Tag Archives: Transparency

ECB Collateral Framework

In an ECB occasional paper, Ulrich Bindseil, Marco Corsi, Benjamin Sahel, and Ad Visser review the European Central Banks’s collateral framework.

From the executive summary, on misconceptions:

… differences e.g. with interbank repo markets: first, central banks are not subject to liquidity risk in the way “normal” market participants are, and can therefore accept less liquid collateral. Second, as the central bank has a zero default probability in its domestic market operations, collateral providers are willing to accept severe haircuts to obtain credit. …

According to the authors the ECB is the most transparent central bank when it comes to its collateral framework. But the latter is also complicated:

However, it is true that the ESCF is relatively broad in terms of the scope of eligible collateral and rather complicated. This is inevitable because of the diversity of financial institutions and markets in the euro area.

Governments Adopt the Blockchain, To Improve Efficiency and Build Trust

The Economist reports about government initiatives aimed at using blockchain technology in the public sector.

  • Possible uses include land registries, identity-management systems, health-care records, or elections.
  • Proponents expect the technology to improve efficiency and transparency and foster trust.
  • Adoption requires significant investments.
  • According to a survey “nine in ten government organisations say they plan to invest in blockchain technology to help manage financial transactions, assets, contracts and regulatory compliance by next year.”
  • Sweden tests a blockchain-based land registry; Dubai’s government wants to completely shift to blockchain technology by 2020; Estonia stores health records and protects its shared government systems using blockchain-like technolog; Georgia’s land registry uses blockchain technology and has processed 160,000 transactions; Ukraine wants to become “one of the world’s leading blockchain nations,” not least to build trust between government and citizens.

Pawn Shops, Information Insensitivity, and Debt-on-Debt

In a BIS working paper (January 2015), Bengt Holmstrom summarizes some of the implications of the research on information insensitive debt. He cautions against moves to increase transparency in debt markets and defends the shadow banking system. He explains why opacity and information insensitivity are valuable and argues that debt-on-debt arrangements are (privately) optimal.

It all started with pawn shops:

The beauty lies in the fact that collateralised lending obviates the need to discover the exact price of the collateral. …

Today’s repo markets … are close cousins of pawn brokering with similar risks for the parties involved. … the buyer of the asset (the lender) bears the risk that the seller (the borrower) will not have the money to repurchase the asset and just like the pawnbroker, has to sell the asset in the market instead. The seller bears the risk that the buyer of the asset may have rehypothecated (reused) the posted collateral and cannot deliver it back on the termination date. … the risk that a pawnbroker may sell or lose the pawn was a big issue in ancient times and could explain why the Chinese pawnbrokers were Buddhist monks. …

People often assume that liquidity requires transparency, but this is a misunderstanding. What is required for liquidity is symmetric information about the payoff of the security that is being traded so that adverse selection does not impair the market. …

… stock markets are in almost all respects different from money markets …: risk-sharing versus liquidity provision, price discovery versus no price discovery, information-sensitive versus insensitive, transparent versus opaque, large versus small investments in information, anonymous versus bilateral, small unit trades versus large unit trades. … money markets operate under much greater urgency than stock markets. There is generally very little to lose if one stays out of the stock market for a day or longer. This is one reason the volume of trade is very volatile in stock markets. In money markets the volume of trade is very stable, because it could be disastrous if, for instance, overnight debt would not be rolled over each day. …

… debt-on-debt is optimal … . It is optimal to buy debt as collateral to insure against liquidity shocks tomorrow and it is optimal to issue debt against that collateral tomorrow. In fact, repeating the process over time is optimal, too, so debt is in a very robust sense the best possible collateral. This provides a strong reason for using debt as collateral in the shadow banking system. …

Panics always involve debt. Panics happen when information insensitive debt (or banks) turns into information-sensitive debt.

“The IMF and the Crises in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal”

The Independent Evaluation Office of the International Monetary Fund released a critical report on IMF supported policies in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. It questions the legitimacy of certain decisions. The executive summary states that

[t]he IMF’s pre-crisis surveillance mostly identified the right issues but did not foresee the magnitude of the risks … missed the build-up of banking system risks … shared the widely-held “Europe is different” mindset … Following the onset of the crisis, however, IMF surveillance successfully identified many unaddressed vulnerabilities, pushed for aggressive bank stress testing and recapitalization, and called for the formation of a banking union. …

In May 2010, the IMF Executive Board approved a decision to provide exceptional access financing to Greece without seeking preemptive debt restructuring, even though its sovereign debt was not deemed sustainable with a high probability. The risk of contagion was an important consideration … The IMF’s policy on exceptional access to Fund resources, which mandates early Board involvement, was followed only in a perfunctory manner. The 2002 framework for exceptional access was modified to allow exceptional access financing to go forward, but the modification process departed from the IMF’s usual deliberative process whereby decisions of such import receive careful review. Early and active Board involvement might or might not have led to a different decision, but it would have enhanced the legitimacy of any decision. …

The IMF, having considered the possibility of lending to a euro area member as unlikely, had never articulated how best it could design a program with a euro area country … where there was more than one conditional lender, the troika arrangement … proved to be an efficient mechanism … but the IMF lost its characteristic agility as a crisis manager. … the troika arrangement potentially subjected IMF staff’s technical judgments to political pressure …

The IMF-supported programs in Greece and Portugal incorporated overly optimistic growth projections. … Lessons from past crises were not always applied, for example when the IMF underestimated the likely negative response of private creditors to a high-risk program. …

The IMF’s handling of the euro area crisis raised issues of accountability and transparency, which helped create the perception that the IMF treated Europe differently. … Some documents on sensitive issues were prepared outside the regular, established channels; the IEO faced a lack of clarity in its terms of reference on what it could or could not evaluate; and there was no clear protocol on the modality of interactions between the IEO and IMF staff. The IMF did not complete internal reviews involving euro area programs on time, as mandated, which led to missed opportunities to draw timely lessons.

It lists the following recommendations:

… should develop procedures to minimize the room for political intervention in the IMF’s technical analysis. … should strengthen the existing processes to ensure that agreed policies are followed and that they are not changed without careful deliberation. … should clarify how guidelines on program design apply to currency union members. … should establish a policy on cooperation with regional financing arrangements. … should reaffirm their commitment to accountability and transparency and the role of independent evaluation …

In her response, the IMF’s Managing Director emphasizes that the IMF-supported programs did work in the cases of Ireland and Portugal (and in Cyprus) while Greece was a special case. She supports the report’s last four recommendations but disagrees with the premise of the first.

FATCA in Reverse?

The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament wants the European Union to exert more pressure on the United States: the US should no longer serve as a “tax haven” for European tax dodgers. Proposed measures include blacklisting and a FATCA-type 30% withholding tax on EU-sourced payments.

From the executive summary of the report commissioned by the group:

Two global transparency initiatives are underway that could help tackle financial crimes including tax evasion, money laundering and corruption: registration of beneficial ownership for companies (to identify the real persons owning or controlling such companies) and automatic exchange of bank account information between tax administrations. The European Union has made progress in both respects, with the adoption of a 4th anti-money laundering Directive (in May 2015) and by committing to implement the OECD’s common reporting standard for automatic exchange of financial account information. The United States (U.S.), in contrast, has done neither so far.

On May 5th, 2016 the U.S. announced new measures to improve its financial transparency, although not all the texts of the proposed regulations were provided. The U.S. Treasury announced three new measures: … In any case, not only would some of these new rules require Congress approval, but even the U.S. Treasury final proposals on beneficial ownership collection by financial institutions are not enough to solve all the problems nor to bring the U.S. into line with the OECD’s standard for automatic exchange of information. …

Two main issues in the U.S. affect the global progress towards transparency: … Company registration is regulated by each of the 50 states’ law. In 14 states, companies may be created identifying neither shareholders nor managers. At the federal level, tax rules require filing some information to obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN). However, not all companies require an EIN and, even if they do, the ‘beneficial owners’ (the actual natural persons owning or controlling the company) are not necessarily among the information to be provided. Companies only have to identify one ‘responsible party’, who may be a nominee director. In order to (partially) address this, the White House 2017 budget proposal and the new measures proposed on May 5th, 2016 suggest requiring all companies (or according to the May 5th proposed rules, at least some foreign-owned disregarded entities, such as single-member limited liability companies) to obtain an EIN. Not only does this proposal need to become effective, but information would apparently still be about the ‘responsible party’ and not necessarily about the real physical person owning and controlling the company (the so-called beneficial owner).

… The U.S. has refused to join the trend for multilateral automatic exchange of information. Instead, it will implement its domestic law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the related Inter-Governmental Agreements signed with other countries. However, these involve unequal exchanges of information: the U.S. receives more information than what it sends (for example, about beneficial ownership data). Oddly, though, the OECD did not include the U.S. among jurisdictions that did not commit to its new standard.

Even if the U.S. committed to exchange equal levels of information in the future, the current U.S. legal framework does not allow its financial institutions to collect beneficial ownership information for all relevant cases covered by the OECD’s global automatic exchange of information standard. U.S. financial institutions are currently only required to obtain information on beneficial owners for correspondent banking (i.e. accounts held for foreign financial institutions) and for private banking of non-U.S. clients (accounts holding more than USD 1 million).

Final rules to address these limitations have been announced on May 5th, 2016 although financial institutions must comply with them only by May 11th, 2018. However, the final rules still have the same problems that the IMF identified regarding the 2014 version of the rules so they will not fix all the problems. Remaining shortcomings include: some entities will still not be covered (i.e. insurance companies), the definition of ‘beneficial owner’ is incomplete (it does not include the ‘control through other means’ test, meaning that if you cannot identify at least one person owning 25% or more of the shares, financial institutions should try to find someone who controls the company through other means, before identifying only someone with a managerial position-who may be a nominee director), the verification of information would rely mainly on customer’s own certification, information on beneficial owners would be required for new accounts only (not for existing ones) and it will not need to be updated after the first time of collection, unless the financial institution becomes aware of changes as part of monitoring for risks. In addition, trusts will not be required to provide beneficial ownership information unless they own enough equity in an entity, such as a company, required to provide this information.

To fix this situation and promote equal levels of transparency, this paper provides a series of recommendations. For example, the European Union should consider including the U.S. in the upcoming list of tax havens, unless it effectively ensures registration of beneficial ownership information for companies and commits to equal levels of automatic exchange of information with European Union countries. Ideally, all financial centres should effectively implement the OECD standard for automatic exchange of information (by becoming a party to the OECD Amended Multilateral Tax Convention, signing the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement and agreeing to exchange information with all other cosignatories). The European Union could thus consider imposing a sanction (such as a 30% withholding tax on all EU-sourced payments) against any financial institution that refuses to automatically exchange information about EU residents holding accounts abroad. In a second stage, sanctions could also be used to ensure that financial institutions from financial centres will also provide information to developing countries with which the European Union is already exchanging information.

Reports by René Höltschi in the NZZ as well as Markus Fruehauf und Winand von Petersdorff in the FAZ.

Not Guilty of Money Laundering, but Out of Business Anyway

The Economist continues to report critically on US regulatory pressure abroad and possible double standards.

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), part of America’s Treasury, [has] rescinded a devastating finding against a European bank suspected of facilitating money-laundering. The withdrawal, less than a year after the designation, looks like a climbdown. …

Some suspect the bank was a pawn in a tussle between governments: miffed that Andorra was slow to adopt American-style anti-money-laundering rules … America decided to show who was boss by selecting a bank to pick on. There is some evidence to support this sacrificial-lamb theory. … an American diplomat suggested that America chose to “use the hammer” on BPA as a way of resolving wider concerns about Andorra. …

These cases highlight two problems with FinCEN’s money-laundering cudgel. The first is double-standards. It tends to go after only small banks in strategically unimportant countries … The second is its lack of openness. It faces no requirement to make detailed evidence public, or even available to a court, at the time of action. By the time any challenge is heard, it may be too late for the bank in question.

Cost-Benefit Analysis in Development Aid

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