Financial Companies: The Empire strikes back
The role of financial institutions in the global crisis has led to a consensus that financial regulation must change. This column argues that the banking lobby, far from depleted, has struck back with a vengeance. It has managed to postpone the much needed regulation for a time when the need for it will be forgotten.
This is simpler than it sounds. There are three major types of risk: credit risk, market risk, and liquidity risk. Their differences can be found by the different ways in which these risks can be hedged or absorbed. The capacity to absorb liquidity risk comes from having time to sell an asset because liabilities, like promises to pay a pension in twenty years, are long-term. The capacity to absorb credit risk comes from having access to a wide range of uncorrelated credit risks to pool together, like a loan to an international oil company and another to a local wind farm. A financial system in which liquidity risks were held by young pension funds because of the capital required to set aside maturity mismatches, and credit risks by large consumer banks, because of the capital required to set aside for concentrated credit risks, would be far safer than one with twice the amount of capital but where the banks fund illiquid private equity investments and pension funds hold credit derivatives because regulators and accountants treated risk as if all that mattered was price volatility not risk capacity. Limiting risk taking to risk capacity would limit the size of banking institutions. It would create opportunities for new players with different risk capacities.