Argentina teetering towards default

I’ve been working with a few insurers and reinsurers on credit risk recently. We’ve had plenty of reasons to think about it, what with new regulations (SAM, Basel III) and South African government downgrades. However, sometimes I get the impression that credit risk is viewed as an academic risk, as something that happens to others, micro lenders and maybe banks.

In South Africa, we’ve had incredibly few corporate bond defaults and most market participants don’t even know that the South African government “restructured” some of its debt in 1984 and so has, in fact, defaulted on contractual bond obligations.

In a recent credit risk and capital workshop, I raised the issue of Russia defaulting on Ruble-denominated debt in 1998, a big part of what led to the collapse of LTCM. Again, these events are often figured as “exceptionally unlikely” and not even worth holding capital.

Well, in the news, Argentina is about to default. Again. They have been one of the most regular defaulters on sovereign debt in the last couple of centuries. They’re also an example I often use of “currency pegs” doing precious little to mitigate currency risk except on a day to day basis.

More on that in another post (yes, I’m hoping to post a little more regularly in the coming months.)

The cost of regulation

Basel II (and the collection of changes called “Basel II” by some), King III, Solvency II / SAM, IFRS changes, Treating Customers Fairly, FICA, Protection of Personal Information, RE exams and of course RICA all cost a small fortune.  Only the last doesn’t affect financial services companies.  No wonder the major industry concern is over-regulation.

Basel III likely to be tempered

The FT has an article (Banks win battle to tone down Basel III) describing how the proposed new rules for banking capital requirements might have some of the new requirements around liquidity removed or weakened.

Key amongst these new considerations is the limitation of mismatches between the term of assets and liabilities, which would limit the danger of a removal of deposits and wholesale funding in a crisis scenario. The problem is that this has been fundamental to the business model of banks for decades. Short-term assets (call, overnight, 30 day deposits) have been used to finance long-term liabilities (vehicle loans, home loans, business loans).

Retail deposits, even those technically call deposits, are generally quite sticky. This is in spite of the easily recallable image of queues of depositors wanting to get their money back. Typically, this is still a small fraction of total depositors (certainly in countries with retail deposit protection). Further, other banks have usually pulled or tried to pull their short-term funding (or simply not renewed overnight lending) well before the public even gets wind that there might be risks. As banks rely increasingly on wholesale finance, the risks of a liquidity and credit crisis are amplified as this money is teflon-coated and greased in terms of stickiness.

The banks argue there are other ways of managing the risk. It’s understandable that regulators around the world have had their confidence in banks’ risk management ability dented.

The real danger of overregulation of banks is not “too safe banks”, but rather an increase in the cost of providing banking and credit services to the economy (individual countries as well as the global economy) which could make limit economic growth and the replacement of jobs lost during the recession.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this develops.