Don’t legislate depositor preference

The government has underway a fairly comprehensive review of the Reserve Bank Act.  The first phase –  around monetary policy –  was pretty narrow in scope, rushed, and has resulted in not very good provisions now about to be legislated by Parliament.  I was always a bit sceptical about Phase 2, partly because of the way Phase 1 was handled and partly because the Minister of Finance had never displayed any particular interest in the issues.

But, for the moment anyway, I’m willing to revise my judgement.  Earlier last month a 100 page consultative document was released, the first of three as the Treasury and the Bank (aided by a somewhat questionable, secretive, independent advisory panel) work their way through the numerous issues involved in overhauling the Reserve Bank legislation and institutional design.

Yesterday, I attended a consultative meeting at The Treasury on the issues in the current document.  It was an interesting group of people and quite a good discussion, although even 2.5 hours is barely enough to do much more than scratch the surface on the wide range of issues in the document –  everything from the role of the Board to regulatory perimeter issues (including whether banks and non-bank deposit-takers should be subject to the same regulatory regime – most people seemed to think so).  Truly keen people can spend their summer preparing written submissions (due in late January).

What was striking –  part of what leads me to provisionally revise my view –  is just how much official resource is being put into this one review.  At yesterday’s meeting there were six members of the review team, and that wasn’t all of them –  and even they only report to their masters in the Reserve Bank and Treasury, many of whom will probably engage quite extensively on the issues. And the process has at least another year to run.  Despite having long championed the cause of reforming the Reserve Bank, I couldn’t help wishing that the same level of resource was being devoted to getting to the bottom of the causes, and compelling remedies, for New Zealand’s astonishingly poor long-term productivity performance.    There is little sign The Treasury has any resources devoted to that issue, the one that has the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of all New Zealanders.

But in this post I wanted to touch on just one specific issue that came up yesterday which surprised quite a bit and worried me quite a lot.   Chapter 4 of the document is devoted to the question of “Should there be depositor protection in New Zealand?”.  Of course, to the extent it adds in value at all, prudential regulation does help the position of depositors (reducing the probability of failure, and limiting the potential chaos if a major failure happens), but New Zealand’s legislation is unusual in that there is no explicit depositor protection mandate (the legislative goals are about the financial system, not individual institutions or their creditors).  Linked to that, we are now very unusual among advanced economies in having no system of deposit insurance.

I wrote about some of these issues, in response to a journalist’s queries, when the consultative document first came out.  But my focus then was on deposit insurance, and in particular on the realpolitik case I see for instituting deposit insurance, to give us the best chance that when a bank gets into serious trouble it will be allowed to fail, and its wholesale creditors –  the ones who really should know what they are doing –  can be allowed to lose their money.   Without deposit insurance, my view is that big banks will always be bailed out.  Perhaps they will even with deposit insurance, but by separating the interests of retail creditors from others, at least political options are opened.

But in focusing on deposit insurance, one thing I hadn’t really noticed in the chapter was the idea of providing depositors with additional protection by legislating depositor preference.  Depositor claims on the assets of a bank rank ahead of those of any other creditors.   Such a provision exists in the Australian legislation –  for Australian depositors.  It was a big part of the reason why New Zealand eventually insisted that Westpac’s retail business in New Zealand be locally incorporated (ie conducted through a New Zealand subsidiary).

To the extent I’d noticed the discussion of the depositor preference option, I’d assumed it was a bit of a straw man, there for completeness perhaps.  Surely, I thought, no one would seriously suggest that New Zealand adopt such a legislative preference.   But, going by the discussion at yesterday’s meeting, it seemed I was wrong and that officials are actually seriously considering this option.   They seem to see it as a complement to a deposit insurance scheme.  I think it would be quite wrongheaded.

In my incomprehension, I asked why  –  starting with a clean sheet of paper – anyone would think legislated depositor preference was a sensible route to consider.  The response seemed to be that it would be a way of reducing the cost of deposit insurance, and increasing the credibility of a deposit insurance scheme.  Both seem weak arguments, especially in the New Zealand context.

One argument sometimes advanced against deposit insurance is that in the event of a systemic financial crisis the cost could be so overwhelming that it would either over-burden public debt, potentially triggering a fiscal crisis, or lead to governments retrospectively walking away from the insurance commitment (simply legislating to not pay out).  In fact, we know that for reasonably governed countries that practical limits on the ability to take on new public debt are not very binding at all.   And we know that New Zealand has (a) very low levels of net public debt by advanced country standards, and (b) a banking system of only moderate size (relative to GDP) by advanced country standards.    Total household deposits with all registered banks are about $175 billion.  Not all of those would be covered by a deposit insurance scheme, even one that capped cover at a relatively high $200000.

Now lets assume something really really bad happens: banks lend so badly over multiple years that when the eventual reckoning happens loan losses are so large that 30 per cent of all bank assets are written off.   This would be absolutely huge –  far far beyond anything in Reserve Bank stress test, for beyond advanced country experience for retail-oriented banks.  But one can’t rule out by assumption utter disasters.  30 per cent of bank assets is currently about $175 billion as well.  There is about $40 billion of equity to run through, and then the creditors start bearing the losses.  Household deposits are about a third of non-equity liabilities, so in this extreme scenario the deposit insurer (and residual Crown underwriter) would face bills of up to perhaps $50 billion (a generous third of $135 billion of losses to be distributed across creditors and insurers).    And remember how extreme this scenario is: it assumes every bank in the system fails, and fails dramatically (not just slightly underwater), and that every household deposit is fully covered by deposit insurance.  In this really really bad, highly implausible scenario the bill presented to the depositor insurer is equal to less than 20 per cent of GDP.

Reasonable people can, of course, differ on whether deposit insurance is a good idea at all, just better than the likely alternative (my view), or something to be eschewed at all costs.  But in no plausible world would even a commitment of 20 per cent GDP overwhelm New Zealand public finances, or cast doubt on the ability of the New Zealand government to honour its obligations.   And none of this takes into account the likelihood that any deposit insurance scheme would be set up funded by insurance levies  Levy depositors, say, 20 basis points a year and you’ll be collecting (and setting aside) $350 million a year.  As I recall it, prudential policy (bank capital requirements) are currently set with a view to expecting systemic crises no more than once in a hundred years (the Governor the other day talked of extending that to once in 200 years).    If the really really bad systemic crisis hits in year 1, the government needs to borrow more upfront (recouped over time by the annual insurance fees).  If the really really bad crisis hits in year 150, there is a large pool of money standing ready, accumulated from those same annual insurance fees.

(Of course, in any scenario in which banks have lent so badly –  and regulators regulated so poorly –  that 30 per cent of all assets are written off, the economy is likely to be performing very badly for a while, and the public finances will be under some pressure anyway.  But those problems are there regardless of the resolution method chosen.)

The other argument I heard advanced for a legislated depositor preference is that it would reduce the cost of deposit insurance.    That might look like a superficially plausible argument, but it is almost certainly wrong in any economically meaningful sense.   Sure, if your bank is funded 50/50 by retail depositors on the one hand and wholesale creditors on the other, the chances that a deposit insurance fund will ever have to pay out to the depositors of that bank, in the presence of legislative preference, is very small (roughly speaking, losses would have to exceed 50 per cent of all the assets for depositors to be exposed to loss –  and thus the deposit insurer).    But if you don’t pay for your insurance one way you will pay for it another way.   If depositors have first claim on bank assets and all other creditors are legislatively subordinated, over time depositors are likely to earn lower interest rates than otherwise (less risk to compensate for) and other creditors more).   It might be hard to show this effect in the case, say, of the big Australian banks, but then no one seriously thinks the Australian government would do anything other than bail out those banks in the event of a crisis.  But we can see the pricing on existing subordinated debt issued by banks around the world – it yields, as you would expect, more than deposits.  It is much riskier.

Of course, it is true that legislating a depositor preference largely shifts the problem from the Crown balance sheet (underwriting the deposit insurer) to those of banks and their creditors.  That might look like a smart thing to do  –  internalising the issue and all that –  but in fact it is a subterfuge: trying to meet a public policy priority (depositor protection) by forcing banks to change their entire business model.  Much better to do things in a direct and transparent way: if you want deposit insurance, charge for it directly, and allow banks to determine how they operate their businesses (funding structures etc) given the insurance levies they face, and the market opportunities.  Doing so also operates more fairly – and efficiently – across different types of banks.  Depositor preference accomplishes nothing at all  in a bank that is 100 per cent deposit-funded, and such institutions should be competing on a competitively neutral basis with other banks with different mixes of funding.

In the consultative document, and again in the discussion yesterday, officials seemed to see a model in which wholesale creditors are exposed to more risk as a “good thing”, conducive to effective market discipline.  I’m with them on that point in so far as people -especially wholesale creditors –  who lend to banks should face a real risk of losing their money.  But depositor preference in effect says that the only way non-depositors can lend to banks is through instruments on which the losses mount extremely rapidly if anything goes wrong.  There is no good case for that (even if, as some do, you think it is reasonable to require banks to issue some tranche of subordinated or convertible debt).   It is a doubly surprising argument to hear mounted in New Zealand where for years –  and especially since 2008 –  we have been repeatedly reminded of the heavy exposure of our banks to offshore wholesale funding markets.   None of those holders has to take on exposure to New Zealand or New Zealand banks.   Legislate depositor preference and what you will do is to significantly increase the risk of those funding markets, for New Zealand, freezing, and yields on secondary market instruments going sky-high, at the first sign of any trouble, or even just nervousness.    Retail runs are one issue to think about, but as we saw globally in 2008 wholesale runs can be just as real, and perhaps more threatening (and lightning fast) –  I discussed the Lehmans story here.

I hope the legislated depositor preference option is taken off the table quickly.  It has the feel of clever wheeze intended to ease the path for deposit insurance.  Much better to make the case –  and there is a sound one –  for a properly funded deposit insurance scheme on its own merits.

On a totally different subject there was a surprising article in the Herald yesterday in which a former MPI official was discussing openly concerns held in 2008/09 about the potential financial health of Fonterra.   I was involved in this work at the time, working at The Treasury, and have always been a bit surprised that there wasn’t more open analysis of the issue at the time.  Just drawing on public information, the combination of:

  • a quite highly indebted cooperative,
  • largely frozen international credit markets (not just for banks),
  • highly-indebted farmer shareholders,
  • a model in which shareholder farmers could redeem their shares in Fonterra when their production dropped,
  • a drought the previous year (reducing production) and
  • low product prices, encouraging some farmers to further reduce production, and
  • the potential for some highly-indebted farmers to be sold up by their banks

was a pretty obvious basis for some vulnerability.    Fortunately, the particular extreme combination of risks never really crystallised.   One aspect of the 2008/09 crisis that was always interesting was –  in the words of one investment bank CEO at the time –  “one of the few markets that remain open is the New Zealand corporate bond market”.  That was because it was, and always has been, primarily a retail market, different from the situation in many other countries (reflecting regulatory differences).  In early 2009 Fonterra was able to run a highly successful domestic retail bond issue.  Subsequent changes to the Fonterra capital structure mean that in future serious downturns, redemption risk is no longer a consideration.  That, however, leaves more of the (liquidity) risk on farmers themselves.