Science has spoken: Banks are doomed to suck at trading forever and should be stopped before they crash the global economy again.
A new study by economists Arnoud Boot at the University of Amsterdam and Lev Ratnovski at the International Monetary Fund finds that recent blow-ups in the banking sector -- JPMorgan Chase's $6.8 billion "London Whale" losses and that whole financial-crisis thingy, to name two -- are not isolated events, but "a sign of deeper structural problems in the financial system."
The only prescription? Less trading by big dumb banks.
"Without policy action, crises associated with trading by banks are bound to recur," Boot and Ratnovski write in a blog post about the paper. "Even strong supervision will not be able to prevent them. Consequently, it appears necessary to restrict trading by banks."
Why can't banks just trade like George Soros and everybody else? Why can't they have any fun? A few reasons:
First, banks have tons of capital laying around, relative to, say, a hedge fund, which specializes in trading. The bigger the bank, the more capital. A bank would almost be crazy not to gamble with that capital to make more profit. That's especially the case in economic environments like, say, a crappy recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, when interest rates are at rock-bottom and banks are afraid to lend money. With their share prices crushed, regulators banging on the door and the government making loud noises about how they're not going to bail out any more banks, it's all too tempting for a bank to take some of that extra money it has laying around and take it down to the pari-mutuel betting parlor.
"As a result, banks trade too much, and in... too risky a fashion, compared to what is socially optimal," Boot and Ratnovski write.
One problem with this dangerously bad incentive is that banks use the capital for trading rather than lending money, their more-traditional role. This can move capital away from long-term constructive uses (financing factories or schools, say) and toward not-so-constructive uses (gambling on subprime mortgages).
And this looks like a permanent state of affairs, because technological developments and financial engineering have made markets deeper, giving banks many, many more ways to get themselves into trouble.
"This means that while trading in banks was benign and contained before, it has irreversibly become more distortionary now," Boot and Ratnovski write. By "distortionary," they mean that in the sense both that it distorts financial markets and that it also distorts the economy by shifting too much money to socially useless trading.
For this reason, Boot and Ratnovski say, the do-everything bank model of the end of the 20th Century -- think Citigroup -- is obsolete and "no longer sustainable."
The solution, they argue, is something like the Volcker Rule -- or at least the original intent of the Volcker Rule before it got lobbied into uselessness -- prohibiting banks from trading on their own account. They also think banks shouldn't be allowed to take on some other risks, such as buying and holding a bunch of securitized debt, as Washington Mutual did.
They say banks should be allowed to underwrite stocks and bonds, and should be allowed to hedge their bets, saying "small trading positions" probably won't bring down the global economy.
That last part has been the rub all along, though -- banks argue that it is impossible to tell the difference between sensible hedging and crazy trading. JPMorgan insists its London Whale trade was supposed to be a hedge, which might have been allowed under the Volcker Rule.
You can bet that banks -- who will always burn with a desire to gamble their spare cash for higher returns -- will try as hard as they can to carve out exceptions to any trading curbs that are eventually put in place.
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Myth: The Fed actually prints money.
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Myth: The Federal Reserve is spending money wastefully.
Both CNN anchor <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/31/cnn-erin-burnett-federal-reserve-stimulus_n_1848210.html" target="_hplink">Erin Burnett</a> and Republican vice presidential nominee <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/09/07/813011/paul-ryan-jobs-qe/" target="_hplink">Paul Ryan</a> have compared the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing to government spending. But <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/federal-reserve-profit-2011_n_1369354.html">the Federal Reserve actually has created new money</a> by expanding its balance sheet. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/federal-reserve-profit-2011_n_1369354.html">The Fed earned a $77.4 billion profit</a> last year, most of which it gave to the U.S. government.
Myth: The Fed is causing hyperinflation.
<a href="http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/inflation-predictions/" target="_hplink">Some</a> <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/niall-ferguson-has-been-wrong-on-economics-2012-8" target="_hplink">conservatives</a> <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/ron-paul-is-putting-on-a-great-show-right-now-in-front-of-bernanke-2012-2">have claimed</a> that the Federal Reserve is causing hyperinflation. But inflation is actually at <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/sunday-review/the-facts-on-the-fed.html" target="_hplink">historically low levels</a>, and there is no sign that is going to change. <a href="http://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.nr0.htm" target="_hplink">Core prices have risen</a> just 1.4 percent over the past year, according to the Labor Department -- below the Federal Reserve's <a href="http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20120831a.htm" target="_hplink">target of 2 percent</a>.
Myth: The amount of cash available has grown tremendously.
<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/10/business/economy/10fed.html?_r=1">Some Federal Reserve critics claim</a> that the Fed has devalued the U.S. dollar through a massive expansion of the amount of currency in circulation. But not only is inflation low; <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/the-animated-gif-of-boy-throwing-money-out-of-the-window-is-not-a-metaphor-for-qe-2012-9">currency growth also has not really changed</a> since the Fed started its stimulus measures, as noted by Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal.
Myth: The gold standard would make prices more stable.
<a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/ron-paul-is-putting-on-a-great-show-right-now-in-front-of-bernanke-2012-2">Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has claimed</a> that bringing back the gold standard would make prices more stable. But prices actually were much less stable under the gold standard than they are today, as <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/why-the-gold-standard-is-the-worlds-worst-economic-idea-in-2-charts/261552/"><em>The Atlantic's</em> Matthew O'Brien</a> and <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/why-conservatives-like-the-gold-standard-2012-8">Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal</a> have noted.
Myth: The Fed is causing food and gas prices to rise.
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/erin-burnett-federal-reserve_n_1866971.html">CNN anchor Erin Burnett claimed in September</a> that the Federal Reserve's stimulus measures have caused food and gas prices to rise. But many economists believe global supply and demand issues are influencing these prices, not Fed policy. And <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/08/erin-burnett-federal-reserve_n_1866971.html">there actually is no correlation between the Fed's stimulus measures and commodity prices</a>, according to some economists Paul Krugman and Dean Baker.
Myth: Quantitative easing has not helped job growth.
<a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpento/2012/05/01/why-higher-inflation-destroys-jobs/">Some Federal Reserve critics</a> claim that the Fed's stimulus measures have destroyed jobs. But <a href="http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20120831a.htm">the Fed's quantitative easing measures actually have saved or created more than 2 million jobs</a>, according to the Fed's economists. In addition, JPMorgan Chase chief economist Michael Feroli told Bloomberg last month that <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-10/bernanke-proves-like-no-other-fed-chairman-on-joblessness.html" target="_hplink">QE3 will provide at least a small benefit</a> to the economy.
Myth: Tying the U.S. dollar to commodities would solve everything.
<a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-08-16/news/33236684_1_monetary-policy-inflation-currency-debasement">Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has proposed</a> tying the value of the U.S. dollar to a basket of commodities, in an aim to promote price stability. But <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/08/forget-paul-ryans-budget-his-scariest-idea-is-about-the-federal-reserve/261066/">this actually would cause prices to be much less stable</a> and hurt the U.S. economy overall, as <em>The Atlantic's</em> Matthew O'Brien has noted.
Myth: Ending the Fed would make the financial system more stable.
<a href="http://www.amazon.com/End-Fed-Ron-Paul/dp/B004IEA4DM">Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) claims</a> that ending the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard would make the U.S. financial system more stable. But <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/video/should-the-u-s-return-to-the-gold-standard-wsDVrOKATTqyTaG5yBY1kQ.html">the U.S. economy actually experienced longer and more frequent financial crises and recessions</a> during the 19th century, when the U.S. was using the gold standard and did not have the Fed.
Myth: The Fed can't do anything else to help job growth.
<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/business/economy/whats-with-all-the-bernanke-bashing.html">Many</a> <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/economics-blog/2012/jun/27/federal-reserve-runs-out-of-options">commentators</a> have claimed that there simply aren't any tools left in the Fed's toolkit to be able to help job growth. But <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-07-09/fed-harms-itself-by-missing-goals-stevenson-and-wolfers.html">some economists</a> <a href="http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/08/28/the_i_word/">have noted</a> that the Fed could target a higher inflation rate to stimulate job growth. <a href="http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/25/bernanke-on-what-the-fed-can-do/">The Fed, however, has ruled this option out</a> -- for now.
Myth: The Fed can't easily unwind all of this stimulus.
<a href="http://www.salon.com/2012/09/01/ben_bernanke_speaks//">Some commentators</a> <a href="http://seekingalpha.com/article/161203-fed-unwinding-won-t-be-easy">have claimed</a> that the Fed can't safely unwind its quantitative easing measures. But the Fed's program involves buying some of the most heavily traded and owned securities in the world, Treasury and government-backed mortgage bonds. The Fed will likely have little problem finding buyers for these securities, all of which will eventually expire even if the Fed does nothing. But <a href="http://economistsview.typepad.com/timduy/2012/09/plosser-opposes-the-1933-37-expansion.html">economists have noted</a> that once the Fed decides it's time to unwind the stimulus, the economy will have improved to such an extent that this won't be an issue.