Bernanke Eyes Stronger Capital, Liquidity Rules

The Fed chairman will be looking for tougher disclosure requirements and firmer risk management.

The Federal Reserve Board will push for stronger rules in its work with financial rulemakers in the United States and other nations in its attempt to shore up the world’s financial system, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a speech at the International Monetary Conference, in Barcelona, Spain on Tuesday.

The Fed is looking “to put in place changes that will help make the financial system less vulnerable in the future,” he said. “Among the changes we expect to see are strengthening of capital and liquidity rules, greater disclosure requirements, an increased emphasis on the measurement and management of firmwide risks, and further steps to increase the transparency and resilience of the financial infrastructure.”

Addressing the credit crunch, Bernanke observed that highly rated companies maintain good access to credit—even as anyone with anything to do with real estate is finding it tough to raise capital.
The Fed chairman’s prepared remarks follow.

“As you know, financial markets in the United States and in a number of other industrialized countries have been under considerable strain since late last summer. Financial market conditions have in turn affected economic prospects, most notably by affecting the cost and availability of new credit.

Much discussion of the turmoil has focused on problems that have arisen with respect to specific financial markets and financial instruments. Understanding these institutional details is, of course, essential to the task of restoring more normal functioning to the financial system. Stepping back, however, one can see–at least in retrospect–that the turmoil has been some time in the making and reflects the combined influence of several powerful, longer-term developments.

Today, I will briefly discuss some longer-term factors that underlie recent developments; trace how these factors, individually and in combination, have affected both the financial markets and the economy; and describe how the Federal Reserve has responded to the challenges we face.

The Sources of the Financial Turmoil: A Longer-Term Perspective

Although the severity of the financial stresses became apparent only in August, several longer-term developments served as prologue for the recent turmoil and helped bring us to the current situation.

The first of these was the U.S. housing boom, which began in the mid-1990s and picked up steam around 2000. Between 1996 and 2005, house prices nationwide increased about 90 percent. During the years from 2000 to 2005 alone, house prices increased by roughly 60 percent—far outstripping the increases in incomes and general prices—and single-family home construction increased by about 40 percent. But, as you know, starting in 2006, the boom turned to bust. Over the past two years, building activity has fallen by more than half and now is well below where it was in 2000. House prices have shown significant declines in many areas of the country.

A second critical development was an even broader credit boom, in which lenders and investors aggressively sought out new opportunities to take credit risk even as market risk premiums contracted. Aspects of the credit boom included rapid growth in the volumes of private equity deals and leveraged lending and the increased use of complex and often opaque investment vehicles, including structured credit products. The explosive growth of subprime mortgage lending in recent years was yet another facet of the broader credit boom. Expanding access to homeownership is an important social goal, and responsible subprime lending is beneficial for both borrowers and lenders. But, clearly, much of the subprime lending that took place during the latter stages of the credit boom in 2005 and 2006 was done very poorly.

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