Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Basel III and bank capital for the long-run

Craig Pirrong and David at Deus ex Macchiato are worried that the minimum capital requirements set by Basel III will face the same problems as those created by earlier versions of Basel:  As banks seek to minimize their capital positions they are all pushed by the regulations into the same trades, this leads to the growth of unregulated financial sectors and crowded trades.

The question I have for proponents of this view is:  Why would a bank seek to minimize its capital position, when the purpose of capital is to protect the firm against unpredicted — or even unpredictable — losses?  There’s a reason Jamie Dimon has been feted for his “fortress balance sheet” approach to the crisis that everyone — including Chuck Prince — could see coming.

Whenever minimum capital requirements are the determinants of bank behavior, that’s a good indicator of a deep structural problem with the financial system, because it means that you have a financial system populated by banks that are more concerned with maintaining profitability in the short-run than with ensuring that the bank is a viable entity in the long-run.  In short, when banks are maintaining only minimal levels of capital, you have pretty clear evidence that repeated bailouts have resulted in the complete perversion of financial system incentives.

Note:  8-22-10 toned down the language a little.

Good speculation vs bad speculation

Betsey Jensen, a family farm owner and instructor in farm management, has an opinion piece in the NYT today defending speculation:

My biggest worry is what the legislation will do to speculators in the market. These are the traders who buy and sell wheat or corn without taking physical control of the crops. Farmers love speculators when they are buyers, helping push prices higher, and we despise them when they are sellers, driving prices down. Regardless of their position in the market, I am well aware that the system would not function without them — there wouldn’t be enough liquidity, or money, in the market.

According to the trading commission, about one-third of the long positions in hard red spring wheat futures, which is what I trade on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, are owned by speculators. If speculators were driven out of the market, it would be as if I’d lost a third of my customers.

Will speculators continue to provide market liquidity if the legislation ends up increasing margin requirements — the amount of cash an investor must deposit before buying futures — or restricting how much or how often they can trade? Changes like these could do a lot of damage to agricultural markets.

Contrast this traditional Chicago (referring as much to the pits as to the University) view of speculation with the current corporate view of the state of modern financial speculation.  The FT reports that a survey of “European companies that depend on raw materials markets” finds:

But the companies surveyed ranked financial hedging as the least effective way of managing volatile raw materials costs, believing instead that inventory management and flexible pricing systems were more valuable tools.

In other words even as small American farmers are defending speculation in financial markets in the New York Times, many of the biggest corporations trading commodities are giving up on the pricing provided by those markets.

I’m repeating myself, but here goes:

Speculation is good when the speculator trades with someone in the real economy and therefore bears real economic risk.  Speculation is bad when the market is dominated by speculators trading with each other and, as they become a tiny fraction of the contracts traded, contracts bearing real economic risk stop determining prices.  Futures markets are successful only if the amount and nature of speculation is careful monitored to ensure that “enterprise [does not become] the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation” and “the capital development of the country [does not become] a by-product of the activities of a casino.”

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