Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Anti-Greenspan

But there was also another factor, perhaps the most important of all. India had a bank regulator who was the anti-Greenspan. His name was Dr. V. Y. Reddy, and he was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Seventy percent of the banking system in India is nationalized, so a strong regulator is critical, since any banking scandal amounts to a national political scandal as well. And in the irascible Mr. Reddy, who took office in 2003 and stepped down this past September, it had exactly the right man in the right job at the right time.

He basically believed that if bankers were given the opportunity to sin, they would sin,” said one banker who asked not to be named because, well, there’s not much percentage in getting on the wrong side of the Reserve Bank of India. For all the bankers’ talk about their higher lending standards, the truth is that Mr. Reddy made them even more stringent during the bubble.

Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to even point out bubbles, much less try to deflate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality. About two years ago, he started sensing that real estate, in particular, had entered bubble territory. One of the first moves he made was to ban the use of bank loans for the purchase of raw land, which was skyrocketing. Only when the developer was about to commence building could the bank get involved — and then only to make construction loans. (Guess who wound up financing the land purchases? United States private equity and hedge funds, of course!)

Then, as securitizations and derivatives gained increasing prominence in the world’s financial system, the Reserve Bank of India sharply curtailed their use in the country. When Mr. Reddy saw American banks setting up off-balance-sheet vehicles to hide debt, he essentially banned them in India. As a result, banks in India wound up holding onto the loans they made to customers. On the one hand, this meant they made fewer loans than their American counterparts because they couldn’t sell off the loans to Wall Street in securitizations. On the other hand, it meant they still had the incentive — as American banks did not — to see those loans paid back.

Seeing inflation on the horizon, Mr. Reddy pushed interest rates up to more than 20 percent, which of course dampened the housing frenzy. He increased risk weightings on commercial buildings and shopping mall construction, doubling the amount of capital banks were required to hold in reserve in case things went awry. He made banks put aside extra capital for every loan they made. In effect, Mr. Reddy was creating liquidity even before there was a global liquidity crisis.

Did India’s bankers stand up to applaud Mr. Reddy as he was making these moves? Of course not. They were naturally furious, just as American bankers would have been if Mr. Greenspan had been more active. Their regulator was holding them back, constraining their growth! Mr. Parekh told me that while he had been saying for some time that Indian real estate was in bubble territory, he was still unhappy with the rules imposed by Mr. Reddy. “We were critical of the central bank,” he said. “We thought these were harsh measures.”

-How India Avoided a Crisis

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