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大型银行的天方夜谭

2013-04-26 15:21

关于近期的金融改革努力和非常大的银行对全世界构成的威胁有两个对立的表述。其中一个表述是错误的,另一个则是可怕的。

第一个表述受到金融业高管的偏爱,其中心观点是所有必要的改革已经被采用了(或即将)。相对于2007年的股本水平,银行的债务有所减少。美国已经出台了限制银行活动范围的规则,英国将会有相关的法律——欧洲大陆也会效仿。这一观点的支持者还声称,大型银行的风险管理比2008年全球金融危机爆发前要好。

在第二个表述中,世界上最大的银行仍然太大,无法管理,且有可能参与风险过高的活动,导致经济下行。去年的摩根大通 “伦敦鲸”交易亏损案例就是一个典型的例子。根据这一立场倡导的内容,几乎所有大银行都显示出慢性管理不善的症状。

大银行的争论偏技术性,事实上它是相当简单的。问这个问题:如果一个巨大无比的金融机构陷入困境,这对经济增长、失业等的影响是否很大?或者,说得更明白点,花旗集团或同等级别的欧洲公司陷入困境,蹒跚地走向失败,这种时间能不吸引政府和央行的支持吗(不论是明显的,还是伪装的)?

通过2010年多德?弗兰克改革立法,美国向正确的方向一步。该法案增强了联邦存款保险公司(FDIC)的决策力。FDIC已经有一些专门处理国内金融企业问题的方案。

然而,一个伟大的神话潜伏在金融业争论的核心。FDIC的决策力不适用于大型、复杂的跨境金融企业。原因很简单:美国法律可以创建一个决策机构,但其权限只能在国界之内。解决花旗集团这样的公司面临的潜在问题需要一个政府间跨国协议和全责机构。

在华盛顿举行的国际货币基金组织(IMF)春季会议刚刚结束,我有幸和来自不同国家的高级官员及其顾问交谈,包括来自欧洲的。我问他们同样的问题:什么时候我们才能有跨境决策框架?

答案通常从“不是在我们有生之年”到“永远不会“。再一次,原因很简单:国家不想对主权做出妥协或以任何方式缚住它们的手脚。政府希望能够在危机爆发时,决定如何最好地保护自己国家的利益。没有人愿意签署一份条约或其他的绑定方式。

就像纽约联储主席杜德利(Bill Dudley)最近所说的那样,“要充分认识到有序跨境决策的阻碍,并解决它们。消除所谓的‘太大而不能倒的问题’是必要的。”

翻译:全球银行巨头有序决策是一种错觉。只要我们允许跨境银行或接近他们目前的规模的银行存在,我们的政治领导人将无法容忍他们的失败。因为这些大型金融机构以任何定义而言都“太大而不能倒”,他们可以获得更便宜的贷款。更糟糕的是,他们都有扩张的动机和机会。

这种形式的政府支持等同于大银行大隐性补贴。可以肯定的是,这是一个奇异的补贴形式,但这并不意味着它不损害公众利益。相反,因为政府隐性支持“太大而不能倒”的银行,因此,它们不断增加风险,而这种支持可能成为世界上前所未有的最危险的补贴。毕竟,当事情进展顺利时,更多的债务(相对于股权)意味着更高的回报。当事情不顺利时,它成为纳税人的问题(或一些外国政府及其纳税人的问题)。

大公司有能力推动全球经济陷入衰退,就像银行在2008年秋天那样吗?谁有动机来最大化它们发行的债务的数量?

关于金融改革的两个表述的共同点是,二者都没有一个快乐的结局。我们要么限制最大的金融公司的规模,要么支撑负债经济爆炸。

Big Banks’ Tall Tales

2013-04-26 15:21

There are two competing narratives about recent financial-reform efforts and the dangers that very large banks now pose around the world. One narrative is wrong; the other is scary.

At the center of the first narrative, preferred by financial-sector executives, is the view that all necessary reforms have already been adopted (or soon will be). Banks have less debt relative to their equity levels than they had in 2007. New rules limiting the scope of bank activities are in place in the United States, and soon will become law in the United Kingdom – and continental Europe could follow suit. Proponents of this view also claim that the megabanks are managing risk better than they did before the global financial crisis erupted in 2008.

In the second narrative, the world’s largest banks remain too big to manage and have strong incentives to engage in precisely the kind of excessive risk-taking that can bring down economies. Last year’s “London Whale” trading losses at JPMorgan Chase are a case in point. And, according to this narrative’s advocates, almost all big banks display symptoms of chronic mismanagement.

While the debate over megabanks sometimes sounds technical, in fact it is quite simple. Ask this question: If a humongous financial institution gets into trouble, is this a big deal for economic growth, unemployment, and the like? Or, more bluntly, could Citigroup or a similar-size European firm get into trouble and stumble again toward failure without attracting some form of government and central bank support (whether transparent or somewhat disguised)?

The US took a step in the right direction with Title II of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation in 2010, which strengthened the resolution powers of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. And the FDIC has developed some plausible plans specifically for dealing with domestic financial firms.

But a great myth lurks at the heart of the financial industry’s argument that all is well. The FDIC’s resolution powers will not work for large, complex cross-border financial enterprises. The reason is simple: US law can create a resolution authority that works only within national boundaries. Addressing potential failure at a firm like Citigroup would require a cross-border agreement between governments and all responsible agencies.

On the fringes of the International Monetary Fund’s just-completed spring meetings in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to talk with senior officials and their advisers from various countries, including from Europe. I asked all of them the same question: When will we have a binding framework for cross-border resolution?

The answers typically ranged from “not in our lifetimes” to “never.” Again, the reason is simple: countries do not want to compromise their sovereignty or tie their hands in any way. Governments want the ability to decide how best to protect their countries’ perceived national interests when a crisis strikes. No one is willing to sign a treaty or otherwise pre-commit in a binding way .

As Bill Dudley, the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, put it recently, using the delicate language of central bankers, “The impediments to an orderly cross-border resolution still need to be fully identified and dismantled. This is necessary to eliminate the so-called ‘too big to fail’ problem.”

Translation: Orderly resolution of global megabanks is an illusion. As long as we allow cross-border banks at or close to their current scale, our political leaders will be unable to tolerate their failure. And, because these large financial institutions are by any meaningful definition “too big to fail,” they can borrow more cheaply than would otherwise be the case. Worse, they have both motive and opportunity to grow even larger.

This form of government support amounts to a large implicit subsidy for big banks. It is a bizarre form of subsidy, to be sure, but that does not make it any less damaging to the public interest. On the contrary, because implicit government support for “too big to fail” banks rises with the amount of risk that they assume, this support may be among the most dangerous subsidies that the world has ever seen. After all, more debt (relative to equity) means a higher payoff when things go well. And, when things go badly, it becomes the taxpayers’ problem (or the problem of some foreign government and their taxpayers).

What other part of the corporate world has the ability to drive the global economy into recession, as banks did in the fall of 2008? And who else has an incentive to maximize the amount of debt that they issue?

What the two narratives about financial reform have in common is that neither has a happy ending. Either we put a meaningful cap on the size of our largest financial firms, or we must brace ourselves for the debt-fueled economic explosion to come.

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