Barry Ritholtz: How the FDIC can curb banks’ reckless speculation

Barry Ritholtz
Columnist June 1, 2012

Let’s be blunt: Banking has devolved into an unruly mess.

After years of deregulation, it has become all but impossible to re-regulate modern banking. There was a brief window during the credit crisis, but that has passed. Today, profits trump soundness. Safety and security are secondary to risk-taking and speculation.

Ritholtz is chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. View Archive

I have been wondering what we, as a democratic nation, are going to do about this. Are we going to rule banks, or are bankers going to rule us?

My curiosity got the best of me. To find the answer, I slipped off in my time machine to the near future. While I was there, I learned that (yeah!) we had ended Too Big to Fail, eliminated taxpayer liability for reckless speculation, and freed hedge funds and investment banks from onerous regulations. In short, in the future, they seem to have figured out how to make the entire financial system safer and more stable. All this, based on a simple rule change from the FDIC.

I managed to sneak back home a copy of the letter behind that fascinating development. That letter from the office of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s chairman, circa 2015, follows:

June 3, 2015

Dear Banker,

Thank you for your cooperation in our most recent series of bank stress tests. We had hoped that these would not be necessary, but after the credit crises of 2007-08 and the banking crises of 2014, the FDIC simply had no choice.

The results of these stress tests, especially as applied to our largest banks, are terribly troubling. Trading losses of billions of dollars have made it apparent that nearly every major depository bank is in a far more precarious financial condition than previously believed. It is as if many of our largest banks never fully recovered from the earlier crisis and now lack sufficient capital to withstand any further pressure.

This is especially concerning if the economy takes yet another turn for the worse or housing begins its third leg down.

Capital reserves are insufficient to support the trillions of insured deposits at these banks. Ever since interest rates hit record lows and the 10-year Treasury bond broke 1.5 percent, leveraged speculation has become the primary business of the largest FDIC-insured banks. We have grave concerns about the safety and soundness of these insured depositories. The ongoing collapse in Europe, the wild currency swings around the world, and that recent turmoil in China have all made the current state of finance extremely risky.

Following the most recent bank failures, the reserve position of the FDIC Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF) has fallen to perilously low levels. This pool of capital is the backstop for public money deposited in demand accounts at large and small banks around the nation. Given these exigent circumstances, the FDIC cannot sit idly by while speculation in derivatives and other complex financial instruments exhausts the DIF, thus putting taxpayers’ money at great risk. Nor can we assume unlimited liability in guaranteeing deposits at firms where trading in derivatives is creating additional liabilities to the FDIC (and taxpayers) that is measured in the trillions of dollars.

Therefore, as chairman of the FDIC, with the full support of my board of directors, we have decided upon the changes in the regulations covering federal deposit insurance:

1. Effectively immediately, we have increased the FDIC deposit insurance for any U.S. bank that engages in ANY trading of derivatives or underwriting securities or other investment banking activities by threefold. This threefold fee increase goes into effect immediately. It applies whether these trades are hedges for proprietary trades or are made on behalf of clients.

2. Effective in 90 days, we are LOWERING the maximum insured deposit liability to $100,000 per account for derivative trading firms. Effective in 180 days, the insured maximum insured deposit liability will drop to $50,000 per account.

3. Effective one year from today, on May 23, 2016, we will no longer offer deposit insurance for any firm that engages in derivative trading or securities underwriting or that engages in investment banking.

4. Any bank with fewer than 1,000 depositors or less than $1 billion in assets may apply for a discretionary waiver of these rules.

We have been forced to make these changes because of the very real risks that your leveraged derivative trading has created. One or more of you may suffer an enormous loss, and that poses a risk to the DIF. Our governing statute requires the FDIC to act in such circumstances.

It is not our position to tell you what sort of non-depository banking activities you may engage in. Those are business choices you and your firm are free to make. However, it is our position not to engage in foolish insurance underwriting. We have elected to be more conservative in our risk management as well as the underwriting assumptions we make. Therefore, we cannot guarantee the kinds of risks that your firms have been undertaking.

This action should delight many of you. In the recent speeches of several bank CEOs, many of you have longed for a return to the days of less regulation and a truer free market. Once you no longer qualify for our insurance due to your other businesses, you will be freed up from all of the onerous bank reviews and regulations that are part and parcel of FDIC insurance.

As a bonus, without the intervention of government guarantees, those of you who continue to have depositors will finally be able to compete in a free and open market. Without FDIC insurance, your depositors will be making their decisions based on your reputation and their assessment of the safety and security of your operations — and not Uncle Sam’s willingness to continually bail you out.

You have the FDIC’s best wishes for success in the future — just not our insurance.

If you have any further questions, feel free to contact my office.

Thomas Hoenig

Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation

Ritholtz is chief executive of FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. You can follow him on Twitter: @Ritholtz

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