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Bank group tries to burst the next bubble

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 10:23 PM

A committee writing new international financial standards has recommended strict new guidelines to restrain bank lending, an idea considered central to preventing the global financial system from overheating, but one that some feel could choke off needed credit for households and businesses.

U.S. officials say they have already decided to ignore key parts of the proposal because of the potentially damaging impact to the country's economy. Data released by the group, the Switzerland-based Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, indicates that under the proposed guidelines, U.S. banks would have faced restrictions on lending for at least 13 of the 23 years from 1985 to 2007 - including the time when the economy was recovering from the collapse of the tech bubble and Sept. 11, 2001.

Although U.S. officials say they agree with the overall aim of the recommendations - to curb the type of runaway lending that can fuel a financial crisis - they are researching alternative ways to achieve the same end.

"Lending is what helps the good times continue," said Scott Talbott, a vice president for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry trade group. "You don't want a buffer that creates a wet blanket."

But some analysts argue that by not making the recommendations mandatory, the panel was skirting one of the chief causes of the recent crisis.

Restraining credit from too much growth "is a centerpiece" of what's needed, said Morris Goldstein, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "That's what does the best over time. That does not mean you will get it right all the time. You will get false positives" that prompt regulators to restrain an economy unnecessarily, he said. But, "if you don't have this, you really take the heart out of it."

The proposal might face a chilly reception in parts of Europe as well. According to the committee's data, Britain would face bank restrictions even as it struggles with a tepid recovery.

Still, the committee, comprised of central bankers and regulators from major countries, including the United States, said its non-binding guidelines address a core problem: that when times are good, financial institutions tend to lend more freely in a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages risky credit and other bubbles.

The recommendations try to break that cycle by forcing banks to hold more cash and other capital in reserve if credit grows too fast - a step that would raise banks' costs and serve as an effective brake on lending.

Countries should boost bank capital requirements "when there is evidence that the stock of credit has grown to excessive levels relative to the benchmarks of past experience," the committee concluded.

Based on the committee's analysis of previous crises, it recommended that extra capital requirements be imposed on banks when a nation's pool of credit, compared with the size of its economy, reaches more than 2 percent above its historical norm.

The amount of extra capital would increase steadily if credit continued to expand, eventually forcing banks to set aside perhaps 30 percent more in their reserves than usually required.

Similarly, the extra capital requirement would be lifted if the economy slows, in an effort to encourage more lending.

Initially, Basel officials had intended this proposal as one of their main reforms, hoping to produce a global standard to guard against large credit build-ups. However, they were unable to reach consensus, with European nations - their economies heavily reliant on lending by traditional banks - worried about possible restraints on growth and the United States concerned about adapting Basel's statistical yardsticks to its own financial system.

The document released Thursday, while precise in the formulas it recommends, acknowledges that national regulators will have to take local circumstances into account in deciding whether credit and lending markets are overheating.

Financial industry officials have endorsed many of the Basel principles, including recent recommendations to require higher overall capital levels and larger cash holdings to tide over a bank in a crisis. Those guidelines have been accepted by the United States and other major financial centers and are due to be implemented in coming years.

The committee on Thursday estimated how much extra capital banks might have to raise, putting the figure at about $650 billion for larger institutions. Banks will have several years to raise the money, and industry analysts said they did not think it would pose a problem. Many U.S. banks have already reported adequate capital to meet the new rules.

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