Monday, April 28, 2008

Does prudence in banking really have to mean purposelessness?

What is more prudent for the bank regulators, to work exclusively at avoiding the default of banks and the occurrence of a bank crisis, or to ascertain that the banking system serves a purpose for the society?

These days when it has been demonstrated that the bank regulators are failing in their self imposed limited scope of functions; and indeed through the creation of the current structure of minimum capital requirements for the banks and the appointment of the credit rating agencies as risk commissars have themselves contributed to create new systemic risks, is it not time for us to take a big step back and, before digging us deeper in our regulatory hole, ask ourselves what is the purpose of our banks?

Aren’t you as fed up as me having a purposeless banking sector? If we absolutely have to live with risk avoidance based regulatory system, can’t we at least start measuring units of default risk in terms of decent jobs created, youngsters educated or environmental threats avoided?

Risk is the oxygen of development and so please let us not kill risk taking!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dani Rodrik’s misguided activism on the use of international arbitration

Dani Rodrik in an article he circulated through his blog and titles “Thinking about governance” dated March 24, 2008 has the following to say about international arbitration.

“Suppose your growth economist identifies a poorly functioning legal system and the attendant uncertainty as one of the binding constraints on growth. One solution of the “governance-in-the-small” type is to “outsource” part of the country legal system to the outside world. The government can accomplish this, for example, by signing on to bilateral investment treaties (BITs) with major trading partners. These typically have arbitration clauses that enable foreign investors to seek redress under foreign jurisdictions in a variety of circumstances. One can presume that such clauses increase the comfort factor for foreign investors and that they may therefore help overcome the identified growth constraint. But is this strategy also good for governance-as-an-end? Probably not. Aside from creating an unhealthy distinction between domestic and foreign investors—the latter have the extra protection but the former don’t—such outsourcing of legal powers does nothing to strengthen domestic legal institutions. Insofar as it removes an important source of pressure for legal reform, the outsourcing may even delay the establishment of a healthy judiciary.”

I am sorry. I always listen carefully to what Dani Rodrik has to say and I usually agree but on this issue he sounds too much like your innocent and friendly neighborhood activist, or a consultant to governments, and his conclusions are, using his terminology, far from being first or second best.

Rodrik’s argument that the use of international arbitration does create “an unhealthy distinction between domestic and foreign investors”, ignores that most often those differences exist anyhow; and also that “the outsourcing may even delay the establishment of a healthy judiciary”, when it could just as easily help it along, by shoving it into the face of local investors how unfairly they are often treated by their own governments.

Of course the existence of local justice is of utmost importance, but so is the existence of a strong international systems that can help to settle disputes, since no matter how you look at it, in the long run it is always the weaker who will benefit the most from having access to well functioning international justice…since the strong is strong even without such systems.

Please, let us not confuse the tremendous, shocking and hurting disappointments that many development countries might have had with the international grievance mechanisms, with the fact that many or most of the contractual obligations brought up to arbitration were drawn up without properly considering the implications of having to submit to these mechanisms.

Instead of throwing away the international grievance mechanism with the bathtub water, help the countries to learn from their experiences and so they will duly consider the real implications next time they sign up a contracts with a foreign investors.

Much the contrary from what Rodrik holds, if our governments in many developing countries learn that they won’t get away that easy, they will also learn, little by little, that’s the pace of development, to negotiate better and more seriously… and from this it is very clear that the local investors are the one who stands most to benefit, long term.

Remittance fees: The tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg

The remittances are to migration like the part of the cash dividends from corporations that you send to your grandmother and children are to the economy… just the tip of the tip of the iceberg!

Of course the cost of sending those remittances can only be the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

There has been an incredible fixation by many institutions with the fees charged by the banks for the service of making the remittances. Yes, of course it is good that these fees become more competitive but it is almost laughable to think about all the resources used up in analyzing this very minor issue in an immigrant’s reality.

Just the money spent on communicating by telephone with home, or buying yourself over the borders, or the costs derived from not having a driver license and living in cramp living quarters, surpasses by far the sum of all the fees paid to the banks. So please stop talking so much about the fees, and help the immigrants to make more money instead… with which they would happily pay even higher fees to the banks, if so asked. Talk about shortsightedness!

That is what I said over and over while I was an ED at the World Bank; and that is what I wrote in my book Voice and Noise; and that is what I kept on saying thereafter in all the many conferences on remittances that I have assisted to… to the extent that I now almost feel embarrassed for them.

Yet, years later, I still have to be asking: How many more millions in research, conferences and publications are the development institutions to waste on this really silly and minor aspect of the migration issue?

Please help the migrants make more money instead!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A good lender or just another kneecap breaker?

There are a lot of recent writings that tells you that financing the downtrodden is good business. No news there! Scrooge and the mafia have known that for a long time. If you can get an average rate of interest high enough so that the good debtors cover the bad …you’re in business.

Suppose a group A of 100 borrowers and you lend to each one of them $1000 and that in order to cover your costs you would need to charge an interest of 10% if all of them duly repaid their loans. Then, if you charge a rate of 11 percent to all your profits would be $1.000 equal to 1% on your total lending.

But if a group B has 10 per cent of the debtors not repaying anything then you would need to charge 23.3 percent to net the same $1.000 in profits. For a group C, where 30 per cent of the debtors do not paying back any principle or interest, the interest rate applicable needed to obtain the same results need to be 58.6 percent.

As a lender you get exactly the same profit from lending to any of these groups but let me assure you that for those borrowers who do service their commitments paying 11 percent or 58.67 percent is far from same.

Most, if not all of the current analysis of the activities of micro-credit institutions, do not consider the above and so they do automatically conclude that lending to the groups A, B and C has the same development impact, notwithstanding that group C leaves 30 per cent more of its members suffering from not being able to service their debts and the capable having to pay 47.6 percent more in interest rates than if they had been, correctly, de-facto, placed in group A.

It is time that we refine our evaluation systems so as to include in the analysis of the micro-credit finance institutions their respective repayment distribution curves. Otherwise, we will not be able to separate the good lenders from the kneecap breakers. Otherwise we are more than showing any solidarity with the downtrodden forcing internal solidarity upon them just to make a buck.

For instance I invite you to read the document that you could find in CGAP’s web site Measuring Microcredit Delinquency: Ratios Can Be Harmful to Your Health or any other documents, to see if the perspective of the final clients, the borrowers, have been given due considerations.

I cannot say whether CGAP is actually considering this dilemma issue but, if so, it certainly does not seem to be of a too high priority for them; something which could have to do with having too many “bankers” in CGAP to allow for development, different from the development of microcredit institutions, to be considered sufficiently. In micro credits, just like in any other activity, the legitimacy of the profits is also direct function of how they are obtained.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

We urgently need a carbon-solutions-neutral advisor

Like the obese compulsive eater reaching for his sugar substitute it is amazing to see the growing divergence between how serious our global environmental problems are reported to be and the type of solutions that are put on the table.

As long as you think that you could throw some ethanol, some solar panels, some windmills, some “clean” coal slogans or some recycling of unsold-food-into-energy on those problem… well then it cannot really be that bad.

As long as hurting the environment is considered just venial sins that you can take care of by buying some carbon indulgences… well then it cannot really be that bad.

As long as you could argue to developing countries that they have the right to expect developed countries to foot the bill for confronting their environmental urgencies instead of being forthright telling them not to count much on that and to get cracking… well then it cannot really be that bad.

One of our problem is not so much realizing how serious the environmental problems really are but of how to keep all the green-magical-solution potions peddlers from meddling... which means something like the environment being too serious to be left in the hand of environmentalists.

At this junction what the world needs most is a carbon-solution-neutral agency sufficiently capable and credible to spell out the truths… like for instance that the US has to impose European levels of taxes on gasoline consumption if they are going to get anywhere… and that given the scarcity of resources there are thousand of solutions that are more economically effective than hybrid-cars.

The World Bank does seem as the natural place to host such an agency but this of course could require some shake, rattle and roll, as can be exemplified by the fact that in the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Review and Practitioner's Handbook published by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and of which the World Bank is one of the implementing agents, there is not a single phrase that defines what on earth, on the earth, energy efficiency really means.

Also in all documentation related to the development of an Investment Framework for Clean Energy and Development I challenge anyone to find a definition of what is meant with clean energy… most probably because that could lead to a more precise definition of what is “dirty energy” which would be quite uncomfortable for some.

Friends, a truly carbon-solutions-neutral advisor would probably not allowed biofuels to even show up for the casting.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Voice and Noise on the financial sector during the spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF, April 2008

Risk is the oxygen of development!

It is absurd to believe that the US and other countries would have reached development without bank failures. When the Basel Committee imposes on the banks minimum capital requirements based solely on default risks, this signifies putting a tax on risk-taking, something which in itself carries serious risks. The real risk is not banks defaulting; the real risk is banks not helping the society in its growth and development. Not having a hangover (bank-crisis) might just be the result of not going to the party!

We need to stop focusing solely on the hangovers and begin measuring the results of the whole cycle, party and hangover, boom and bust! The South Korean boom that went bust in 1997-1998 seems to have been much more productive for South Korea than what the current boom-bust cycle seems to have been for the United States.

All over the world there is more than sufficient evidence that taxing risks has only stimulated the financing of anything that can be construed as risk free, like public sector and securitized consumer financing; and penalized the finance of more risky ventures like decent job creation. Is it time for capital requirements based on units of default risk per decent job created?

When is the World Bank as a development bank to speak up on this issue on which they have been silent in the name of “harmonization” with the IMF?

When are we to stop digging in the hole we’re in?

The detonator of our current financial turmoil were the badly awarded mortgages to the subprime sector and that morphed into prime rated securities with the help of the credit rating agencies appointed as risk surveyors for the world by the bank regulators.

If we survive this one and since it is “human to err” we know that if we keep empowering the credit rating agencies to direct the financial flows in the world, it is certain that at some time in the future we will follow them over even more dangerous precipices.

Note: I have just read the Financial Stability Forum brotherhood’s report on Enhancing Market and Institutional Resilience and while including some very common sense recommendations with respect to better liquidity management and “reliable operational infrastructure”; and some spirited words about more supervision and oversight (the blind leading the blind); with respect to the concerns expressed above, bottom line is that they recommend we should deepen the taxes on risks and make certain that the credit rating agencies behave better and get to be more knowledgeable… so that we are more willing to follow them where we, sooner or later, do not and should not want to go.

Do micro-credit institutions make too much use of “predatory ratings”?

Any group of debtors that is charged a higher interest rate because it is considered a higher credit risk is composed by those spending their money servicing a debt that they will finally default on, and those who should have in fact deserved a lower interest rate. Are there any real winners among them?

Who is out there talking about that the extensive use of ratings signifies something like a regressive tax for the poor? Who is out there informing the poorly rated about how very dearly they are paying for their loans? Who is out there analyzing the murdering impact that credit ratings have in chipping away at the minimum levels of solidarity that any society needs to keeps itself a society?

If there is a minimum of things that needs to be done in the world of micro credits that is to focus more on transparent system of incentives that: 1. Stimulates and rewards good group behavior and returns to the compliant borrowers some of the “extraordinary” margins earned. 2. Spreads out the costs of those who cannot make it over a much wider group of debtors.

And, by the way, this applies just the same to the financing of mortgages to the subprime sector.