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More Nuance Needed in Bank Regulations

On the day President Barack Obama announced his new banking reform proposals, Reuters carried a story that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had privately expressed reservations about the plan. Having had time to digest it, I can see why.

One of the key parts of this plan is a proposal to limit banks' "proprietary investments." Traditionally, banks took in deposits and put the money to work by lending it out and also by holding a substantial amount of fairly safe financial investments that could be readily sold if cash was needed quickly. Over time, banks have substantially increased the level of investments they held primarily for their higher expected returns and managed them as proprietary investments. They also ramped up the extent to which they traded in and out of securities opportunistically. Banks have also created or invested in external hedge funds for similar purposes, as well as to earn fees from managing the hedge funds.

The argument for limiting proprietary investments is essentially that cheap depositor funds, and other federal support, should not support gambling in the markets. The administration also cited the potential for conflicts of interest when a bank is both working with customers and making its own investments.

But the plan to limit proprietary investments is problematic for a number of reasons. It is so vague that we may find that the eventual details are downright harmful to the economy. In addition, the proposal lacks the subtlety and balance that underlay the administration's earlier financial reform proposals. Previously Obama and his team struck a good balance between the need for regulation and the benefits of letting financial markets work to find the most efficient solutions on their own. Thursday's proposals forbid activities outright, rather than providing appropriate incentives, disincentives and protections.

There is a clear appeal to keeping banks from taking undue investment risks. On the surface, it would appear fairly clear-cut that they ought not to have major proprietary investment positions. However, the issue becomes far more complicated and less clear as one examines it in more detail.

First, it is hard to tell the difference between traditional investment activity, which is a necessary part of banking, and proprietary investments, which are purely discretionary. Banks need to hold significant investment positions as part of their liquidity management. It is in everyone's interest for the return on those investments to be maximized, within acceptable risk limits, since more profitable banks are stronger and less likely to need a taxpayer bailout. It is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Second, banks have long conducted trading activities to serve their clients in which it is often necessary to buy positions from sellers before the bank has an end-buyer. This brings trading risk, since the banks own the position for a time. It was a natural next step to allow the expert traders at the banks to take positions on a longer-term basis when they sensed that the market was moving in one direction. It is not always easy to distinguish these types of trades from ones motivated purely by customer demand.

Third, these investment activities should be unusually profitable for banks on average. They already have the traders and equipment in place, so the additional cost is low. Also, a great deal of information flows through the largest banks that can legitimately be shared. The insight gained from this provides a significant market advantage. Again, it is generally good public policy for banks to engage in profitable activities.

The key issue is to determine when the risk of proprietary investing exceeds the gain. The administration appears to have suddenly decided it is always too risky no matter what the circumstances.

I believe the situation is more nuanced; regulators ought to set limitations on proprietary investments and create capital requirements that are tough enough to hold the risk to the public to a very low level. Unfortunately, banking, like life, is not black and white.