Remember, during the presidential campaign, how we all kept
going on and on about how smart Barack Obama is? Remember?
Turns out we were wrong! I can't speak to topics like foreign
affairs or macroeconomics, but I do know about banking. And I will
say flat out that Obama's approach to dealing with bankers and the
banking industry has been brainless. It is shocking to see what the
guy appears to not know.
On Monday, the President summoned the heads of the country's big
banks to try to jawbone them into lending more. "America's big
banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers,"
he said after the meeting. "Now that they're back on their feet, we
expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild the
Really? If the President wants the banks to start lending more,
he might spend less time yammering at CEOs and more time talking to
his own regulators. They don't seem to have gotten the memo.
Instead, regulators are apparently doing all they can to ensure
that banks keep their lending to a minimum. For example, they now
seem to be insisting banks maintain minimum capital standards
meaningfully above the published, official bogeys. Before the
credit crunch hit, for instance, OCC policy said a bank would be
considered "adequately capitalized" if it carried a Tier 1 capital
ratio of 4%, and "well-capitalized" if it carried a Tier 1 ratio of
6%. It was simple. Right there in print.
And now-who knows? Regulators won't come out and admit they've
moved the goalposts but, as multiple conversations I've lately had
with bank CEOs show, they have. Now, apparently, it takes a 10%
Tier 1 ratio to be considered well-capitalized, and regulators
don't mind if banks are even a tad over that. This is not an
official policy change, remember, but rather a de facto shift
that's happening at bank after bank across the country.
Mr. President, the arithmetic couldn't be simpler: the higher
the capital ratio, the less credit is available and the more it
costs! So if you want more credit to flow into economy, tell your
regulators to stop the freelancing and stick to their published
policy. It should be a short conversation. They work for you. You
might also tell them to ease off their tactic of forcing banks to
downgrade (and take added reserves for) loans that are current and
cash-flowing. Each loan is different, of course, but if a borrower
has managed to stay current to this point in the cycle, his lender
isn't necessarily being imprudent if it gives him the benefit of
the doubt. Otherwise, banks will have to take redundant reserves
and will have less capital to use to facilitate lending. This
really isn't hard.
President Obama's ignorance of how banking works seems to be
nearly encyclopedic. He accuses the banks he spoke with Monday of
playing a big role in causing the credit crunch. For the most part,
they did not. (The main culprits have all long since collapsed.) He
says the big banks should be grateful for the "extraordinary
assistance" they received from the government. But except for Citi
), none of the big banks even wanted the money. He keeps pushing
this misbegotten Consumer Financial Protection Agency. But the
effect of the CFPA would be
to constrict credit
, not expand it. His understanding of reality seems to be upside
down and backwards.
It's also jarring to hear the President talk about the
"extraordinary commitment" he expects lenders to now make. The last
time the government wanted that kind of concerted effort from the
lending industry, things didn't turn out so well. Then, the goal
was the expansion of home ownership-everyone from President Bush to
Barney Frank was all for it-and the key tool banks used to get
there was an emphasis on subprime lending. I don't need to remind
you how that ended.
The banking business isn't complicated. Banks borrow money at
one interest rate and turn it around and lend it at another, higher
rate. If enough borrowers repay their loans, banks will turn a
profit and will be able to lend even more. A kind of virtuous
circle will ensue. If enough borrowers don't repay their loans, all
hell breaks loose. That's why political meddling in the lending
business (that is, elected officials lobbying bankers to make
uneconomic loans) can be so toxic to the economy. I don't get why
President Obama persists in meddling now.
Nobody is asking Barack Obama to turn into the second coming of
J.P. Morgan. But he might at least grasp the basics. Can't any of
the economic graybeards who endorsed him last year pick up the
phone and explain the way the world works? We're told he's very
bright. It wouldn't likely be a long or difficult conversation.
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