April 9, 2012

Bernanke Offers No QE3 Salve, Talks Up Regulatory Role

Fed chairman outlines steps central bank is taking to thwart systemic risk

Ben Bernanke after a FOMC meeting last year. (Photo: AP) Ben Bernanke after a FOMC meeting last year. (Photo: AP)

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke had nothing to say to soothe panicked investors in a keynote speech Monday night at the Federal Reserve’s Atlanta bank following a day in which the major U.S. stock market indexes shed 1% or more.

In the face of continued weak economic growth, the chatter on Wall Street has long focused on what tools the Fed might employ to provide further monetary stimulus, be it a sort of Quantitative Easing III or Operation Twist II.

The Fed has often sought to reassure jittery markets at times of economic weakness, and last Friday’s dismal March jobs report—which at 120,000 jobs came in far below the 200,000 consensus estimate and below even the 125,000 jobs considered necessary just to keep up with population growth—may have raised expectations for Monday night’s speech.

In the event, Bernanke’s speech focused entirely on the Fed’s regulatory functions, particularly with regard to the so-called shadow banking system where financial institutions often carry out bank-like functions under looser supervision. The shadow banking system, Bernanke said, creates “potential channels for the propagation of shocks through the financial system and the economy.”

He cited money market funds and asset-backed commercial paper as examples of instruments that intermediate credit as banks do, but which lack the “protections afforded by deposit insurance and access to the Federal Reserve's discount window.” Bernanke said that measures advocated by SEC chairwoman Mary Schapiro to require funds to maintain capital buffers or allow net asset values to float rather than maintain a fixed $1 value “warrant serious consideration.”

Even while detailing increased supervisory efforts in money market funds, securitization, securities lending and the repo market, and tighter scrutiny of banks and shadow banking entities, the Fed chairman acknowledged that “an inevitable side effect of new regulations is that the system will adapt in ways that push risk-taking from more-regulated to less-regulated areas.”

Bernanke therefore argued that the Fed, which has decades of experience gathering data and using tools that help it coordinate monetary policy, must now develop equal sophistication in the area of systemic stability. He outlined a number of steps the Fed is taking to that end.

The U.S. central bank created, in 2009, the Large Institution Supervision Coordinating Committee whose task is to go beyond the traditional “firm-by-firm approach to supervision” with “cross-firm reviews to monitor industry practices, common trading and funding strategies, balance sheet developments, interconnectedness, and other factors with implications for systemic risk.”

The cross-firm approach to regulation can be seen in the recent stress testing of the 19 largest bank holding companies. Bernanke said the review “helped us better evaluate the resilience of the system as a whole, including the capacity of the banking system to continue to make credit available to households and businesses if the economy were to perform very poorly.”

Similarly, the Fed now routinely monitors U.S. bank exposures in Europe to evaluate the potential for sovereign debt developments there to disrupt credit flows in the U.S.

Under authority granted by the Dodd-Frank financial legislation, the Fed is now empowered to establish standards for the largest bank holding companies and systemically important nonbank financial firms alike. Bernanke said the Fed, together with the FDIC, issued a rule requiring these institutions to produce a “living will”—a plan for an orderly resolution in the event of failure.

Internationally, Bernanke said the Fed was working with other central banks to develop a Basel III framework to boost the quality and quantity of capital and liquidity buffers, including the imposition of capital surcharges based on the “firms’ global systemic importance.”

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