Prof. Charles Calomiris of Columbia Business School will speak at the Junto this Thursday evening about his forthcoming book, Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, co-authored with Stanford Political Science Prof. Stephen Haber.

"Systemic bank insolvency crises like the U.S. subprime debacle of 20007-09…do not happen without warning, like earthquakes or mountain lion attacks. Rather, they occur when banking systems are made vulnerable by construction, as the result of political choices."

Fragile by Design

Time: 7:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.

Date: Thursday, November 7th

Place: 20 West 44th St., ground floor

Format is highly interactive, with plenty of opportunity to engage the speaker. Hope you can make it.

P.S. I paste in below Calomiris' review of The Bankers' New Clothes, which appeared in this week.

The Bankers' New Clothes: What's Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It, by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig

Reviewed by Charles Calomiris

"Capitalism without failure is like religion without sin," as economist Allan Meltzer once wrote, a stricture that applies with special force to the capitalist activity of banking. When banks that cannot pay their bills are protected from that failure by government, the banking system not only allocates funds inefficiently, it may recklessly pursue risks that bring down the economy.

The financial crisis of 2007-09 wasn't the first to demonstrate that government-protected banking systems tend to blow up. Over the past three decades, there have been over 100 major banking crises worldwide in which government protection often encouraged excessive risk-taking. Given these concerns, authors Anat Admati, a finance professor at Stanford University, and Martin Hellwig, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, deserve much of the praise they have received for *The Banker's New Clothes*. By raising public awareness about the dangers of taxpayer bailouts of "too big to fail" banks, they have contributed to the growing support for stronger, prudential regulation of the banking system, especially in Europe and the U.S.

 The two main cures the authors propose are another matter. They would force banks to maintain much more of their financing in the form of equity rather than debt, so that bank stockholders rather than taxpayers bear the downside risk of bank losses; and they would break up global banks into much smaller entities. Both proposals, if implemented as specifically set forth in this book, would be quite costly in social terms and unlikely to avert future bank crises.

Admati and Hellwig assume that increasing bank equity is a matter of boosting the minimum requirement for the book value of equity relative to assets, which includes loans. Were it only that simple, but it is not; increasing the equity ratio based on book value does not necessarily increase the true bank equity ratio. Also, any simple equity-to-assets requirement could encourage banks to pursue hidden increases in asset risk. Empirical studies of bank failure typically find no relationship between the book equity ratios of banks and their danger of insolvency. This does not mean that raising equity ratios is a bad idea—just that requiring increased book equity by itself does not result in higher true equity, much less in higher equity relative to risk, which is the essential goal of regulatory reform.

Taking their book's title from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, the authors completely dismiss the idea that higher equity requirements might entail costs as a "bugbear" that is "as insubstantial as the emperor's
*new*clothes in Andersen's tale." In their view, "For society there are in fact significant benefits and essentially no costs from much higher equity requirements."

This view has been proved false by decades of research. The potentially high cost to society from requiring high equity-to-asset ratios is a reduction in banks' willingness to lend. When a bank is forced, either by sudden equity losses or by increased regulatory requirements, to raise its ratio of equity to assets, it typically decides to reduce lending rather than to raise equity to maintain its existing amount of loans.

Not that recognizing the costs and complexities of boosting ratios means we must abandon the idea altogether. Raising equity is costly but worth it, because the benefits of a stable banking system exceed the costs of reduced loan supply that would result. Accordingly, I would raise required equity to roughly 10% of assets, about twice today's level.

But we must also ensure through additional reforms that banks maintain that ratio in actual equity, not just book equity, and that they do not offset that increase in equity with a big increase in risk. Higher equity will work as a reform only if it occurs alongside other changes in regulation to ensure that banks maintain adequate equity relative to risk. All this is a far cry from the authors' call for a simple hike in required equity ratios, based on book value, to about 25% of assets, without accompanying reforms.

What about breaking up big banks? The studies on which Admati and Hellwig base their conclusion that there are no social advantages to large-scale, global, universal banking are simply not useful for judging the scale advantages of global universal banks. The data used in those studies come mainly from banks with very narrow ranges of products, services, and locations. Citing those studies to gauge the efficiency of global universal banks amounts to an apples-and-oranges confusion between two very different types of banking enterprises: small traditional banks and global universal banks. One cannot be a global universal bank, with multiple product lines and locations in scores of countries, with an asset base of under $100 billion. Such banks provide important and unique services to the global economy, which Admati and Hellwig are wrong to dismiss.

Despite these criticisms, The Bankers' New Clothes is an important book that identifies correctly the central problem of government protection of banks. But regulators should not single-mindedly focus on very high book equity requirements or on breaking up global banks. When those prescriptions prove to be costly and inadequate for the challenging problem of reducing bank instability, policy makers might find themselves as naked as the emperor in Anderson's story.





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