Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on Obama's Plan for Restructuring Financial Services

Last week, Tim Geitner laid out a plan to restructure regulation within the financial services industry. The net result was an additional three government regulatory agencies with clearly defined mandates, which, among other responsibilities include monitoring banks, hedge funds, and consumer protection. One can easily find Mr. Geitner's testimony online (which I will find and post) but, in essence, it boiled down to 1) require banks to hold more reserves and keeping a close eye on banks that are "too big to fail" 2) require certain private investment vehicles to register with the SEC and 3) create a new division whose sole responsibility is to protect consumers. Here are a couple of thoughts. But before I share those, I should disclose (lest there be some agregious misconception that I know what I'm talking about) that I have no idea how to fix the problem. If I did, I would be there...fixing it (and making a lot more money). While I'm generally opposed to creating more governement agencies, I'm sure Mr. Geitner and the entire administration were thoughtful in their proposal, and it is certianly better than anything I would have come up with.

1) I don't think more "regulation" is THE solution, nor was lack of regulation the problem. On the face of it, it would seem Mr. Geitner does think regulation was the problem. I get it, that's what he does, he exchanged a multi-million dollar private contract for a multi-million dollar public contract and his party line is, by necessity, "Re-establish confidence in the banking sector via broader regulation." But this is a faux-solution that is only optical in nature. Nope, more regulators won't work because employees working at Hedge Funds, Investment Banks, and other Financial Institutions are smarter than regulators. These firms made billions of dollars maneuvering through the OTC, FDIC, SEC, Treasury, FED, and the office of Thrift Supervision (just to name a few).

2) I think there is a misalignment of interest between banks that are too big to fail, the shareholders, and the public. If a bank is too big to fail, then the purpose of that bank should NOT be to maximize shareholder wealth. Since maximizing shareholder wealth requires banks (because it is economically rational) to circumvent regulation and shoot for the moon. In other words, pushing the price of the stock higher and higher sometimes means you take more "risks" (that, in theory, you are compensated for). In the end, you have a limited liability since many of your liabilities (deposits) are insured by the state. However, if you are deemed systemically relevant (a very slippery definition) then you should have the public interest as a primary objective with shareholder value subordinate to that of the public. So this position, I think, creates a lot of philisophical problems for capitalism.

Regulation may not be THE solution, but PART of the solution. What I believe we are grappling with are the incentives of capitalism. One tenent of capitalism is constant innovation and efficiency which result from risk taking at some level. Unfortunately, the higher the climb, the steeper the fall.

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