Marc I. Seltzer June 15, 2009 - 11:21am
Amid the greatest worldwide financial meltdown since the Great Depression, there have been few examples of sound financial management and regulation. Public authorities have had to provide billions of dollars to support ailing institutions and have acknowledged far-reaching gaps in public oversight. Responding to the disastrous bubble and bust, the Obama administration is calling for comprehensive reform. International leaders have even gone so far as to call for the creation of a world financial regulator.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, while not going that far, is asking Congress to grant the Treasury broad oversight authority for virtually all financial institutions, and a mandate to monitor systemic risk. Additional proposals seek to insure that financial instruments, such as credit-default swaps, are subject to federal regulation. While Congress will ultimately be responsible for crafting legislation, Geithner’s proposals provide a road map for a new financial order, in his words—“not modest repairs at the margin, but new rules of the game.”
The economic crisis has tested the stability of financial systems across the international community. The results differ widely, from Iceland’s near-bankruptcy to Canada’s remarkable financial health and insulation from risk. Beyond the private gains and losses, the crisis has revealed strengths and weaknesses of different regulatory environments. Remarkably, not a single major Canadian financial institution has needed a bailout. In March, the International Monetary Fund praised Canada’s banks for their “remarkable stability amid the global turbulence.” Howard Kaplow, an investment executive and director of financial services in Montreal, noted that Canadians “tend to be more conservative, but we also have a more restrictive financial authority with tougher rules to follow.” The IMF agrees, commending Canada’s “strong regulatory and supervisory framework.”
In this light one may ask how Secretary Geithner’s proposals for regulatory reform measure up against the Canadian model. Are the Obama administration’s efforts to monitor systemic risk and regulate all substantial financial entities and instruments in line with the Canadian approach?
In contrast to Canada’s conservatism, the U.S. system has gone through a period of “irrational exuberance.” Over the past twenty years, Congress deregulated financial industries in order to maximize business opportunity. New financial instruments, markets, and conglomerates were unleashed without oversight. In a recent debate over the causes of the crisis, New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini (nicknamed “Dr. Doom” for having predicted the current crisis) argued that, “deregulation occurred too fast and in ways that did not provide prudential regulation for provision of the financial system.”
The dominant political ethos was trust in free markets, competition, and modest regulation—even self-regulation. Where regulators did act, they followed a framework that called for distinct regulators in compartmentalized markets. The FDIC has been highly praised for its success at handling the closing of failed banks, but neither the FDIC nor the Federal Reserve had authority to intervene when an investment bank or insurer acted unwisely or teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.
In the end, the failures were systemic and pervasive. They could not be limited to one sector of the financial system, nor were they detected by any existing regulatory agency. In warning that the problems would not respond to a quick fix, President Barack Obama observed that the crisis “didn’t result from any one action or decision. It took many years and many failures to lead us here.”
New regulations were contemplated long before Secretary Geithner was confirmed. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the General Accounting Office oversaw substantial groundwork in 2008, but it now falls to Geithner to finish the job. While Geithner is promoting a more comprehensive regulatory regime, the proposals have been developed by financial and market experts and insiders who believe in free-market capitalism. They do not wish to stifle financial innovation. Instead, the aim is to protect the overall system while allowing risk-taking activity to continue. This approach is in line with the Canadian system, where, despite strong regulatory authority, the financial sector has prospered. Today, five of the country’s banks are among the top fifty banks in the world. Ten years ago none of them was.
The lead financial regulatory authority in Canada is the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), currently headed by Julie Dickson. She chairs the Financial Institutions Supervisory Committee, which has broad authority to monitor systemic risk and, for that purpose, brings together regulators who oversee market stability, risk-management, and business practices from across the financial economy. The OSFI mandate covers “all banks, along with federally regulated property, casualty, and life insurers, and trust and loan companies, plus about 10 percent of private pension plans” according to OSFI spokesman Jean Paul Duval. If any of the institutions “raise a red flag, the OSFI can implement a range of disciplinary measures, affecting everything from bank capitalization to controlling assets, and even getting directly involved in business planning.” Indirectly, this also includes securities firms, which are 70-percent bank-owned in Canada (for example, RBC Dominion Securities is part of the Royal Bank of Canada). The OSFI oversees 450 banks and insurers, and approximately 1,350 private pension plans. Its authority, while not reaching all financial institutions (hedge funds are not regulated by the OSFI), is fairly comprehensive and is foundational for the soundness of the Canadian system.
Secretary Geithner told Congress in March that the oversight he was proposing “would include bank and thrift holding companies and holding companies that control broker-dealers, insurance companies, and futures commission merchants, or any other financial firm posing substantial risk” (emphasis added). Not every financial entity reaches the size and significance to affect systemic risk, but Geithner wants to avoid a system where the legal form of an entity can be used to shield it from regulation. A key component of meaningful oversight is the ability of the regulator to set standards for institutional risk management. Geithner is asking Congress for authority to increase capital requirements, to restrict leverage ratios, and to enact additional prudential rules.
In Canada, the OSFI has substantial experience with such oversight. According to Duval, since its creation in 1987, the OSFI “has always been vigilant in the development of its risk-management practices.” Capital requirements for Canadian banks have been held at 7 percent, while the global average is closer to 4 percent. Similarly, Canada’s bank-leverage ratio has been kept under twenty-to-one, while international bank leverage ratios were thirty-to-one and even forty-to-one. OSFI Superintendent Dickson remarked in November 2008, “We have seen how strong capital cushions in Canada have paid off to the benefit of our institutions and overall financial system.”
Canadian institutions were not free from risk-taking or even from exposure to subprime loans from the United States, but strong capital and leverage standards kept the damage from overwhelming Canada’s banks, let alone destabilizing the economy. In addition, Canadian banks generally still maintain the mortgage portfolios of loans they originate, retaining direct knowledge and responsibility for their management. These conservative practices reinforce sound regulation, and vice versa.
Canadian regulators give special attention to larger, “too big to fail” organizations. Duval explains that “OSFI utilizes a risk-based methodology, where institutions that we believe are operating in a riskier manner are subject to increased supervision. That said, the larger institutions will be operating in larger parts of the market, so [they] would naturally receive greater attention...and can be subject to different supervisory requirements.”
Similarly, the U.S. federal regulator proposed by Geithner will have the power to step in and manage problems when institutions fail to meet prudential standards or find themselves in financial difficulty. Special consideration would be given to entities deemed “too big to fail.” Geithner is asking Congress for the flexibility to intervene where there is risk to the wider economy. He has already intervened with a few of the big banks. Recent “stress tests” resulted in some banks being required to raise capital, although banks could choose whether to seek private or public funds.
Critics have called for regulations that would cap the size or restrict the legal structure of financial institutions. However, noting that other countries have allowed hybrid entities such as Canada’s banking and securities conglomerates, Geithner appears to trust that oversight will protect the system, and that private decision making should be allowed as much leeway as possible. The changes he proposes will require legislation. Under his lead, the Obama administration should be pushing hard for a substantial increase in federal regulatory authority. What might have been politically impossible before the crisis is now high on the legislative agenda. In addition, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has spoken in concert with the administration. While Congress will take a significant role in designing new regulation and is not likely to rubber-stamp the administration’s proposals, momentum is strong for the creation of comprehensive financial reform. The success of the regulatory system across the border should inspire both humility and hope.
About the Author
Marc I. Seltzer is a California attorney and educator who writes on international issues.