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March 8, 2024

How banking regulations affect US foreign policy

By Charles Lichfield

Economics, finance, and national security overlap. This is the GeoEconomics Center’s raison d’être. Obvious areas of convergence include sanctions and trade policy. But the average US foreign policymaker is now also expected to develop at least rudimentary knowledge of critical minerals and what constitutes a reserve currency. Banking regulations may seem a step too far, but they must be added to the list because they too carry foreign policy implications.

In July, the United States formally released its proposal on how to implement the final elements of an international regulatory framework for banks. The proposal immediately generated criticism and has created a semblance of bipartisanship in the House Financial Services Committee. Republicans unanimously called for the proposal to be scrapped as Fed Chair Powell testified this week, while Democrats worried about a lending squeeze. But the effect the rules might have on US banks’ central role in the global financial system also deserves scrutiny. 

Since the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision has been working to establish a newly agreed set of measures to strengthen the regulation, supervision, and risk management of banks globally. Built on two previous accords, many of the “Basel III” additions to the Basel Framework are already in effect. The recent controversy concerns the final set of rules, known as the “Basel III Endgame” (or B3E), which focuses on the capital and leverage ratios banks will need to implement to cover the risk that their assets lose value in another market downturn.

Why are they needed in the first place? The B3E framework is a response to the large government bailouts of “too big to fail” banks during the GFC. It expects clear domestic rules on how banks calculate the capital they are meant to hold. Capital is what is left over when a bank subtracts its liabilities from its assets. In case too many of a bank’s assets lose value, its capital—and therefore future profits and shareholders—is meant to take the hit before depositors do. But during the GFC, low capital ratios meant governments had to step in to protect deposits.

The new proposed rules, released in July by the Fed, Office of The Comptroller of The Currency (OCC), and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) have been heavily criticized by the financial industry. The argument is that this is a classic example of “gold plating,” whereby the US rules as currently proposed would create regulatory burdens beyond what the international framework requires and put eight Global Systemically Important Banks (G-SIBs) based in the United States and over thirty-five banks with assets worth over $100 billion at a competitive disadvantage.

It’s true the new rules venture into new territory. The risk-weighted approach brought in by previous Basel Frameworks focused on assets like loans and mortgages. However, the new rules expand the range of items on a bank’s balance sheet that factor into capital adequacy ratios.  Now, derivatives covering interest rate risk and counterparty credit risk (among others) will be included. B3E also introduces leverage ratios preventing banks from borrowing more than a certain ratio to their earnings.

So, what’s the problem? The rules could prevent US banks from using their own internal models to work out how much capital they need to hold against their loan books. Instead, banks will have to rely on standardized measurements of risk using credit ratings from agencies, even if derivatives carry little to no risk to a bank acting in an agent capacity. They also lay on additional capital requirements to account for the complexity and interconnectedness of G-SIBs, in addition to their size.

By the Fed’s own estimation, the overall capital increase required by the new rules is 16 percent but it readily acknowledges this will be higher for the largest and most complex banks as a larger share of their assets will become risk-weighted assets requiring capital buffers. Contrary to what Europe-watchers may expect, the EU’s interpretation of B3E is less stringent. Its version is estimated to increase RWA by less than the Fed’s 16 percent estimation, because the EU will allow for the use of internal models and include other opt-outs from assets being included in capital ratio calculations when the risks to banks are small to non-existent.

Yes, the technical side is daunting, but B3E matters for everyone in the United States. The foreign policy community should care whether these rules improve or hinder the GeoEconomic position of the United States by potentially creating a combination of higher lending rates and due to banks exiting markets associated with higher risk weighting. That could be a problem if it leaves these markets open to rivals and adversaries.

US regulators including US Federal Reserve Vice Chair Michael Barr argue the rules are appropriate given that government has had to shoulder risks taken by banks in the past. Moreover, supporters argue better-capitalized banks tend to lend more in downturns—providing a much-needed stimulus—and avoid lending irresponsibly when times are good. This domestic reasoning needs to be squared with the geopolitical challenges the United States faces at the moment.

If US banks do exit certain derivatives markets, to be unevenly replaced by Non-Bank Financial Institutions (NBFIs) and foreign, mainly European, competitors, will the US financial system remain as central to providing dollar liquidity to corporations? Currently, the depth and reach of US capital markets is connected to the world by globally active US banks. This is one of the factors which has kept the dollar as the pre-eminent currency for trade invoicing but alternatives like the Euro and the Yuan have been rising. A retreat by US banks from their global role could also make it more challenging for the US government to implement sanctions and other economic statecraft policies against adversaries. Washington should consider if the new rules could eventually hamper the implementation of financial sanctions.

These are the tests which the foreign policy community should apply to the B3E rules. There’s no need for alarmist scenarios. The rules proposed last July would not challenge the dollar’s dominant position in international finance. Treasury bills are considered risk-free under the framework and owning them will not force banks to hold any additional capital. And there is no doubt following the GFC, and more recently the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the Basel process and other regulatory changes are needed and useful.

But the challenge going forward is to think about B3E beyond the impact on the banks and into the realm of foreign policy and geoeconomics. In the hearings this week Chair Powell recognized the rules need to be looked at and even revised before they are final. Hopefully the Fed will consider the foreign policy implications of their decision, too.

Charles Lichfield is the deputy director and C. Boyden Gray senior fellow, of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

At the intersection of economics, finance, and foreign policy, the GeoEconomics Center is a translation hub with the goal of helping shape a better global economic future.

Image: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2024. REUTERS/Tom Brenner