I was re-reading last week’s The Economist last night when I happened across the Buttonwood column that I had missed on my first pass. The title, “Heart of Glass” was not promising, but the tagline was very interesting – “Existing regulation seems to encourage banks to get into trouble.

Buttonwood makes the very valid point that, despite often being derided as the “Wild West” operators, the hedge funds have come through all this (so far at least) without too many major losses. Only a very few have failed (I can think of only one so far, although I am sure there are more) and there have not been many major losses announced.

Banks, on the other hand, have not had a good record. Apart from actually being behind much of the lending that actually caused the issues in the first place the big losses also seem to be concentrated there – just not in the banks that originated the loans. The question Buttonwood asks, but ultimately shies away from is this – is this despite, or because of, the regulations?

Buttonwood puts it this way:

This suggests two main possibilities. Either the standard of bank regulation is very poor or there is something about being regulated that leads to trouble.

The answer from Buttonwood is that it is both – but clearly puts more weight on the first. I would, respectfully, disagree on where the weight should lie.

There are many faults with bank regulation around the world – Basel I, for example, I regard as having improved matters to the extent it was global, but made matters worse by its reliance on simple rules – for example that a loan secured on residential real estate shall attract a 50% weight – regardless as to whether it was super-prime, prime or sub-prime. It also created strong incentives to “game” the system by the “originate and distribute” model that really gave rise to securitisations. This gave a logical reason why a bank may choose to eliminate assets from its balance sheet (other than the possibility they were bad assets) and the market for these assets grew – and ultimately the market got fed some rubbish oops, I mean high-yield assets.

Basel II, particularly the Advanced methodologies, is much better in that economic capital is much closer to regulatory capital – a point I have made many times. It is, however, nearly impossible for smaller banks to implement and most regulators have also said that, to an extent at least, Basel I will effectively continue to apply for a while through the capital flaws floors.

The incentive to game the system, then, will continue, particularly for the banks going Standardised. There are also many other examples of regulations that, while possibly carefully thought out, end up causing many more problems than the one they were originally designed to stop (submissions invited in comments).

Buttonwood’s proposed solution is, essentially, to re-introduce the US Glass-Steagal Act of 1933, essentially separating commercial banks (that interact with the general public) and investment banks (that do not). The commercial banks would attract a government guarantee and the investment banks would be free to fail. Entities like Citigroup would have to break themselves into two.

In the (probably too many) years I have been dealing with bank regulation I have seen it fall into several categories – ranging from the ones that simply mandate what would otherwise be common sense to the merely annoying to the outright catastrophic. The last ones tend to be introduced and then pulled pretty quickly.

Some of it is needed for legal or criminal purposes – AML/CTF falls into this category. For the rest I would like, as I have said earlier, to see the regulation substantially removed (or at least pared back) and solutions other than a single monolithic regulator for each country to be tried. If a single regulator gets it wrong now the whole system is at risk until the government rides in on its White Charger – see Northern Rock. A truly competitive system would not allow a single regulator to have that much downside o

n its failure.