Trying to Cure the Wrong Disease

Regulators don’t think it is the place of Congress to second guess how they size up securities. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen said recently that legislation would “interfere with our supervisory judgments.”

Regulators are not required by the Constitution, but Congress, perverse as it is, is the body closest to the people, getting put up for election regularly. Of course Congress should oversee financial regulation and monetary policy from an unelected Federal Reserve. That’s their job.

I’m not saying that the Congressmen themselves understand these things well enough to do anything — but that’s true of most laws, etc. If the Federal Reserve says they are experts on these matters, past bad results notwithstanding, Congress can get people who are experts as well to aid them in their decisions on laws and regulations.

The above is not my main point, though. I have a specific example to draw on: municipal bonds. As the Wall Street Journal headline says, are they “Safe or Hard to Sell?” For financial regulation, that’s the wrong question, because this should be an asset-liability management problem. Banks should be buying assets and making loans that fit the structure of their liabilities. How long are the CDs? How sticky are the deposits and the savings accounts?

If the maturities of the munis match the liabilities of the bank, they will pay out at the time that the bank needs liquidity to pay those who place money with them. This is the same as it would be for any bond or loan.

If a bank, insurance company, or any financial institution relies on secondary market liquidity in order to protect its solvency, it has a flawed strategy. That means any market panic can ruin them. They need table stability, not bicycle stability. A table will stand, while a bicycle has to keep moving to stay upright.

What’s that you say? We need banks to do maturity transformation so that long dated projects can be cheaply funded by short-term savers. Sorry, that’s what leads to financial crises, and creates the run on liquidity when the value of long dated assets falls, and savers want their money back. Let long dated assets that want debt financing be financed by REITs, pension plans, endowments, long-tail casualty insurers, and life insurers. Banks should invest short, and use the swap market t aid their asset liability needs.

Thus, there is no need for the Fed to be worrying about muni market liquidity. The problem is one of asset-liability matching. Once that is settled, banks can make intelligent decisions about what credit risk to take versus their liabilities.

In many ways, our regulators learned the wrong lessons in the recent crisis, and as such, they meddle where they don’t need to, while neglecting the real problems.

But given the strength of the banking lobby, is that any surprise?

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