Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Betting on Where the Next Basel Inspired Crisis Will Turn Up

From The Economist:
The most serious failure in Basel III is that it doesn't address the principal contribution of Basel II to the last financial crisis, namely, the calculation of risk-weights. One of the key components of Basel II was to increase the amount of capital banks had to hold against riskier assets. Extremely low-risk assets, meanwhile, could be held with very little or even no capital. Risk, moreover, was calculated primarily by reference to the rating assigned by one of the recognised ratings agencies. The consequence of this Basel II reform was to discourage banks from lending to risky enterprises, and to encourage the accumulation of apparently risk-free assets. This was a primary contributor to the structured finance craze, as securitisation was a way to "manufacture" apparently risk-free assets out of risky pools. What brought banks like Citigroup and Bank of America to their knees wasn't direct exposure to sub-prime loans, but exposure to triple-A-rated debt backed by pools of such loans, debt which turned out not to be risk-free at all.

Since it did not change this risk-weighting, Basel III effectively doubles down on Basel II. Banks will need to hold more common equity than ever—against their risk-weighted assets. That massively increases the incentive to find low-risk-weight assets with some return, since these assets can be leveraged much more highly than risky assets. Unless I've missed something, lending to AA-rated sovereigns still carries a risk-weight of zero. So one result of Basel III could be to encourage banks to increase their lending to sovereigns at the margins of zero-risk-weight status. If that happens, anyone want to guess where the next crisis will crop up?
Note: Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae paper incredibly carry a near-zero risk weight!

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