Crises are caused by banks having too much leverage. They face an “inflexibility trap” and “negative convexity”. Generally, a shock occurs, a “fat-tailed event”, and as a result a bank suffers a loss on a product line such as subprime mortgages that, in turn, requires it to reduce the risk of its equity. To do so, it must issue additional equity or sell risky assets to pay back debt. With leverage, to reduce risk needs action. If the bank attempts to raise equity capital, however, it faces the “inflexibility trap”. By issuing equity, debt holders have more capital supporting their debt and are better off. Equity holders must be worse off. That is, on the announcement of the offering, the price of existing shares fall. This follows from option theory. When governments infuse capital into banks, the new capital benefits the debt holders. This is the true “moral hazard”.
The simple remedy, therefore, is to require banks to have less leverage or—its converse—to have additional equity capital. This garners flexibility. And flexibility is valuable. It is an option. We can measure its value and price it accordingly. If society is to provide the option, it should charge for it in advance, and then it becomes the supplier of contingent capital to the financial system. This creates the correct incentives. This is not regulation; this is economics.
“Negative convexity” arises as firms are required to invest to make money for their shareholders. When everyone else is driving over the speed limit, there is pressure to drive quickly as well; that is, more leverage to increase the return on equity capital. When a shock forces entities to reduce risk, they find it difficult to do so for many other entities are also attempting to liquidate positions at the same time. Not all the cars can slow down in time to prevent an accident. In financial markets liquidity prices increase dramatically, creating “fat tails”, and entities are unable to sell assets to reduce risks. With losses in one area, banks need to sell other more liquid assets. This, in turn, requires other banks to liquidate assets to reduce their risk. Liquidity prices increase and asset values fall across all markets as banks demand liquidity to reduce risk. This causes a deleveraging cascade in the financial markets affecting the capital of all banks.
Although I don’t have the data available, I predict that bank capital ratios have fallen dramatically over the last 20 years, with deregulation of the banking sector in the 1990s, coupled with the advent of the Bank for International Settlements’ implementation of Value at Risk, portfolio theory, that is in vogue to determine bank capital, and with changes in accounting rules.
Certainly, with additional equity capital, the return on equity capital of financial entities would fall, but the value of the enterprise would not be affected. Modigliani and Miller, over 50 years ago, wrote a classic paper in financial economics, demonstrating that the value of the firm is independent of its debt-to-equity ratio. For this and related work, each was awarded the Nobel prize in economics. Although the required rate of return on debt is less than that of equity, the required return on equity increases with additional debt to just offset debt’s lower cost. In its simplest form why would an investor pay more for a leveraged firm than an unleveraged firm if she could acquire the unleveraged firm at a lower price and create the same capital structure on personal account? Their simple and elegant model has withstood many academic attacks including issues such as the tax deductibility of debt or bankruptcy costs. Miller argued in his 1977 presidential address to the American Finance Association that these issues are second order, “akin to a horse and rabbit stew – one horse and one rabbit.” Although additional equity capital and less debt capital will not reduce the total value of the bank, it will reduce the expected return on equity. This is of no consequence, however, since with less debt the risk of the equity is correspondingly less. The return-to-risk tradeoff is unaffected. Investors will need to expect a lower return on equity capital. If individuals, hedge funds, etc, want to achieve a greater expected rate of return with commensurately more risk, they are able to achieve such by leveraging on their personal accounts. Remember, however, that leverage is a two-edged sword. Wonderful when things are going well; a cancer when things are going badly. Since there are few costs and many benefits to this approach, capital requirements and pricing flexibility are the correct way to regulate banks going forward. Since this is the correct economic response, it trumps regulating the financial system heavily going forward. There is no need to “throw sand into the gears” to slow down innovation and new products. Capital is the solution and it is a form of “light regulation”.