Monday, May 17, 2010

How Basel regulations fucked over both American real estate and Southern European governments

A blog dedicated to explaining the causes of the financial crisis has an excellent summary of the argument that Basel regulations doomed us all, both Americans and Europeans.

Basel regulations essentially tells large banks and institutions (and only them) precisely how much risk they can take with certain asset classes. Under Basel I, adopted in the West in 1992, banks were allowed to take huge risks in mortgage-backed securities and small risks in vanilla business loans. Basel I is in the process of being phased out in favor of Basel II, which went into effect in Europe in 2006-07. The second incarnation allows institutional investors to plow all of their clients' money in certain classes of sovereign debt (which at the time included Greek or Portuguese government bonds) without leaving a cent left over in case the bonds default. Obviously, it was precisely the asset classes that required little capital that have been taking down the global financial system, more slowly that us Americans realized.

As Jeffrey Friedman explains in the first piece, these rules only applied to large institutions such as banks and pension funds. While other investors were not as heavily invested in these risky products, they did fall victim to the mania to a lesser extent – though in the end, it's the banks who need the bailouts (and the public pension crisis in America is coming), not hedge funds and S&L's.

Those who call for more regulation of financial risk are frequently unaware of how minutely risk is regulated for large institutions. Proponents of regulation that are aware often argue that these are merely ceilings on risks and that an unregulated market would have been able to go even wilder on these risky loans, but the truth is that regulations are more than just ceilings. As they used to say in IT procurement, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM – a company whose big break was FDR's 1935 Social Security Act and the lucrative federal contracts it created. And when you lower ceilings on risk – presumably the Democrat's desired regulatory policy – you're only entrenching the idea of relying on the government to tell you what is a good investment and what is not.

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