When Will We Learn that Regulation Is the Problem rather than the Solution?

I’ve explained on many occasions how the financial crisis was largely the result of government-imposed mistakes, and I’ve paid considerable attention to the role of easy money by the Federal Reserve and the perverse subsidies provided by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

But I’ve only once touched on the role of the Basel regulations on capital standards.

So I’m delighted that the invaluable Peter Wallison just authored a column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he explains how regulators created systemic risk by replacing market forces with bureaucratic edicts.

Europe’s banks, like those in the U.S. and other developed countries, function under a global regulatory regime known as the Basel bank capital standards. …Among other things, the rules define how capital should be calculated and how much capital internationally active banks are required to hold. First decreed in 1988 and refined several times since then, the Basel rules require commercial banks to hold a specified amount of capital against certain kinds of assets. …Under these rules, banks and investment banks were required to hold 8% capital against corporate loans, 4% against mortgages and 1.6% against mortgage-backed securities. …financial institutions subject to the rules had substantially lower capital requirements for holding mortgage-backed securities than for holding corporate debt, even though we now know that the risks of MBS were greater, in some cases, than loans to companies. In other words, the U.S. financial crisis was made substantially worse because banks and other financial institutions were encouraged by the Basel rules to hold the very assets—mortgage-backed securities—that collapsed in value when the U.S. housing bubble deflated in 2007.

What’s amazing (or perhaps frustrating is a better word) is that the regulators didn’t learn from the financial crisis. They should have disbanded in shame, but instead they continued to impose bad rules on the world.

And now we find their fingerprints all over the sovereign debt crisis. Here’s more of Peter’s column.

Today’s European crisis illustrates the problem even more dramatically. Under the Basel rules, sovereign debt—even the debt of countries with weak economies such as Greece and Italy—is accorded a zero risk-weight. Holding sovereign debt provides banks with interest-earning investments that do not require them to raise any additional capital. Accordingly, when banks in Europe and elsewhere were pressured by supervisors to raise their capital positions, many chose to sell other assets and increase their commitments to sovereign debt, especially the debt of weak governments offering high yields. …In the U.S. and Europe, governments and bank supervisors are reluctant to acknowledge that their political decisions—such as mandating a zero risk-weight for all sovereign debt, or favoring mortgages and mortgage-backed securities over corporate debt—have created the conditions for common shocks.

This is not to excuse the reckless behavior of national politicians. It is their destructive spending policies that are leading both the United States and Europe in a race to fiscal collapse.

But banks wouldn’t be quite as likely to finance that wasteful spending if regulators didn’t put their thumbs on the scale.

It’s almost enough to make you think that regulation is a costly burden that hurts the economy.

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