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Basel gives banks the whip hand

They started by trying to update the crude minimum capital requirements for international banking established in 1988. But the Basel Committee have been seduced by a new idea: let banks regulate themselves and get the market to police the banking system. Can we rely on the models banks use to calculate their capital? And do the regulators really understand what the banks are up to?

It has been a long and exhausting labour of love. Between 200 and 300 bank regulators from the wealthy G10 countries have flown many thousands of miles and held countless hours of meetings. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, which meets under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), has spent the best part of two years rewriting the rules on bank capital.

The committee, chaired by New York Federal Reserve president Bill McDonough, steered the discussions. But the bulk of the work was done by four major sub-committees. Each sub-committee set up working groups to look into some detail of the proposed rules. The biggest sub-committee, the capital task force, spawned no less than half a dozen sub-committees of its own.

The proposal document, released on January 16, is suitably massive. Its 541 pages outline a new world order for bank capital which looks, at first glance, like a vast improvement on the 1988 capital accord. Where the old agreement sketched out crude guidelines for calculating the amount of capital a bank needs, the new proposals delve into the gritty intricacies of collateral haircuts, clean break securitization, materiality thresholds and granularity scaling factors.

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