Thursday, June 9, 2011

Regulation Never Works As Planned

One constant seems to run through my whole professional career.  The regulators impose some new rules…and within a reasonable period of time, the private sector finds ways to get around the new rules.  Then the regulators impose further new rules…and within a reasonable period of time, the private sector finds ways to get around them.

Back in the 1960-1971 period, I was in the Federal Reserve System and one of the main new financial innovations that the Fed was dealing with at the time was the Eurodollar deposit.  The “time lag” then was about six months. 

That is, the Fed would see some activity it wanted to get greater control of and it would impose new rules or restrictions on the activity.  The banks would then respond to the new rules or regulations.  About six months later the Fed would discover what the banks were doing to get around these new rules or regulations.  Then, the Fed would move into action once again.

At that time, however, we did not refer to the commercial bankers as “greedy bastards.”

In fact, any void seemed to call forth the ingenuity of the financial community.

The credit inflation, begun in the early 1960s, provided the incentive for the financial community to engage in more financial innovation over the next fifty years than ever before in human history. 

Restrictions on the interest rates that financial institutions could pay on deposit—Regulation Q—could not stand up to the inflationary expectations that got built into interest rates.

The consequent volatility in interest rates made it worthwhile to develop interest rate futures and interest rate options.

The desire to drive more and more credit into the housing market resulted in the government creation of the mortgage-backed security and the validation of “slicing and dicing” of the cash flows generated by financial instruments.

This slicing and dicing spread to government issues and we got the Treasury “Strip” securities...and more.

And, the continued credit inflation resulted in greater and greater amounts of risk taking and things like credit default swaps to hedge against risk taking.  We got more and more financial leverage and this required new ways to “cut things up” or hide things “off-balance sheet” or make things “synthetic” or deal only in “nominal” values. 

And, the beat goes on.

To me, this comes out in the rant of JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon the other day against Ben Bernanke.   His blast, I believe, was one of pure frustration.  We want to be bankers, Dimon said, but the Fed…and Congress…and the Administration…force us to be financial innovators, constantly creating ways to get around the ill-considered new rules and regulations that continuously flow out of the government. 

He could have said, “If you want us to stop the financial innovating do two things.  First, stop inflating credit as you have done for the last fifty years and are continuing to do at this very minute!  Second, let things settle down and stop trying to regulate the very things you are causing us to do because of your inflation of credit!”

Will the government do this?  Not likely, and that is why Dimon is so frustrated.

My prediction: the financial system, over the next five to ten years, will be different in major ways from what we now see in front of us. 

The reason is that bankers…and the public…will create a new and different financial system. 

For, example, what about the “shadow-banking system” that was created in the past twenty years or so?  Maybe this “system” will become the preferred lender to business.

It is still there, thank you, and it is “filling in the current void.”  See the front page New York Times article this morning: “Bank Said No? Hedge Funds Fill Loan Void.” (  “With traditional lenders still avoiding risky borrowers in the wake of the financial crisis, hedge funds and other opportunistic investors are stepping into the void.  They are going after mid-size businesses that cannot easily raise money in the bond markets like their bigger brethren.”   No telling where hedge funds…and others…will be found these days.  

And, this doesn’t even include what might be done electronically.

What is money?  What is finance?

As I have argued many times in previous blog posts, money…finance…is just information…just 0’s and 1’s!

“Concerns about the integrity of money have also seen a fundamental shift…While fraud is still a concern, the financial collapse of 2008 has called into question the competence of the central banks that are supposed to manage national currencies.  In this week’s technology special we examine how the internet is allowing groups of people to set up means of exchange that are independent of both the banks and the state.”

Hold on there…

What about gold or silver?

“Private currencies are nothing new, but novel possibilities such as bitcoin now beckon.  Though bitcoins are magicked out of nothing, money is what money does, and many people are happy to accept bitcoins as payment for real goods and services.  The bitcoins in circulation are now worth around $50 million in conventional currency.”

“Governments may want to clamp down on what they see as a way to evade taxes…”

“But the future of money, as so much else, may be shaped by the internet’s ability to bring interested parties together outside the ambit of governments or big companies. “

“Under a scheme operating in the city of Macon, Georgia, special bonds are issued to residents—but each person receives only half a bond, and can only redeem it by locating the person with the matching half.  Participants must seek each other out through online social networks such as Twitter, then decide together how to spend the cash.  Attempts to set up such ‘local currencies’ have been tried many times before, but have usually proven too difficult to co-ordinate and organize.  Social media offer such schemes a new lease of life.” (New Scientist, June 4, 2011)

The point is that regulation never works as planned because humans are just too ingenious and improved information technology and the spread of information eventually winout over time.  As a consequence, regulators…and politicians…are always fighting the last war.  Another way to phrase this is that regulators…and politicians…are always out-of-date!

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