Turn a Blind Eye to Credit Risk?

When a bank makes a loan to a business it assumes some risk that the loan will go bad. Regulators, when they do their job, demand that the bank estimate that risk and hold capital against it. That’s safe and sound banking.

What if a bank embeds the same loan inside a derivative it sells to the business? Should the regulators treat that credit risk the same and demand that the bank estimate that risk and hold capital against it? Six U.S. Senators say “no.” They want bank regulators to turn a blind eye to credit risk so long as that risk is packaged inside an OTC swap. So much for safe and sound banking.

Yesterday Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) filed a bill (S. 3480) designed to block bank regulators from recognizing the credit risk embedded in OTC derivatives sold to end-users. Naturally the Senators’ press releases wax lyrical about how their bill protects these end-users by lowering their costs of managing risk. This is a dangerous illusion.

All American businesses suffer when the U.S. financial system is made unsafe and unsound. Following on the Dodd-Frank Act, banking regulators last year proposed a sensible rule finally requiring banks to properly recognize the credit risk embedded in the derivatives they sell. That’s safe and sound banking, and if this country can find its way back to a safe and sound banking system all of America’s businesses will benefit.

The proposed bill seeks to reverse course, directing bank regulators to turn a blind eye once again to obvious risks. It’s a seductive proposition. With a stroke of a pen, the Senators believe they can save a few businesses the costs associated with this credit risk. But no act of law can actually erase the credit risk and the associated cost. The proposed bill only encourages more unsound trading and the accumulation of unaccounted for risk. For a short while, certain businesses will benefit by not having to pay full fare for the risks they add to the banking system. It’s always good while the party lasts. But, in the end, we all lose.

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