Clarifying Risk Terminology

By: Tom Hannagan

Some articles that I’ve come across recently have puzzled me.

In those articles, authors use the terms “monetary base” and “money supply” synonymously — but those terms are actually very different.

The monetary base (currency plus Fed deposits) is a much smaller number than the money supply (M1). The huge change in the “base”, which the Fed did affect by adding $1T or so to infuse a lot of quick liquidity into the financial system late in 2007/early 2008, does not necessarily impact M1 (which includes the base plus all bank demand deposits) all that much in the short-term, and may impact it even less in the intermediate-term if the Fed reduces its holdings of securities.  Some are correct, of course, in positing that a rotation out of securities by the Fed will tend to put pressure on market rates.

Some are equivocating the 2007 liquidity moves of the Fed, with a major monetary policy change. When the capital markets froze due to liquidity and credit risks in August/September of 2007, monetary policy was not the immediate risk, or even a consideration. Without the liquidity injections in that timeframe, monetary policy would have become less than an academic consideration.

Tying the “constrained” (which actually was a slowdown in growth of) bank lending to bank reserves on account at the Fed I don’t think their Fed reserve balance was ever an issue for lending. Banks slowed down lending because the level of credit risk increased. Borrowers were defaulting. Bank deposit balances were actually increasing through the financial crisis. [See my Feb 26 and March 5 blogs] So, loan funding, at least from deposit sources was not the problem for most banks. Of course, for a small number of banks that had major securities losses, capital was being lost and therefore not available to back increased lending. But demand deposit balances were growing.

Some authors are linking bank reserves to the ability of banks to raise liabilities, which makes little sense. Banks’ respective abilities to gather demand deposits (insured by the FDIC, at no small expense to the banks) was always wide open, and their ability to borrow funds is much more a function of asset quality (or net asset value) more than it relates their relatively small reserve balances at the Fed.

These actions may result in high inflation levels and high interest rates — but it will be because of poor Fed decisions in the future, not because of the Fed’s action of last year. It will also depend on whether the fiscal (deficit) actions of the government are: 1) economically productive and 2) tempered to a recovery, or not. I think that is a bigger macro-economic risk than Fed monetary policy.

In fact, the only way bank executives can wisely manage the entity over an extended timeframe is to be able to direct resources across all possibilities on a risk-adjusted basis. The question isn’t whether risk-based pricing is appropriate for all lines of business, but rather how might or should it be applied.

For commercial lending into the middle and corporate markets, there is enough money at stake to warrant evaluating each loan and deposit, as well as the status of the client relationship, on an individual basis. This means some form of simulation modeling by relationship managers on new sales opportunities (including renewals) and the model’s ready access to current data on all existing pieces of business with each relationship. [See my April 24 blog entry.]

This process also implies the ability to easily aggregate the risk-return status of a group of related clients and to show lenders how their portfolio of accounts is performing on a risk-adjusted basis. This type of model-based analysis needs to be flexible enough to handle differing loan structures, easy for a lender to use and quick. The better models can perform such analysis in minutes. I’ve discussed the elements of such models in earlier posts.

But, with small business and consumer lending there are other considerations that come into play. The principles of risk-based pricing are consistent across any loan or deposit. With small business lending, the process of selling, negotiating, underwriting and origination is significantly more streamlined and under some form of workflow control.

With consumer lending, there are more regulations to take into account and there are mass marketing considerations driving the “sales” process.

Agreement covers what the new owner wants now and may decide it wants in the future. This a form of strategic business risk that comes with accepting the capital infusion from this particular source.