Regulators have been making a concerted push for banks to hold more equity as a protection against loss and overly-optimistic valuation of trading assets. But the head of the Bank of International Settlements, Jamie Caruna, argued at a secret (not) central bankers’ conference in Sydney that banks also need to carry more in the way of liquid assets (note that this recommendation apparently came in the form of a paper, but we can find no such document at this hour at the BIS website).
Caruna recommended that banks hold enough to allow them to survive a month without access to funding. Note that idea only seems radical now, since banks have spent decades perfecting the art of running lean. The rule of thumb in banking is to lend out $9 of every $10 in deposits. In the 1960s, only $5 of loans versus $10 in deposit was considered prudent.
Capital and liquidity buffers need to be built up in good times so that they can be drawn down in bad times,” Caruana said. “Banks should hold a sufficient stock of high-quality liquid assets to be able to survive a month-long loss of access to funding markets.”
The Basel Committee proposed in December that banks should keep assets that are simple to value and wouldn’t have to be sold at fire-sale discounts during times of stress.
Lenders should also increase the amount of equity and retained earnings they hold to help them cope with losses better, the Basel Committee said last year. Banks’ core capital should exclude stock with preferential dividend rights to reduce risks to the financial system, it said in a report.
“Capital requirements are the speed limits of banking,” Caruana said today. “Capital requirements should draw on deep pockets that can absorb losses. An idea worth exploring is whether those pockets might be usefully deepened by debt that is convertible to equity when times are bad.”
Simple and slow banking is, of course, less profitable in good times than the kind we’ve had over the last two decades. But banks were kept comfortably profitable and low risk via strict regulation for nearly five decades without having a major crisis (from the 1930s through the sovereign lending mess of the late 1970s). Although the financiers will fight it tooth and nail, simple, stupid banking looks a lot better than what we have right now.