Liquidity, Bank Capital and Market Reform

A friend forwarded some thoughts on liquidity that are worth sharing here, as liquidity is central to the utility of assets as bank capital and to stabilising markets under stress. My friend’s points are in bold, with my commentary below.

Central bankers and securities regulators lost sight of liquidity over the past decade or two in permitting reforms which compromised the health of the financial system. Thanks to the Greenspan and Bernanke puts, and to surplus recycling by Asian economies, many took liquidity – like oxygen – for granted. Like oxygen, you only realise how critical liquidity is when its absence becomes noticeable.

Now that bank regulators have rediscovered liquidity as an essential attribute of healthy banks and healthy markets, it is important to reinforce some key qualities.

Liquidity means you can generate cash from a physical asset or paper claim.

If you can’t exchange the asset for a major currency to meet a sudden funding need, then the asset shouldn’t be permitted as regulatory capital. Basel II and Basel III have generated hundreds of pages around credit scoring and asset type while ignoring the fact that most of what banks are attributing as capital cannot be turned into cash on demand.

Liquidity can be gained by sale or repo of an asset, preferably in a transparent market. Where no market exists or the market has become illiquid, then liquidity must be gained through a central bank.

Virtually all RMBS markets failed under stress in 2008 and 2009, with failures spreading to other asset classes as investors grew wary of dealer spreads and perceived shallow dealer commitment levels. As the scope of funding problems grew, illiquidity spread to sovereign debt for troubled countries such as Greece and Portugal. Few OTC asset markets have recovered sufficient liquidity for dealing in size.

When the public markets will not price an asset in size without a large spread, then the central banks become the market makers of last resort. Without central bank repo of illiquid RMBS and sovereign debt, virtually every major bank in the OECD would have failed.

Because they now have the role of market maker of last resort, central banks should become much more active in ensuring that any asset permitted to be classed as capital by a bank can be liquidated on demand in a public market. Rather than leaving market structure to the investment banks and their tame securities regulators, the central banks should be driving forward reforms to ensure that capital assets are issued in fungible series, in size, and traded in transparent exchange markets with committed market makers.

This will require a major policy reversal on exchange regulation. Securities regulators have been under pressure for several decades to liberalise OTC markets, permit fragmentation to off-exchange trading systems, and turn a blind eye to issuance of securities in small, idiosyncratic offerings that will never liquidly trade except back through the offering investment banks. The quality assurance and market conduct functions of exchanges have been eroded following demutualisation, and exchanges now are run for profit of their highly concentrated owners rather than in the public interest.

Markets are at the heart of successful civilisations. Markets require quality norms, information publication, and price transparency to operate effectively. Regulators and investors allowed credit ratings to substitute for exchange listing rules and reporting requirements during the liquidity boom. Ratings were gamed by the banks until they were meaningless. We should now be forcing assets back onto exchanges and force the exchanges to regulate quality and information norms in the public interest. If this requires re-mutualising the exchanges, or public ownership of exchanges, then that should be on the agenda. Letting the exchanges be run by the thugs who gamed the markets and the rating agencies isn’t healthy.

Liquidity means that proceeds of sale will be paid as funds to your account in a currency you can use widely to meet obligations.

If you can only sell your asset into a market denominated in a currency which itself is not liquid and not legal tender for meeting your obligations, then you haven’t got liquidity vested in the asset. A lot of investors in emerging markets are probably going to find that liquidity in those markets is a lot less than they might think, despite advances in exchange trading of emerging market assets, and the currencies might be less liquid too in a falling market. If they require funding in their home currency, they risk taking a big hit on sale and FX spreads when they realise the asset under stress.

Liquidity is measured by size, speed and spread – not by price levels.

Whatever the market price, a market isn’t liquid if those holding assets in size cannot deal in size. A market is not liquid if those holding assets cannot sell at the time the sell decision is made, but must wait to identify or attract sufficient buyers. A market is not liquid if the spread between the bid and ask is so wide that buyers will be deterred from the market by the risk of never recovering the spread in appreciation or returns. The way that markets have levitated on minimal volumes in 2010 and 2011 is no indication that the markets are liquid. As we’ve seen in August, even mild selling can have a massive effect on prices in an illiquid market.

Short sales are an attribute of liquid markets. If a market can’t be shorted, then the market will fail as prices fall.

Short sellers will come in to buy assets in a falling market to realise a profit. They provide liquidity when everyone else is too scared to deal.

Securities markets regulators and central bankers need to think through liquidity as an attribute of market structure in the public interest. Idiosyncratic, illiquid, ill-transparent deals and instruments which have dominated market growth for the past two decades are behind the weakness of bank capital and market recovery. The regulatory incentives should be toward standardisation of securities terms and offering documents, much larger issues of securities and series of bonds, and fungibility of asset types within a class. Exchange trading should be encouraged, fragmentation discouraged. Exchanges should provide rigorous listing rules, timely reporting of market relevant information, full price transparency and two-way quote obligations on market makers. If we got that right, then much of the misrepresentation, mispricing, inefficiency and fraud of the past would become impossible in future.

This post originally appeared at London Banker and is reproduced here with permission.