International bank regulators have finally agreed to a new set of rules to rein in financial excess, and the reviews thus far are cautiously positive. But the new capital requirements announced today by the Basel III accord are not actually as sturdy as they seem. By relying on definitions that can be manipulated by Wall Street, regulators have agreed to standards that place an international seal of approval on Lehman Brothers-style risk-taking.
In every financial crisis in history, banks have ruined themselves by overleveraging. "Leveraging" means "borrowing money," and "overleveraging" means "borrowing too much money." The basic process has been repeated hundreds of times: banks borrow tons of money and use it to place bets in the capital markets. When those bets are good, high leverage dramatically amplifies bank profits—and bank bonuses. But when those bets are bad, high leverage creates enormous losses—and enormous bailouts.
There are dozens of different ways to define leverage, but the most difficult one for banks to manipulate is also the simplest and most common-sense: total assets to total equity. If you have a lot of assets and not much equity, it means you're borrowing a ton of money to finance your business. It's going to be very hard to pay back all that debt if your banking bets start going bad.
By 2007, the official leverage ratio that Lehman Brothers reported to the public was 31-to-1 (see page 29 of their 2007 annual report). Despite lots of new tables about risk-weighted assets and Tier 1 capital, the only hard new leverage rule we have from Basel is a straight cap at 33-to-1. The means the new standards would leave plenty of room for the crazy risk-taking that brought down Lehman Brothers.
So why are so many smart people (Mike Konczal, Felix Salmon, Ezra Klein) saying good things about Basel III? Well, the new Basel capital standards are indeed a step forward—but that says more about how pathetic the current capital standards are than about how great the new rules are. For years, regulators have used very lax definitions of what constitutes "capital" in calculating their capital ratios. They've also allowed banks to use lax definitions of what constitutes an "asset," and allowed the minimum ratios to be far too low.
Basel III improves on the old regime by strengthening the definition of "capital" and raising the bar for the ratios themselves. It does not do much about the definition of an "asset," however, which leaves the new standards open to abuse.
So while it's good to see minimum capital ratios increase from 4 percent to 7 percent, the reality is less exciting. Those percentages do not correspond to hard asset values, but rather to "risk-weighted" asset values. Right now, risk-weights are basically determined by ratings on various securities—ratings which proved fundamentally unreliable and potentially fraudulent over the past decade. Combined with the fact that banks themselves get to apply the risk-weightings to their assets, the new Basel III standards are subject to an obvious source of abuse, and will encourage new risks. Banks will apply inappropriate risk-weights in order to take on more leverage while technically conforming to the letter of the law, and they'll systematically seek out assets that have inappropriately low risk-weights in order to take on higher leverage, fueling asset bubbles in things like, say, subprime mortgage-backed securities.
Under the standards released last night, international regulators did agree that banks must hold equity equal to 3 percent of total assets. That's as hard as any leverage or capital standard can be, it's just completely inadequate. To reiterate: 31-to-1 leverage brought down Lehman Brothers, and Basel III will permit 33-to-1 leverage.
All capital standards, however rigorous and however well-defined, depend on honest accounting. If a bank insists that an asset is worth a lot of money when it's really a worthless pile of garbage, banks are able to book phantom profits instead of taking losses. That's exactly what happened as the crisis unfolded, with regulators bending over backwards to offer accounting leniency. One agency actively cooked the books for banks, while Congress browbeat the board who oversees accounting standards into letting banks make up their own asset values. That accounting "flexibility" is still in place today, with banks refusing to write down all kinds of mortgages, especially second-lien mortgages, which are borderline worthless once housing prices fall.
But these accounting absurdities aren't really a knock on Basel III—they're a problem inherent in any attempt to rein in banks by resorting to capital requirements alone. A hard, meaningful cap on leverage would be a dramatic improvement over what Basel III has produced. But still better would be a market in which banks were not so bloated that their failure could jeopardize the entire economy. We have to break-up the big Wall Street banks.
Yet U.S. policymakers have refused to go this route, and as a result, all of our financial stability eggs are in the Basel III basket. So while the new rules are a legitimate step forward, they're not up to the task that Congress and the Treasury Department have set for them. Basel III will not be enough to prevent another massive financial crisis in the near future.