Where you go to college and what you choose to study has always been important, but, with the help of data science, it may now determine whether you get a student loan. Silicon Valley is increasingly setting its sights on student lending. Financial technology (“fintech”) firms such as SoFi, CommonBond, and Upstart are ever-expanding their online lending activities to help students finance or refinance educational expenses. These online companies are using a wide array of alternative, education-based data points—ranging from applicants’ chosen majors, assessment scores, the college or university they attend, job history, and cohort default rates—to determine creditworthiness. Fintech firms argue that through their low overhead and innovative approaches to lending they are able to widen access to credit for underserved Americans. Indeed, there is much to recommend regarding the use of different kinds of information about young consumers in order assess their financial ability. Student borrowers are notoriously disadvantaged by the extant scoring system that heavily favors having a past credit history. Yet there are also downsides to the use of education-based, alternative data by private lenders. This Article critiques the use of this education-based information, arguing that while it can have a positive effect in promoting social mobility, it could also have significant downsides. Chief among these are reifying existing credit barriers along lines of wealth and class and further contributing to discriminatory lending practices that harm women, black and Latino Americans, and other minority groups. The discrimination issue is particularly salient because of the novel and opaque underwriting algorithms that facilitate these online loans. This Article concludes by proposing three-pillared regulatory guidance for private student lenders to use in designing, implementing, and monitoring their education-based data lending programs.
The recent financial crisis demonstrated that, contrary to longstanding regulatory assumptions, nonbank financial firms—such as investment banks and insurance companies—can propagate systemic risk throughout the financial system. After the crisis, policymakers in the United States and abroad developed two different strategies for dealing with nonbank systemic risk. The first strategy seeks to regulate individual nonbank entities that officials designate as being potentially systemically important. The second approach targets financial activities that could create systemic risk, irrespective of the types of firms that engage in those transactions. In the last several years, domestic and international policymakers have come to view these two strategies as substitutes, largely abandoning entity-based designations in favor of activities-based approaches. This Article argues that this trend is deeply misguided because entity- and activities-based approaches are complementary tools that are each essential for effectively regulating nonbank systemic risk. Eliminating an entity-based approach to nonbank systemic risk—either formally or through onerous procedural requirements—would expose the financial system to the same risks that it experienced in 2008 as a result of distress at nonbanks like AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. This conclusion is especially salient in the United States, where jurisdictional fragmentation undermines the capacity of financial regulators to implement an effective activities-based approach. Significant reforms to the U.S. regulatory framework are necessary, therefore, before an activities-based approach can meaningfully complement domestic entity-based systemic risk regulation.
This is the first academic work to show the need for, or to offer, a regulatory framework for exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). The economic significance of this financial innovation is enormous. U.S.-listed ETFs now hold more than $3.6 trillion in assets and comprise seven of the country’s ten most actively traded securities. ETFs also possess an array of unique characteristics raising distinctive concerns. They offer what we here conceptualize as a nearly frictionless portal to a bewildering, continually expanding universe of plain vanilla and arcane asset classes, passive and active investment strategies, and long, short, and leveraged exposures. And we argue that ETFs are defined by a novel, model-driven device that we refer to as the “arbitrage mechanism,” a device that has sometimes failed catastrophically. These new products and the underlying innovation process create special risks for investors and the financial system.
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.