The Fed Is Stressed Out. A WSJ Editorial
What if a bank had the same problem the regulators have?Wall Street Journal, Nov 28, 2015
Almost nobody in Washington cares, and most of the financial media haven’t noticed. But the inspector general’s office at the Federal Reserve recently reported the disturbing results of an internal investigation. Last December the central bank internally identified “fundamental weaknesses in key areas” related to the Fed’s own governance of the stress testing it conducts of financial firms.
The Fed’s stress tests theoretically judge whether the country’s largest banks can withstand economic downturns. So the Fed identifying a problem with its own management of the stress tests is akin to an energy company noticing that something is not right at one of its nuclear reactors.
According to the inspector general, “The governance review findings include, among other items, a shortcoming in policies and procedures, insufficient model testing” and “incomplete structures and information flows to ensure proper oversight of model risk management.” These Fed models are essentially a black box to the public, so there’s no way to tell from the outside how large a problem this is.
The Fed’s ability to construct and maintain financial and economic models is much more than a subject of intellectual curiosity. Given that Fed-approved models at the heart of the so-called Basel capital standards proved to be spectacularly wrong in the run-up to the last financial crisis, the new report is more reason to wonder why anyone should expect them to be more accurate the next time.
The Fed’s IG adds that last year’s internal review “notes that similar findings identified at institutions supervised by the Federal Reserve have typically been characterized as matters requiring immediate attention or as matters requiring attention.”
That’s for sure. Receiving a “matters requiring immediate attention” letter from the Fed is a big deal at a bank. The Journal reported last year that after the Fed used this language in a letter to Credit Suisse castigating the bank’s work in the market for leveraged loans, the bank chose not to participate in the financing of several buy-out deals.
But it’s hard to tell if anything will come from this report that seems to have fallen deep in a Beltway forest. The IG office’s report says that the Fed is taking a number of steps to correct its shortcomings, and that the Fed’s reform plans “appear to be responsive to our recommendations.”
The Fed wields enormous power with little democratic accountability and transparency. This was tolerable when the Fed’s main job was monetary, but its vast new regulatory authority requires more scrutiny. Congress should add the Fed’s stressed-out standards for stress tests to its oversight list.