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Fallacies, Irrelevant Facts, and Myths in the Discussion of Capital Regulation: Why bank equity is not expensive

by Anat R. Admati of the Stanford University,
Peter M. DeMarzo of the Stanford University,
Martin F. Hellwig of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, and
Paul Pfleiderer of the Stanford University

March 23, 2011

Abstract: We examine the pervasive view that "equity is expensive," which leads to claims that high capital requirements are costly and would affect credit markets adversely. We find that arguments made to support this view are either fallacious, irrelevant, or very weak. For example, the return on equity contains a risk premium that must go down if banks have more equity. It is thus incorrect to assume that the required return on equity remains fixed as capital requirements increase. It is also incorrect to translate higher taxes paid by banks to a social cost. Policies that subsidize debt and indirectly penalize equity through taxes and implicit guarantees are distortive. Any desirable public subsidies to banks' activities should be given directly and not in ways that encourage leverage. Finally, suggestions that high leverage serves a necessary disciplining role are based on inadequate theory lacking empirical support.

We conclude that bank equity is not socially expensive, and that high leverage is not necessary for banks to perform all their socially valuable functions, including lending, taking deposits and issuing money-like securities. To the contrary, better capitalized banks suffer fewer distortions in lending decisions and would perform better. The fact that banks choose high leverage does not imply that this is socially optimal, and, except for government subsidies and viewed from an ex ante perspective, high leverage may not even be privately optimal for banks.

Setting equity requirements significantly higher than the levels currently proposed would entail large social benefits and minimal, if any, social costs. Approaches based on equity dominate alternatives, including contingent capital. To achieve better capitalization quickly and efficiently and prevent disruption to lending, regulators must actively control equity payouts and issuance. If remaining challenges are addressed, capital regulation can be a powerful tool for enhancing the role of banks in the economy.

JEL Classification: G21, G28, G32, G38, H81, K23.

Keywords: capital regulation, financial institutions, capital structure, "too big to fail", systemic risk, bank equity, contingent capital, Basel, market discipline

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