Motivating transparency: what we could do about too big to fail
In this previous post, I promised a follow-up post about how we can devise a system in which large banks are actually motivated to be transparent about what is inside their portfolios. We have also discussed why the current system doesn’t work this way and that the banks have every reason to obfuscate their holdings, and in fact make loads of money by doing so. This makes appropriate external risk management difficult or impossible.
I have actually thought about this problem quite a bit since that post, and I (and a friend in finance) have come up with two quasi ideas, which hopefully together add up to be as good as one complete idea. The first comes under the category, “add stuff to what we have now”, whereas the second comes under the category, “initiate a new system which will over time replace the one we have”. Both of these systems rely on a good understanding of the underlying problem of the current system, namely the concept of “too big to fail.”
If you’re reading this and you have comments about either idea, please do comment. We are hoping for lots of feedback so we can improve the details.
Too Big to Fail
Recall that the way it works when hedge funds want to trade stuff: they have prime brokers, i.e. banks like Deutche and Goldman Sachs and Bank of America (see list of the biggies here). When the brokers don’t like the trade, or think it’s not sufficiently liquid, or think that the hedge fund may fail for any reason, they demand that the hedge funds post margin. That way if the bet goes sour there is a limited amount of risk that the brokerage could lose. As soon as a position starts to look riskier, which could happen because of recent volatility or lack of price transparency, the amount of margin that needs to be posted normally increases, putting pressure on the hedge fund to liquidate suspicious assets.
In other words, there is a real cost to hedge funds for trading in illiquid or complex securities, namely their cash is tied up in bank accounts with their brokers. This is not to say that they don’t take large risks, but there is a limit of how much risk they can take because of the “posting margin” system.
By contrast, big banks don’t post margins. They trade with hedge funds, of course, since hedge funds trade with them, but it’s the banks who demand margin, not the hedge funds (actually there’s a historical exception to this rule, namely Paulson’s hedge fund demanded margin from its brokers during the 2008 financial crisis).
This asymmetrical situation begs the question, why do hedge funds have to post margin but the big banks don’t? Two reasons: first, banks have access to Federal funds, and second, they are deemed to big to fail. [I admit I don't know exactly why the access to Federal funds is granted to banks, nor do I understand exactly what the effect is. But I do think it's a pertinent fact which is why I've included it here. Please do comment if you know more! Also note it may be a red herring since Goldman Sachs didn't have access to Fed funds until the crisis.]
This “too big to fail” guarantee is a huge problem, which has only gotten more precise (since we’ve seen the bailout and now everyone knows the guarantee is there) and larger (because, in the end, the net result of all the 2008 crisis is fewer, larger banks) and about which absolutely nothing seems to be getting done. The disingenuous whining of greedy bankers like Jamie Dimon serves as a smokescreen for the fact that, if anything, banks are presumably waltzing into the next phase of their life with more power and fewer checks than they could have dreamed about in August 2008.
Idea #1: make banks post margins
“Too big to fail” means that it is assumed that the bank will be rescued by the government if it makes huge bad bets that threaten to bring them down. Two of the reasons the government can be counted on to bail out banks are first, that the deposits of normal Americans are at risk, which is discussed below in Idea #2, and second, that a bankruptcy would be catastrophically complicated, which we discuss here. One result of the guarantee is that hedge funds don’t bother demanding margins, which makes the banks riskier, which makes the “too big to fail” guarantee even worse.
What if the lawmakers enforced a symmetry of posted margins? We have to be precise, because actually there are different kinds of margins that traders are forced to post.
First, there’s the margin you post in the sense of “keep $x as a deposit for the position”, the thinking being that even if things go south, the broker could liquidate at something better than $x below current marked price in a hurry. This is the initial margin.
Next there’s the “your position lost $10 today, so you need to give me $10″ (this is called variation margin). This is the most likely way to get margin called.
The idea here is to require brokers to post initial margin just as hedge funds do now. More precisely, the idea would be to let the two parties negotiate on the initial margin, which could be more for hedge funds since they may well be riskier, but then once it’s set to have complete symmetry of variation margin.
Occasionally, in risky environments, the initial margin of $x is increased, which causes a lot of unraveling, and possibly cascading waves of problems which set off a panic. We’d need to have rules about how often this can happen to avoid the “symmetric of variation margin” rule from being bypassed with lots of initial margin modifications. The symmetry aspect should keep the margin contracts from allowing this to happen too often.
The overall goal would be to devise a system that would:
- Encourage the posting and calling of (variation) margins,
- Encourage sufficient sizing of initial margin,
- Encourage early calls and liquidating if there is doubt that a variation margin call could be met, and
- Simplify the bankruptcy rules on ownership of assets, especially for illiquid or complex assets.
The initial margin can be thought of as the dollar amount a price could move by between a margin call and it being paid. It should not be thought of as an asset for either party (and therefore the accounting of the various margins should be carefully considered, but I’m no accounting expert), and certainly should not be able to be recycled to buy more stuff, i.e. add to ones leverage, or offered towards capital requirements. Moreover, if it is indeed symmetric, that would mean if a bank claims to only need to post n dollars in initial margin, then the hedge fund can turn around and use that same number for that same trade, at least up to an understood discount.
As for bankruptcy, we should start with the following. When a margin call is made by one side and it isn’t met, the person making the call:
- keeps ALL the margin,
- gets the security, and
- is a (super-senior level of seniority) claimaint to the variation margin they posted with the counterparty.
Moreover, rules 1 and 2 above do not go into a bankruptcy filing if one occurs (in particular, if the security is a swap, it’s just torn up). This is a key point since that means the bankruptcy is simplified and at the same time the security is back in liquid hands. All over, this setup, or one like it, encourage hedge funds to margin call frequently (banks already do that), which is a good thing, and as described above is a further incentive to invest in liquid, non-complex securities, which in the end creates transparency.
The above idea doesn’t deal directly with desired property 2, and may well cause margins to be lower. One possibility to encourage margins to be of sufficient size would be to allow either party to “put” the security in question on to the other party at a cost of giving up the initial margin posted.
Idea #2: grow a separate system of utility deposit banks
Besides incredibly complicated bankruptcy filings with infinitely many counterparties, one of the major reasons those banks really are too big to fail is that they hold deposits, and the government doesn’t want people to worry that their life savings are at risk, causing a run on the banks and chaos. Another way to get around this, at least eventually, is to create new “utility banks” at the state level which do not trade securities (beyond very basic one like interest rate swaps and treasuries), don’t take large risks, and have FDIC guarantees on savings.
In order to get consumers to switch to banks like this, the government should intentionally create incentives for people to transfer their deposits from “too big to fail” banks to these utility banks. A list of incentives could start with reasonable, transparent fees, and the eventual loss of FDIC insurance guarantee at non-utility banks. Then people who want to stay with risk-taking banks can do so knowing that, as long as bankruptcy laws eventually get simplified, the “too big to fail” guaranteed will in fact be gone.
Moreover, another layer of separation between depositors and utility banks should be the requirement that, even with the restricted kinds of trades allowed for utility banks, they should be done in separate corporate entities (since banks are always a mishmash of many companies anyway).
This idea is not new, and can be seen for example in this article. In fact it is incredibly obvious: admit that what we have now is a guarantee for a get-out-of-jail card for greedy bankers, and transfer that guarantee to a banking system that we’ve created to be boring, along the lines of the post office.