Friday, October 23, 2009
The Federal Reserve will expand its so-called stress tests of the banking system to ensure they have enough capital during difficult periods, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said Friday.
Bernanke highlighted the positive impact of stress tests conducted earlier this year on major banks, a move aimed at ensuring their financial health and building confidence.
"Building on the success of this initiative, we will conduct more frequent, broader, and more comprehensive horizontal examinations, evaluating both the overall risk profiles of institutions as well as specific risks and risk-management issues," Bernanke told a conference organized by the Boston Federal Reserve.
The highly publicized stress tests conducted earlier this year focused on 19 major banks, and indicated 10 needed additional capital.
Bernanke said the Fed would step up efforts to review bank capital requirements to avoid a recurrence of the credit crisis that has spread around the world.
"Additional steps are necessary to ensure that all banking organizations hold adequate capital," he said.
He noted that the Financial Stability Board -- a global watchdog made up of senior representatives of national financial authorities -- had called for "significantly stronger capital standards," and that the Group of 20 "has committed to develop rules to improve both the quantity and quality of bank capital."
"The Federal Reserve supports these initiatives. The structure of capital requirements should also be reviewed," Bernanke said.
Should we be reassured by the new round of stress tests?
Well, let's take a look:
- Time Magazine called the previous stress tests a "confidence game" and Geithner a "con man" for running them deceptively
- Paul Krugman called the stress tests a mere "self-esteem class" for banks that no bank would be allowed to fail
- Nouriel Roubini said the stress tests "fail the basic criterion of a reality check"
- William K. Black called them "a complete sham"
- FDIC head Sheila Bair didn't believe they were credible
- The stress tests were a P.R. stunt devised by the banks themselves
In addition, AFP quotes Bernanke as saying:
"For example, to reduce the tendency of current capital requirements to promote credit growth in booms and to restrict credit during downturns, the Federal Reserve has supported international efforts to develop capital standards that would be countercyclical," or require firms to build larger capital buffers in good times and allow them to be drawn down in times of stress.
But as I have previously noted:
One of the Fed's main justification has been that it can provide a "counter-cyclical" balance. In other words, during boom times it can put on the brakes ("take the punch bowl away right as the party gets started"), and during busts it can get things moving again. But as economist Jane D'Arista has shown, the Fed has failed miserably at that task:
Jane D'Arista, a reform-minded economist and retired professor with a deep conceptual understanding of money and credit [has a] devastating critique of the central bank. The Federal Reserve, she explains, has failed in its most essential function: to serve as the balance wheel that keeps economic cycles from going too far. It is supposed to be a moderating force in American capitalism on the upside and on the downside, the role popularly described as "leaning against the wind." By applying its leverage on the available supply of credit, the Fed can slow down a boom that is dangerously overwrought or, likewise, stimulate the economy if it is sinking into recession. The Fed's job, a former chairman once joked, is "to take away the punch bowl just when the party gets going." Economists know this function as "counter-cyclical policy."
The Fed not only lost control, D'Arista asserts, but its policy actions have unintentionally become "pro-cyclical"--encouraging financial excesses instead of countering the extremes. "The pattern that has developed over the last two decades," she wrote in 2008, "suggests that relying on changes in interest rates as the primary tool of monetary policy can set off pro-cyclical foreign capital flows that tend to reverse the intended result of the action taken. As a result, monetary policy can no longer reliably perform its counter-cyclical function--its raison d'être--and its attempts to do so may exacerbate instability."...
The new stress tests will be a meaningless P.R. stunt, just like the originals. The Fed largely caused the financial crash, and shouldn't even be given an electric razor, let alone financial or economic oversight.