In Finance We Distrust

MILAN – Around the world, the debate about financial regulation is coming to a head. A host of arguments and proposals is in play, often competing with one another – and thus inciting public and political confusion. 

One approach to financial re-regulation – supported by arguments of varying persuasiveness – is to limit the size and scope of financial institutions. Some claim that smaller entities can fail without impairing the system, thus sparing taxpayers the cost of a bailout. But if systemic risk emerges in ways that are not yet fully understood, smaller banks may all fail or become distressed simultaneously, damaging the real economy. 

A second, hotly debated argument is that limiting banks’ size and scope has relatively low costs in terms of performance. This point is used to bolster a third argument: large institutions have undue political influence and thus “capture” their regulators. Put bluntly, large and profitable financial institutions will find a way to get the regulatory system they want – one that is compatible with a highly profitable trading super-structure that goes beyond the requirements of hedging and seeks to maximize short-term gains.

A second approach, on which there is substantial agreement in principle, is to limit leverage. The main argument is that high leverage contributes powerfully to systemic risk – a condition in which asset prices move in a highly correlated way, and distress, when it occurs, spreads quickly.   Leverage is also partially caused by misperceptions of risk and mispricing of liquidity.  It is desirable to constrain leverage, but not to the point of increasing the cost of capital and investment.