Recently, it has become very popular to argue that the best means of financial reform is to require banks to hold more capital. Put differently, banks should finance using more equity relative to debt. This idea is certainly not without merit. In a Modigliani-Miller world, banks should be indifferent between debt and equity. I would like to take a step back from the policy response and ask why banks overwhelmingly finance their activities with debt. It is my hope that the answer to this question will provide some way to focus the debate.
It is clear that when banks finance primarily using equity, adverse shocks to the asset side of a bank’s balance sheet primarily affect shareholders. This seems at least to be socially desirable if not privately desirable. The imposition of capital requirements would therefore seem to imply that there is some market failure (i.e., the private benefit from holding more capital is less than the social benefit). Even if this is true, however, one needs to consider what makes it so.
One hypothesis for why banks hold too little capital is because they don’t internalize the total cost of a bank failure. For example, banks are limited liability corporations and covered by federal deposit insurance. Thus, if the bank takes on too much risk and becomes insolvent, shareholders lose their initial investment. Depositors are made whole through deposit insurance. It is this latter characteristic that is key. If bank shareholders were responsible not only for their initial level of investment, but also for the losses to depositors, banks would have different incentives. In fact, this was the case under the U.S. system of double liability that lasted from just after the Civil War until the Banking Act of 1933. (I have written about this previously here.) Under that system bank shareholders had a stronger incentive to finance using equity. In fact, evidence shows that banks with double liability took on less leverage and less risk than their limited liability counterparts.
Along similar lines the existence of Too Big Too Fail similarly creates greater incentives toward risk-taking and leverage because in the event that the bank becomes insolvent, it will be rescued by the government. Finally, the U.S. tax system treats debt finance more favorable than equity finance.
Of course, a first-best policy solution to these incentive problems would be to eliminate deposit insurance, Too Big to Fail, and the favorable tax treatment of debt finance. However, such reform is either politically infeasible or, in the case of eliminating Too Big to Fail, relies on a strong commitment mechanism by the government. Thus, a second-best policy prescription is to impose higher capital requirements.
This second-best policy solution, however, is contingent upon the characteristics above being the only source of the socially inefficient level of capital. I would argue that even in the absence of these characteristics banks might still be biased toward debt finance and that imposing capital requirements could actually result in a loss in efficiency along a different dimension of welfare.
The reason that capital requirements could be welfare-reducing has to do with the unique nature of bank liabilities. Banks issue debt in the form of deposits (and, historically, bank notes), which circulate as a medium of exchange. Thus, bank debt serves a social purpose over and above the private purpose of debt finance. This social function is important. In a world that consists entirely of base money, for example, individuals will economize on money balances because money does not earn a pecuniary yield. As a result, the equilibrium quantity of consumption and production will not equal the socially optimum quantity. Bank money, or inside money, has the potential to be welfare improving. In fact, the main result of Cavalcanti and Wallace was that feasible allocations with outside (or base) money are a strict subset of those with inside money. Imposing strict capital requirements would reduce the set of feasible allocations and thereby reduce welfare along this dimension.
Now some might be quick to dismiss this particular welfare criteria. After all, greater stability of the financial system would seem to be more important than whether the equilibrium quantity of production is the socially optimum quantity. However, this ignores the potential interaction between the two. Caballero, for example, has argued that there is a shortage of safe assets. This claim is consistent with what I argued above. If the supply of media of exchange is not sufficient to allow for the socially optimum quantity of output then there is a transaction asset shortage. As a result, there is a strong incentive for banks to create more transaction assets. This can explain while interest rates were low in early part of the decade and can similarly explain the expansion in the use of highly-rated tranches of MBS in repurchase agreements prior to the financial crisis.
In other words, the shortage of transaction assets described above creates an incentive for banks to create new such assets in the form of new debt finance. Thus, it is possible that banks have a bias toward debt finance that would exist even independent of Too Big To Fail, deposit insurance, limited liability, and the tax system. In addition, one could argue that the desire to create such transaction assets played an important role in the subsequent financial crisis as some of the assets that were previously considered safe become information-sensitive and thereby less useful in this role.
To the extent that one believes that the transaction asset shortage is significant, policymakers face a difficult decision with respect to capital requirements. While imposing stronger capital requirements might lead to greater financial stability by imposing greater losses on shareholders, this requirement can also exacerbate the shortage of transaction assets. Banks and other financial institutions will then have a strong incentive to attempt to mitigate this shortage and will likely try to do so through off-balance sheet activities.
This is not meant to be a critique of capital requirements in general. However, in my view, it is not obvious that they are sufficient to produce the desired result. One must be mindful of the role that banks play in the creation of transaction assets. It would be nice to have an explicit framework in which to examine these issues more carefully. In the meantime, hopefully this provides some food for thought.