The Financial Services Authority (FSA) is the banking and financial services regulator in the UK. For now at least.
Back in 2010, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the equivalent of the Treasury in Australian terms) announced plans to scrap the FSA in response to a failure during the financial crisis of the 10 year old “tri-partite system”. This tri-partite system split responsibility for national financial stability management between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the FSA. The government is now working on shifting responsibility back from the FSA to the Bank of England, a process which will establish three new regulatory bodies: the Financial Policy Committee (FPC), the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). More three-letter initialisations and, dare I say it, a new tri-partite system?
Until this process is complete, the FSA continues about its business. The chairman of the FSA is Lord Adair Turner, Baron of Ecchinswell. Turner is also a member of the steering committee of the G20 Financial Stability Board (FSB). In March this year, he spoke at the London CASS business school on the topic of “shadow banking” and its role in the financial crisis.
Shadow banking, a term coined by Paul McCulley in the early days of the crisis, refers to a diverse range of entities such as “structured investment vehicles” (SIVs), hedge funds and money-market funds which have evolved to provide some very similar functions to banks, while not being subject to the same regulatory controls. A nightmare scenario for any bank is a “run”, when too many people try to withdraw their deposits at the same time. Shadow banks can also fall victim to runs. These runs may not be very obvious outside the financial markets, there are no queues of angry depositors on the streets, but they can be just as dangerous and runs on shadow banks were in fact a major factor underlying the global financial crisis. For this reason, regulators like Turner and the FSB are not only focused on strengthening controls on banks, but on better understanding shadow banks and, if possible, subjecting them to regulation to reduce the chances of future financial crises.
So what is it that shadow banks do? To answer that, I’ll first go back to the basics of banking. Although banks have evolved to provide many other products and services, the essence of banking is taking deposits and providing loans. The diagram below illustrates the flow of capital from an investor to a bank and from a bank to a borrower. Having given the bank some money, the investor now has a financial asset in the form of a deposit (and the deposit is a liability from the bank’s point of view). Likewise, the loan now represents a financial asset for the bank (and a liability from the borrower’s point of view). So the bank acts as intermediary between savers and borrowers. In doing so, however, banks act as more than a simple broker matching borrowers and lenders. Most bank lending also involves maturity transformation. More colloquially, this is known as lending long and borrowing short.
The typical depositor wants their money to be readily available in an at call transaction account. Some may be tempted by higher interest rates to put money in term deposits, usually no longer than 6 months to maturity. On the other hand, most borrowers do not want their loans due and payable too quickly. Home buyers borrow in the expectation that their earnings over coming years will allow them to pay interest and principal on their loans. Likewise, companies making capital expenditure, building factories, buying equipment or acquiring other businesses borrow in the expectation that the revenue generated by their expanded business capability will allow them to repay their loans. In both cases, the term of the loans must match the timeframes over which earnings are generated.
Some lenders will be prepared to make longer term investments, some borrowers may be able to repay more quickly, but overall there is a mismatch in maturity preferences of lenders and borrowers. Banks are in the business of bridging this gap in preferences. In the ordinary course of events, they can allow depositors to withdraw funds before loans are due to be repaid, making use of funds from other depositors, borrowing from other banks or, in need, borrowing from the central bank. But if too many borrowers withdraw at the same time and the bank is unable to meet those demands, then the bank can fail. This is known as liquidity risk, and has become an enormous focus of regulators, risk managers and rating agencies around the world in the wake of the global financial crisis.
While the financial crisis certainly highlighted the dangers of liquidity risk for commercial and investment banks such as Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers, it was outside the traditional banking sector that the greatest liquidity problems arose, particularly as a result of securitisation.
Securitisation is a form of structured finance that predates the financial crisis by many years. Essentially it involves setting up a trust (or similar legal entity) which provides loans that become the assets of the trust (often referred to as a “pool” of loans). The funds to provide these loans are obtained by selling a special kind of bond to investors, known as asset-backed securities (ABS). Principal and interest flowing from the loan pool is collected by the trust and periodically passed through to investors.
The most common form of securities bundles up pools of home loans, in which case they are referred to as residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS).
Just like a bank, the conduit is exposed to liquidity risk. Before the crisis, this risk was considered fairly low. After all, the assets of the conduit were readily trade-able securities. Most of the time the conduit could repay investors simply by issuing new ABCP to other investors but, in the unlikely event that no such investors could be found, it could simply sell the ABS. In some cases, investors were provided with additional assurance of repayment in the form of “liquidity backstops” provided by banks, essentially a guarantee that the bank would step in to repay investors in need (although these commitments were not always very clearly disclosed to bank shareholders). This whole arrangement was considered highly satisfactory and conduits typically received the highest possible rating from credit rating agencies.
Unfortunately, liquidity risk is a real risk as the world eventually discovered. Once the US mortgage market started to get into trouble in 2007, investors around the world began, quite reasonably, to be rather reluctant to invest in RMBS and other ABS. Prices on these securities began to fall. Managers of large-scale cash investment funds, until then enthusiastic buyers of ABCP, decided that more traditional cash investments were more attractive. The conduits were forced to sell ABS at precisely the time when prices were falling. Their selling pushed prices down further in a vicious cycle, a perfect illustration of the close relationship between funding liquidity risk (the risk of not being able to repay obligations) and market liquidity risk (the risk of being unable to sell financial assets at anything other than a painfully low price). As a result, some conduits were rescued by the banks backing them (“taking them back on balance sheet”), while others collapsed.
The problems of ABCP were just one example of non-bank liquidity failures during the financial crisis. Others include the venerable US money market fund, the Reserve Fund “breaking the buck” or Australian non-bank lender RAMS finding itself unable to continue funding itself by means of “extendible commercial paper” (ECP).
ABCP conduits, money-market funds, non-bank mortgage lenders along with many other non-bank financiers that make up the shadow banking sector had well and truly entered the business of maturity transformation and are all exposed to significant liquidity risk as a result. There are many linkages between banks and these shadow banks, whether through commitments such as liquidity backstops, direct lending or even partial or complete ownership. Regulators are concerned that too much risk in the shadow banking sector means too much risk for banks and too much risk for the financial system as a whole.
One strategy for regulators is to enforce a cordon sanitaire around banks, protecting them from shadow banks. But many, including Lord Turner, worry that is not enough to protect our global financial system with its complex interconnections from damage when shadow banks fail. Ideally they would like to regulate shadow banks as well, preventing them from running too much liquidity risk. But this is not an easy task. As the name suggests, it is not easy to see what is going on in the world of shadow banks, even for well-informed financial regulators.