Friday, September 19, 2008

How to Save the Financial System

When he speaks, you should listen....

Think a guy who was Chairman of the FDIC might know something about averting financial disaster?
I do...

Mr. William Isaac, was chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 1981-1985.  He's written an article in today's Wall Street Journal that moves aside from the "blame game" being engaged in by both clueless Presidential candidates and many other politicians (who created the damn problem to begin with).  

He too is calling for the elimination of a number of suicidal requirements that were hastily enacted into law or regulation, following the Enron debacle, by our less-than astute Representatives.  

It hasn't been greed, or corruption, that has caused the current situation (although I'm sure that there's enough of that anywhere you want to look - it's called the human condition), instead it's been bad regulations.

The biggest culprit is a change in our accounting rules that the Financial Accounting Standards Board and the SEC put into place over the past 15 years: Fair Value Accounting. Fair Value Accounting dictates that financial institutions holding financial instruments available for sale (such as mortgage-backed securities) must mark those assets to market. That sounds reasonable. But what do we do when the already thin market for those assets freezes up and only a handful of transactions occur at extremely depressed prices?
The answer to date from the SEC, FASB, bank regulators and the Treasury has been (more or less) "mark the assets to market even though there is no meaningful market." The accounting profession, scarred by decades of costly litigation, just keeps marking down the assets as fast as it can.
This is contrary to everything we know about bank regulation. When there are temporary impairments of asset values due to economic and marketplace events, regulators must give institutions an opportunity to survive the temporary impairment. Assets should not be marked to unrealistic fire-sale prices. Regulators must evaluate the assets on the basis of their true economic value (a discounted cash-flow analysis).

If we had followed today's approach during the 1980s, we would have nationalized all of the major banks in the country and thousands of additional banks and thrifts would have failed. I have little doubt that the country would have gone from a serious recession into a depression.

 If we do not halt the insanity of forcing financial firms to mark assets to a nonexistent market rather than their realistic economic value, the cancer will keep spreading and will plunge the world into very difficult economic times for years to come.must take three immediate steps to prevent a further rash of financial failures and taxpayer bailouts.
 First, the SEC must suspend Fair Value Accounting and require that assets be marked to their true economic value. Second, the SEC needs to immediately clamp down on abusive practices by short sellers. It has taken a first step in reinstituting the prohibition against "naked selling." Finally, the bank regulators need to acknowledge that the Basel II capital rules represent a serious policy mistake and repeal the rules before they do real damage.
We are almost out of time if we hope to eradicate the cancer in our financial system.

As I write this article, I am seeing proposals by some to create a new Resolution Trust Corp., as we did in the 1990s to clean up the S&L problems. The RTC managed and sold assets from S&Ls that had already failed. It was run by the FDIC, just like the FDIC. We needed to create the RTC in the 1990s only because we could not comingle the assets from failed banks with those of failed thrifts, because we had two separate deposit insurance funds absorbing the respective losses from bank and thrift failures.
I can't imagine why we would want to create another government bureaucracy to handle the assets from bank failures. What we need to do urgently is stop the failures, and an RTC won't do that.

 Here's the rest of the story....


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