, or corporation in question “is unable to secure adequate credit accommodations from other banking institutions.”
In other words, so long as the Reserve Bank was “satisfied” by the security offered and there is “evidence”—some, any, of undefined quality—the loan could occur.
I (and most observers) read the “satisfaction” requirement as meaning that the Fed can only lend against what it genuinely believes to be sound collateral—i.e., it must act as a (central) bank, and not as a stand-in fiscal authority. The Fed’s assessment of Lehman Brothers as deeply insolvent at the time of the crisis meant that it did not have the legal power to lend. Years later, we have some indication that this assessment may have been flawed, but I don’t take the evidence uncovered as anything like dispositive. As I note in the book, the Fed’s defenders make a strong substantive case that the Fed was right to see Lehman as beyond helping as AIG (rescued days later) was not.
And the debate will be going on over at the Yale J on Reg for the rest of the week. Do give it a look.
Lawsky had a tough reputation, and was probably the most challenging state corporate regulator since Spitzer (the Times: " a polarizing four-year tenure that shook up the sleepy world of financial regulation in New York"). And I can say that I knew him when - we were in the same unit at DOJ. But really, I'm awfully impressed that 1. he is leaving to start his own firm, continuing the craze for boutiques that has animated investment bankers, and now, perhaps their former regulators? And 2. this excellent front page from the Village Voice.
Apparently, the new firm will specialize in digital security. Congratulations, Ben!
There's a proposal out there, with support from various surprising corners of the political spectrum, to get rid of the NY Fed's place on the FOMC, on account of it being too close to Wall Street, big banks, and so on. I wrote about it for DealBook - do check it out. A taste:
I have my doubts about any legislation that threatens the central bank’s independence, but would evaluate it by looking to three of my pet axioms of financial regulation.
When I apply these axioms, I conclude that the New York Fed should not lose its vote. The short-term benefits are unclear, making the change look like a symbolic effort to shift the long-term focus of the Fed away from Wall Street. But Wall Street is important, and deserves its focus. There’s no reason to believe that the New York Fed will do a better or different job on Wall Street if it loses its automatic vote.
Do let me know what you think, either in the comments or otherwise.....
Greenberg is suing the government for treating his firm unconstitutionally differently than other firms bailed out during the financial crisis - he argues, correctly, that AIG got killed, and was used as a vehicle to pay AIG's struggling counterparties out at 100 cents on the dollar. Whether that's a taking, given 1) that the government couldn't possibly treat everyone identically during the crisis, and 2) that AIG would have failed without the government's intervention, making the measure of damages difficult, is why many people have found the case to be unlikely.
So now that Greenberg is getting some good rulings, and sympathetic questions from the bench, the received wisdom seems to be that he is doing surprisingly well (though if he wins, an appeal is certain). I haven't read every transcript, but I do wonder whether the "day in court" effect is at work here. In appellate cases, I think that oral argument is an excellent predictor of the outcome. But at trial, with appeal likely, savvy judges often let the side that is going to lose put on plenty of evidence, and do well with motions, so that there can be no allegation of bias, and to minimize things to complain about on appeal. They get, in other words, their day in court. I'm not sure if that's what's going on there, but I know that when I was a litigator, I wouldn't want the court to treat long-shot adversaries with contempt, but rather with tolerance.
How can we persuade bankers to follow the law? Other regulators looks to a familiar calculus inspired by Holmes' "bad man." You write regulations that are clear enough, and threatening enough, to induce obedience by someone who, left to their own devices, would do the things the law is meant to prohibit. So you provide for treble damages for illegal combinations in restraint of trade, you beef up enforcement where detection is difficult, and so on.
But banking regulation is increasingly talking less about clear laws, more about broad principles, and also about "ethical banking." The New York Fed President has brought the ethics question up, as has the Comptroller of the Currency. And check out, via Justin Fox, this new oath that every Dutch banker must take:
I swear within the boundaries of the position that I hold in the banking sector
- that I will perform my duties with integrity and care;
- that I will carefully balance all the interests involved in the enterprise, namely those of customers, shareholders, employees and the society in which the bank operates;
- that in this balancing, I will put the interests of the customer first;
- that I will behave in accordance with the laws, regulations and codes of conduct that apply to me;
- that I will keep the secrets entrusted to me;
- that I will make no misuse of my banking knowledge;
- that I will be open and transparent, and am aware of my responsibility to society;
- that I will endeavor to maintain and promote confidence in the banking system.
So truly help me God.
I'm unaware of other regulatory schemes do this sort of thing, though lawyers certainly have codes of conduct, and I suppose that accountants do as well. What is it supposed to do? Three possibilities:
- Regulators think that ethical bankers are likely to be the traditional "boring bankers" who took less risks - and believe that talking to them about ethics and requiring oaths will induce this sort of weltanschauung.
- Regulators don't know what to do to make banking safe, and so are delegating the safe banking question to the industry, at least in part, by lecturing them about ethics, and hoping that they'll devise practices in this light that will make banking safer
- This is an effort, by regulators and bankers, to rehabilitate the reputation of the industry by proclaiming ethics commitments.
If you have views about the new role of ethics in banking regulation, let me know in the comments.
One of the things you now have to do if you're a bank with over $50 billion in American assets is to file a resolution plan, or living will, with the authorities - this basically states how you are going to dispose of the company if it becomes insolvent. After passing all the big American banks through an annual set of stress tests, the regulators have turned their attention abroad:
In their review of the resolution plans from BNP Paribas, HSBC Holdings plc, and The Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc, the agencies noted some improvements from the original plans. However, the agencies have jointly identified specific shortcomings with the 2014 resolution plans that will need to be addressed in the 2015 submissions.
It's annoying enough to be told by some foreign regulator that you aren't sufficiently prepared for a disaster, given that you're home regulator is telling you that you are. But it must be especially annoying if you are a state-owned bank, which RBS is, to the tune of 66% of its outstanding shares. That's almost a foreign relations issue. And given that the resolution of international banks like these is one of the most difficult issues facing bank regulators - there has been a failed effort to create a framework going on since Lehman Brothers failed so chaotically - it must be grating to be told to revise the plan:
The agencies will require that the annual plans submitted by these three institutions on or before December 31, 2015, demonstrate that the firms are making significant progress to address all the shortcomings identified in the letters, and are taking actions to improve their resolvability under the U.S. bankruptcy code. These actions include:
- Amending the financial contracts entered into by U.S. affiliates to provide for a stay of certain early termination rights of external counterparties triggered by insolvency proceedings to the extent those rights are not addressed by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association 2014 Resolution Stay Protocol;
- Ensuring the continuity of shared services that support critical operations and core business lines throughout the resolution process; and
- Demonstrating operational capabilities for resolution preparedness, such as the ability to produce reliable information in a timely manner.
Those are actual requirements! The first one anyway. The other two could be goalposts that just get moved further away next time. Anyway, one question in the brave new world of international banking supervision is whether supervision is a tool that home banks are using for competitive advantage against foreign banks. It will be interesting to see whether this sort of charge is leveled at this sort of action.