Thursday, October 22, 2015

BANKS | Comptroller Curry Is Scary

Thomas J. Curry, Comptroller of the
Currency
Thomas J. Curry, Comptroller of the Currency, gave mild speeches on March 2 and April 2 focused on risks from terrorist attacks on cybersecurity, a threat to bank operations. Worrisome, but with an enemy on some distant shore and technical fixes waiting in the wings.

Yesterday at the Exchequer Club in Washington, it was different. He allowed himself to step out and make a few spicier comments. He acknowledges that at this stage of the credit cycle, credit quality is and can be expected to deteriorate, and "credit risks are coming to the forefront," ahead of threats from jihadist hackers.

Curry doesn't go much further than that in his remarks. But he plants the seeds of worry. Wall Street on Parade spells out what Curry might have said. Reforms have failed and we may see in this credit cycle a repeat of what led up to the disaster of 2008. One solution is more unified oversight of the financial sector at the Federal level, i.e., encompassing the securities industry.

When I was working for the Federal Reserve and FDIC in the 1960s, the Bureau of the Budget was looking at unifying financial regulation just as a matter of efficiency as well as effectiveness. But if you are an institution being regulated, the last thing you want is efficiency and effectiveness. You want the maximum number of regulators, so you can shop among them.

And if you are the regulator, you don't want your agency eliminated. We can't expect the Comptroller of the Currency, speaking for a 150-year-old office that has had to fight to remain independent from the Federal Reserve System, to advocate for consolidation of Federal oversight agencies.

The issues are surfacing now because of the good work of Pam and Russ Martens of Wall Street on Parade, who are keeping up a steady Pecora-like stream of revelations of what Senator Wright Patman used to call malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders has kept the Glass-Steagall issue in the public eye during the first Democratic debate.

Here is a snippet from today's post from the Martenses outlining the problem:
What Curry didn’t mention are the real elephants in the room – the casino room on Wall Street: the $180.29 trillion of derivatives held at the insured banking units of just four banks: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank (part of Citigroup) and Goldman Sachs. Just those four banks hold 91.1 percent of all derivatives held at the thousands of banks in the U.S. If that’s not concentrated risk, we don’t know what is. Curry also didn’t mention the frightening reality that some of the biggest banks are up to their old dirty tricks of dodging capital requirements through trades with dubious counterparties.
In June, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Financial Research (OFR) released a report that set off alarm bells. The report, written by Jill Cetina, John McDonough, and Sriram Rajan, revealed that the big Wall Street banks are ginning up their capital measures by engaging in non-transparent “capital relief trades.”
The report indicated that JPMorgan’s London Whale trades, exposed in 2012 and the subject of multiple Congressional hearings and an in-depth report by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was, in fact, a capital relief trade. JPMorgan Chase has owned up to losing at least $6.2 billion of bank depositors’ money on those trades.
Back in 1933, the Pecora Committee - a Senate Committee that was, unusually, named after the aggressive staff counsel, a New Yorker named Ferdinand Pecora - held hearings that led to the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 and the Securities and Exchange Act of 1933 (while, alas, also skewering a few people who should not have been so impaled).

The Glass-Steagall Act was well-conceived and lasted 70 years. Banks traded deposit insurance for ring-fencing around the commercial banks to keep out the investment bankers. The flaw in the Act was there from the beginning, namely that the securities business was regulated separately and inadequately. The financial lobby has exploited that loophole in stages, notably in 1999 and 2002. The Economist Magazine in 1999 wisely opined that if the Congress was going to take away some Glass-Steagall controls, they would have to extend controls on the securities business; the reverse happened.

A predecessor of Curry as Comptroller of the Currency, John D. Hawke, Jr., in a speech to the NY State Bankers Association in 2000 said:
Regulatory competition has stimulated innovation and efficiency. Competition keeps all of us on our toes, and provides incentives to add real value to our supervision. While the system unquestionably provides opportunities for regulatory arbitrage, there is little evidence that it has stimulated the competition in laxity that former Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns discussed 30 years ago.
Competition in laxity is exactly the term I would choose to describe what happened to the mortgage sector during the next seven years. New York State has now recognized that financial services has  become one industry, and has consolidated banking and securities oversight into one regulatory oversight body that talks openly about financial risk and the risk-taking enemies closer to home. It's time we consolidate financial regulation in Washington.