In Ring-Fencing, Professor Steven Schwarcz provides an insightful overview of the concept of “ring-fencing” as a “potential regulatory solution to problems in banking, finance, public utilities, and insurance.” As Professor Schwarcz explains, “ring-fencing can best be understood as legally deconstructing a firm in order to more optimally reallocate and reduce risk.” Ring-fencing has gained particular prominence in recent years as a strategy for limiting the systemic risk of large financial conglomerates (also referred to herein as “universal banks”). Professor Schwarcz describes several ring-fencing plans that have been adopted or proposed in the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union.
This Comment argues that “narrow banking” is a highly promising ring-fencing remedy for the problems created by universal banks. Narrow banking would strictly separate the deposit-taking function of universal banks from their capital markets activities. If properly implemented, narrow banking could significantly reduce the safety net subsidies currently exploited by large financial conglomerates and thereby diminish their incentives for excessive risk-taking.
Steven Schwarcz’s “Ring-Fencing” gets much of its impact from its broad definition of the term, which is usually heard these days when thinking about whether a multinational bank ought to be forbidden from removing the assets of its branches in one country to support its activities in another.
One of the singular contributions of the article lies in its willingness to look beyond that use of the term to think about what ring-fencing means more broadly and conceptually. As Schwarcz observes, ring-fencing is nothing less than a way to allocate resources, regulate firms, and reassure stakeholders that could be applied any enterprise. The ring-fencing metaphor posits the separation of assets within a firm—some are inside the ring fence, and others are not. To Schwarcz this amounts to “legally deconstructing a firm in order to more optimally reallocate and reduce risk,” which could include any restructuring involving holding companies, off-balance sheet entities, and even the creation of corporate subsidiaries.
Three scandals have reshaped business regulation over the past thirty years: the securities fraud prosecution of Michael Milken in 1988, the Enron implosion of 2001, and the Goldman Sachs “ABACUS” enforcement action of 2010. The scandals have always been seen as unrelated. This Article highlights a previously unnoticed transactional affinity tying these scandals together—a deal structure known as the synthetic collateralized debt obligation involving the use of a special purpose entity (“SPE”). The SPE is a new and widely used form of corporate alter ego designed to undertake transactions for its creator’s accounting and regulatory benefit.
The SPE remains mysterious and poorly understood despite its use in framing transactions involving trillions of dollars and its prominence in foundational scandals. The traditional corporate alter ego was a subsidiary or affiliate with equity control. The SPE eschews equity control in favor of control through preset instructions emanating from transactional documents. In theory, these instructions are complete or very close thereto, making SPEs a real-world manifestation of the “nexus of contracts” firm of economic and legal theory. In practice, however, formal designations of separateness do not always stand up under the strain of economic reality.
In the early months of the financial crisis that started in August 2007, Citigroup suddenly had to take onto its balance sheet $25 billion of assets–which, due to subprime mortgage exposure, were worth on the market only a third the amount that Citigroup was required to pay for them. The reason for the appearance of these troubled assets on the bank’s balance sheet was a liquidity guarantee provided by Citibank from the time it originally sold the assets to protect short-term lenders from the possibility that their debt could not be refinanced at maturity. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission would conclude that such guarantees helped “bring the huge financial conglomerate to the brink of failure.”
The assets in question were collateralized debt obligations (“CDOs”), which package together a large number of loans and other debt products and use the income from those loans to pay returns to the investors in the CDOs. It is clear, however, that not all of the “loans” underlying Citibank’s CDOs were actual loans. Some of them were financial contracts called derivatives that promised payments based on the performance of a specific set of actual loans. That is, some of the underlying assets were not loans, but simply represented the promise of one financial institution to make payments to another.
Few doubt that executive compensation arrangements encouraged the excessive risk taking by banks that led to the recent Financial Crisis. Accordingly, academics and lawmakers have called for the reform of banker pay practices. In this Article, we argue that regulator pay is to blame as well, and that fixing it may be easier and more effective than reforming banker pay. Regulatory failures during the Financial Crisis resulted at least in part from a lack of sufficient incentives for examiners to act aggressively to prevent excessive risk. Bank regulators are rarely paid for performance, and in atypical cases involving performance bonus programs, the bonuses have been allocated in highly inefficient ways. We propose that regulators, specifically bank examiners, be compensated with a debt-heavy mix of phantom bank debt and equity, as well as a separate bonus linked to the timing of the decision to take over a bank. Our pay-for-performance approach for regulators would help reduce the incidence of future regulatory failures.
“Banks don’t lend anymore. Hedge funds have stepped in.” Lee Sheppard wrote these words in 2005, but the financial crisis starting in 2008 has shone a spotlight on this significant change in the reality of modern finance. What role hedge funds may have played in causing the financial crisis is debatable, but few will dispute that U.S. businesses have had trouble finding capital even as the economy, on the whole, has started to recover.
There are many possible contributors to the onset of the capital crunch. Among them are banks, which had difficulties meeting capital requirements, in part because their balance sheets were weighed down by mortgage-backed securities that proved to be less valuable than initially thought, and in part because of changes in accounting rules, as well as increases in minimum capital reserve requirements. The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve responded by combining to invest trillions of dollars to purchase “toxic” securities, guarantee loans, provide additional loans, and make direct capital injections into troubled financial institutions.
While the causes of the recent financial crisis have been debated extensively, the conclusion that excessive leverage by financial institutions contributed to the crisis has garnered widespread support. Concerns over the role of leverage have spurred a renewed focus on banks’ ability to exploit the presence of moral hazard due to limited liability and the government’s tendency to rescue banks in distress. The crisis painfully underscored how banks use leverage to increase their expected returns while simultaneously shifting risk to creditors and the public at large.