Small rallies notwithstanding, we are experiencing the most dangerous financial period since the 1930s. In the year since this crisis erupted, huge losses have threatened the solvency of our largest financial institutions. As a result, the Federal Reserve has been forced into increasingly difficult emergency actions, including the rescues of the investment firm Bear Stearns and the mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to prevent the entire system from collapsing. To the Fed’s credit, these efforts have worked so far. But financial market conditions may yet worsen and put too much pressure on the Fed.
Legally, the Fed can extend virtually unlimited support to our financial system. If forced, it could reduce short-term interest rates to zero and rescue 10 more financial giants. But there is a point beyond which confidence in the Fed could erode. The downside would be a rise in the inflation rate, a weaker dollar and higher long-term interest rates.
The Federal Reserve is not yet at the edge of that cliff. Let’s hope that further emergencies won’t drag it over. But we must prevent our financial system, and the Fed, from being stretched like this again.
This means addressing the weaknesses that allowed financial firms too much leverage and too little disclosure. Our entire regulatory system, conceived long ago for a different financial world, must be rebuilt. The next president will have no choice but to undertake this task next year.
Today, regulatory authority is divided among the Federal Reserve, the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, state banking regulators and state insurance regulators. That’s too many players.
What’s more, this balkanized system supervises only half of the relevant financial universe. It neglects investment banks, hedge funds and institutions like mortgage companies that issue asset-backed securities. The assets of these unregulated entities total about $10 trillion — which is the same amount we see on the regulated side.
The unregulated institutions pose particular risks because they are highly leveraged and financed primarily through short-term money markets rather than customer deposits. And unlike big banks, many of them do not disclose their finances to the public.
The Bear Stearns case vividly illustrated the dangers that come with lack of regulation and transparency. Although Bear Stearns carried $300 billion in liabilities, it was not supervised by the Fed. When it began to fail, the Fed correctly judged that the system might not withstand the shock and arranged a rescue. But suddenly, the Fed was standing behind both the larger banks it regulates and the major investment banks it does not. This cannot continue.
The next president must first create a single framework for the major financial borrowers, administered by the Federal Reserve alone. This wider regulatory umbrella should be more conservative. In particular, the minimum levels of capital and liquidity that financial institutions are required to maintain should be higher than they have been in recent years. And the institutions should put in place better and more detailed systems for reporting — internally as well as to regulators and the public — on all the risks they are taking.
These steps, as they make institutions more stable, will also reduce their financial leverage and thus their ability to generate earnings. Their managements won’t like it, but the institutions — and, indeed, the entire financial system and the Fed itself — will be less exposed when severe turbulence hits the financial markets again.
For its part, the S.E.C. should require that publicly owned financial institutions provide more data in their quarterly reports. Any risks that the institutions retain, whether on or off their balance sheets, should be disclosed. And they should better explain the methods they use to determine the values of their own assets.
To fulfill its wider supervisory role, the Fed should also be given the authority to collect data from firms that are not publicly owned, including hedge funds and commodities trading firms.
Finally, much stronger restrictions should be imposed on the kinds of predatory mortgage-lending practices that preceded this crisis. The Fed recently proposed new rules for banks that would, for example, require better verification of borrowers’ income and reduce onerous prepayment penalties. These rules should be applied to all mortgage lenders. For those institutions not managed by the Fed, the rules should be enforced by other federal agencies or state banking regulators.
It usually takes a severe crisis to bring about systemic change. The upside to the punishing turmoil in our financial system is the growing probability that regulatory overhaul is at hand. And that’s good, because without it the Fed might be unable to save the system next time.
Roger C. Altman, the deputy secretary of the Treasury during the first Clinton administration.