Monday, October 13, 2008

The immediate crisis is passing ... what the future must look like ...

Yes, the immediate crisis is now in the process of passing, with all the extraordinary measures taken to assure the financial system remains liquid. There will still be, perhaps, moments of further high-wire acts over the next 12-24 months, but these now appear less likely to take down the entire financial system, given the exceptional world-wide commitment to blitzkrieg measures as necessary.

I think that, given the unbelievable bungling by companies, CEOs , and boards in the banking and insurance sectors, a round of applause is due to central banks, and governments, world-wide in managing the crisis. This isn't the same as saying that they took measures to prevent the crisis from arising but, once it was upon us, took appropriate measures to make sure this didn't become "The Great Depression, II".

Given the enormous failure of systemic corporate foresight and governance on an individualized corporate basis, governments must now take steps to regulate systemic strength and redundancy into both the banking and insurance sectors. The government must also reform obscene and excessive-risk-encouraging executive pay schemes, since boards have clearly failed to perform their duties to protect shareholders in particular and, as a group, their actions have endangered society in particular.

Here's some quick thoughts on what some of this regulation can and should look like (by the way, corporate boards, take some notes in case this doesn't get legislated, as it's still solid corporate practice: good and prudent governance, if you will):

Never again allow the total disconnect between the lender and borrower to occur, by mandating that any pools of capital moved "off balance sheet" (i.e. sold to hapless investors), have some significant portion retained by the originating institution. Whether that amount is 15%, 25% or 50% should be thought about carefully, with the two competing objectives of robustness of system, and efficiency of capital, duly and thoughtfully considered.

The FDIC and similar institutions need to consider "100 year events" in pricing their deposit insurance, as secular increases or declines playing out over a couple of decades can hide fundamental flaws in this type of insurance pricing (i.e. the current scenario). The pricing needs to properly reflect the risk of the loan book of a particular institution - in other words, those playing in areas of the pool with no lifeguard, need to have appropriately steep insurance costs to discourage the most egregious type of risk-taking - or alternatively, to protect the general public when the inevitable failures occur. More highly levered institutions also need to pay higher premiums.

Anything that looks or smells like some sort of insurance scheme is appropriately reserved. This means that pretty much anything that is insurance against some other event, and involves a trade (swap) of potential event happenings, or pricings etc. It doesn't take a financial genius to recognize that things that are "insurance" aren't always called "insurance". Here's some keywords for regulators, boards and investors to think as insurance: "hedge", "swap", "obligation" (in certain contexts), "derivatives", and so on. No longer should these be allowed to be unreserved. They are all some type of insurance, and need appropriate regulation and reserving to recognize those risks.

Pay schemes:
Federally regulated industries need to have banned, outright, stock option grants. Options encourage excessive risk taking, without the offsetting consideration to downside risk. A winner take all mentality, if you will. This must be discouraged, as it produces unacceptable systemic risk.

In fact, had boards collectively produced proper and appropriate compensation schemes, I argue that much of these systemic excesses may never have happened. For further thoughts on executive pay reform, go here. (In fact, I'd now go one step further and say that the CEO should have to own stock equivalent to at least two years base pay during his entire tenure + eighteen months, as CEO).


The Confused Capitalist


Chris said...

I tried contacting you before, didnt receive a response.

Can you please email me at chris.hamilton @


Jay Walker said...

I have sent you at least one email Chris - I'll do so one more time.