Practical analysis for investment professionals
27 June 2017

Sir Paul Tucker: Systemic Risk and Threats to Financial Capitalism

Sir Paul Tucker is not shy about making an audience feel uncomfortable.

In fact, the crowd was rather ill at ease during Tucker’s presentation at the 70th CFA Institute Annual Conference, and not just because the topic was systemic risk.

“A stable financial system is deeply in the interest of your clients,” the former deputy governor of the Bank of England and current chair of the Systemic Risk Council told the audience. “You and your clients have a massive stake in the direction of banking reforms.”

But we are still only a third of the way through the adjustment process following the vortex of 2008–2009. Globally, only the US Federal Reserve is unwinding the monetary stimulus initiated during the financial crisis. The European Central Bank (ECB) is actually contemplating further stimulatory measures.

With interest rates effectively still at 0%, the current environment is still quite artificial. Investors can’t really have robust views on relative asset prices and risk premia with rates at zero, according to Tucker. Yet when he plucked the figure of 5% rates out of the air, he caused audible alarm, if not a shiver of fear, among the audience.

Regulatory Rollback?

Should we be concerned if financial reforms are rolled back? The stakes are high. Tucker believes the very fabric of capitalism would be stretched by another crisis, a perspective with which it is hard to disagree. Some regulatory reforms around the world are not even fully implemented or finalized yet. When a recession inevitably develops, Tucker believes there will be fewer policy tools left to deal with it.

So, is the system even safe? Although averse to rules-based regulation, Tucker thinks the core banking system is now actually better capitalized, with more equity and resilience to absorb shocks, than before.

But the global environment is less stable after 10 years of monetary stimulus than policy makers could have imagined a decade ago. And their hands are tied. The absolute level of debt is higher now than in 2007, and today most debt sits in the public domain rather than the household sector, where it was 10 years ago.

The authorities have less ammunition in their macroeconomic arsenals than in 2008–2009. Growth must come from productivity improvements. The scale of quantitative easing (QE) undertaken in the recent past precludes future asset buying because, for one thing, there isn’t much left for central banks to buy. Finally, Basel III was formulated without the current circumstances in mind.

Tucker had several observations that, taken together, suggest deregulation might perhaps have gone too far since the crisis.

  1. The core of the banking system must carry more tangible common equity.
  2. The core system needs to be much less exposed to liquidity risk.
  3. Central bankers and regulators should take a systemwide view that focuses less on legal form than the economic realities, and more on what an intermediary structure actually does.
  4. We should seek a simplified network of exposures among banks and insurers.
  5. Enhanced resolution policies for financial intermediaries should be introduced.

This last point is most important for Tucker. Resolution policies must incentivize intermediaries to make the financial system resilient.

Any bank or intermediary failures should not be socialized. Failure is a critical aspect of the market process and the healthy functioning of capitalism, according to Tucker. But we can’t rely on government regulators to always spot when a firm might be failing. Instead, we should harness market forces and make transparent the kind of information bond managers need to correctly price securities. Central clearing and counterparties must be part of this transparent system. If banks are allowed to fail, then so should the counterparties.

Referring back to the last crisis, in which the US subprime housing bubble may have nearly brought down the world financial system, Tucker believes politics will inevitably come into play because the ordinary people pay the price for failures.

Tucker does not want to discourage innovation, but he said current circumstances require a systemwide perspective. We cannot go back to the 1950s world of Glass-Steagall, nor should we seek to distinguish too much among forms of nonbank finance. The regulators will always be one step behind the industry.

Finally, Tucker reminded the audience that the United States has a massive stake in international collaboration, a point particularly apt given the political climate.

In financial terms, countries are highly interlinked and interdependent. A return to capital controls regimes is the only technical way to create a fail-safe system, but regulators are highly unlikely to go back to that. The only strategy that will make our banking and financial systems safe is to collaborate internationally.

“Customers matter,” Tucker concluded, telling the audience of finance professionals, “The success of financial capitalism relies on no community more than yours.”

This article originally appeared on the 70th CFA Institute Annual Conference blog. Experience the conference online through the Virtual Link. It’s an insider’s perspective with archived videos of select sessions, exclusive speaker interviews, discussions of current topics, and updates on CFA Institute initiatives.

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Photo courtesy of W. Scott Mitchell

About the Author(s)
Mark Harrison, CFA

Mark Harrison, CFA, was director of journal publications at CFA Institute, where he supported a suite of member publications, including the Financial Analysts Journal, In Practice summaries, and CFA Digest. He has more than 12 years of investment experience as a portfolio manager and securities analyst. Harrison is a graduate of the University of Oxford.

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