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WSJ Op-Ed: Make Big Banks Put 20% Down—Just Like Home Buyers Do

Financial CEOs say capital requirements are already too high, but the facts suggest otherwise.

February 14, 2017


Neel Kashkari President and CEO
WSJ Op-Ed: Make Big Banks Put 20% Down—Just Like Home Buyers Do

There's a straightforward way to help prevent the next financial crisis, fix the too-big-to-fail problem, and still relax regulations on community lenders: increase capital requirements for the largest banks. In November, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which I lead, announced a draft proposal to do precisely that. Our plan would increase capital requirements on the biggest banks—those with assets over $250 billion—to at least 23.5%. It would reduce the risk of a taxpayer bailout to less than 10% over the next century.

Alarmingly, there has been recent public discussion of moving in the opposite direction. Several large-bank CEOs have suggested that their capital requirements are already too high and are holding back lending. As this newspaper reported, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan recently asked, "Do we have [to hold] an extra $20 billion in capital? Which doesn't sound like a lot, but that's $200 billion in loans we could make."

It is true that some regulations implemented after the 2008 financial crisis are imposing undue burdens, especially on small banks, without actually making the financial system safer. But the assertion that capital requirements are holding back lending is demonstrably false.

How can I prove it? Simple: Borrowing costs for homeowners and businesses are near record lows. If loans were scarce, borrowers would be competing for them, driving up costs. That isn't happening. Nor do other indicators suggest a lack of loans. Bank credit has grown 23% over the past three years, about twice as much as nominal gross domestic product. Only 4% of small businesses surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Business report not having their credit needs met.

If capital standards are relaxed, banks will almost certainly use the newly freed money to buy back their stock and increase dividends. The goal for large banks won't be to increase lending, but to boost their stock prices. Let's not forget: That's the job of a bank CEO. It isn't to protect taxpayers.

So if capital requirements aren't the problem, why does it feel so hard to get a loan today? I can speak from firsthand experience. Last year my wife and I decided to buy a house. We applied for a loan with a bank where I have been a customer for many years. I assumed that my long record with the bank and our good credit would make it easy. With the required 20% down payment, we were prequalified for a mortgage with a rate of 3.375% fixed for the first 10 years. That was an attractive rate, suggesting capital was not holding back lending.

The prequalification was easy. Then the frustration began. The mortgage banker asked for myriad documents: bank statements, 401(k) statements, brokerage statements, tax returns, W-2s, insurance records and so on. That all seemed reasonable, but as the weeks rolled on, the requests for more documentation kept coming. After a month or so, I couldn't believe what I was being asked for. Despite having all the records of my on-time monthly rental payments in my checking account, the bank demanded a copy of my lease and to speak with my landlord.

The banker called me to apologize, admitting that the requests were ridiculous but saying that there was no reasoning with the underwriting department. As we waited, we began to wonder if we wanted to buy the house at all. Wouldn't continuing to rent be so much easier?

In the end, the bank funded the loan. I felt bad for the underwriters, who seemed unable to exercise judgment or use common sense. The impression I got was that people at the bank were simply paralyzed by fear—that they might make a mistake, that regulators would be breathing down their necks.

I have spoken to many borrowers at other banks, and they tell me similar stories. It has become needlessly difficult for qualified borrowers to get loans. But again, the problem isn't the capital requirements—it's everything else.

Capital is the best defense against bailouts. Although capital standards are higher than before the last crisis, they are not nearly high enough. The odds of a bailout in the next century are still nearly 70%. Large banks need to be able to withstand around a 20% loss on their assets to protect against taxpayer bailouts in a downturn like the Great Recession, according to a 2015 analysis by the Federal Reserve. Unfortunately, regulators have taken it easy on the large banks, which today have only about half of the equity they need.

There is a simple and fair solution to the too-big-to-fail problem. Banks ask us to put 20% down when buying our homes to protect them in case we run into trouble. Similarly, taxpayers should make large banks put 20% down in the form of equity to prevent bailouts in case the financial system runs into trouble. Higher capital for large banks and streamlined regulation for small banks would minimize frustration for borrowers. If 20% down is reasonable to ask of us, it is reasonable to ask of the banks.

Mr. Kashkari is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a participant in the Federal Open Market Committee.

See Neel Kashkari's Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal.