Strengthening and Streamlining Prudential Bank Supervision

There are a number of causes of the financial crisis that has devastated the U.S. economy and spread globally. Weakness in financial sector regulation was one of the causes and the proliferation of different regulators is, in turn, a cause of the regulatory failure. There is a bewildering, alphabet soup variety of regulators and supervisors for banks and other financial institutions that failed in their task of preventing the crisis and, at the same time, created an excessive regulatory burden on the industry because of overlapping and duplicative functions.

We can do better. This paper makes the case for a single micro prudential regulator, that is to say, one federal agency that has responsibility for the supervision and regulation of all federally chartered banks and all major non-bank financial institutions. There would still be state-chartered financial institutions covered by state regulators, but the federal regulator would share regulatory authority with the states.

The Objectives Approach to Regulation

The Blueprint for financial reform prepared by the Paulson Treasury proposed a system of objectives-based regulation, an approach that had been previously suggested and that is the basis for regulation in Australia. The White Paper prepared by the Geithner Treasury did not use the same terminology, but it is clear from the structure of the paper that their approach is essentially an objectives-based one, as they lay out the different elements of regulatory reform that should be covered. I support the objectives approach to regulation.

There should be three major objectives of regulation, as follows.

• To make sure that there is micro-prudential supervisions, so that customers and taxpayers are protected against excessive risk taking that may cause a single institution to fail.

• To make sure that whole financial sector retains its balance and does not become unstable. That means someone has to warn about the build up of risk across several institutions and perhaps take regulatory actions to restrain lending used to purchase assets whose prices are creating a speculative bubble.

• To regulate the conduct of business. That means to watch out for the interests of consumers and investors, whether they are small shareholders in public companies or households deciding whether to take out a mortgage or use a credit card.

In applying this approach, it is vital for both the economy and the financial sector that the Federal Reserve has independence as it makes monetary policy. Experience in the United States and around the world supports the view that an independent central bank results in better macroeconomic performance and restrains inflationary expectations. An independent Fed setting monetary policy is essential.

An advantage of objectives-based regulation is that it forces us to consider what are the “must haves” of financial regulation—those things absolutely necessary to reduce the chances of another crisis. Additionally we can see the “must not haves”—the regulations that would have negative effects. It is much more important to make sure that the job gets done right, that there are no gaps in regulation that could contribute to another crisis and that there not be over-regulation that could stifle innovation and slow economic growth, than it is that the boxes of the regulatory system be arranged in a particular way. In turn, this means that the issue of regulatory consolidation is important but only to the extent that it makes it easier or harder to achieve the three major objectives of regulation efficiently and effectively.

For objectives-based regulation to work, it is essential to harness the power of the market as a way to enhance stability. It will never be possible to have enough smart regulators in place that can outwit private sector participants who really want to get around regulations because they inhibit profit opportunities or because of the burdens imposed. A good regulatory environment is structured so that people who take risks stand to lose their own money if their bets do not work out. The crisis we are going through was caused by both market and regulatory failures and the market failures were often the result of a lack of transparency (“asymmetric information” in the jargon of economics). Those who invested money and lost it often did not realize the risks they were taking. To the extent that policymakers can enhance transparency, they can make market forces work better and help achieve the goal of greater stability.

Having a single micro prudential regulator would help greatly in meeting the objectives of regulation, a point that will be taken up in more detail below. It is not a new idea. In 1993-94, the Clinton and Riegle proposals for financial regulation said that a single micro prudential regulator would provide the best protection for the economy and for the industry. In the Blueprint developed by the Paulson Treasury, it was proposed that there be a single micro prudential regulator. 

Read the full paper » (pdf)