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Chairman Ben S. Bernanke speaks on Regulation and

Remarks by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
To the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's 2007 Financial Markets Conference, Sea Island, Georgia (via satellite)
May 15, 2007
Regulation and Financial Innovation

Good morning. I'm pleased to be able to join you for this year's financial markets conference, albeit from afar. Last year the focus was on hedge funds, and the main theme of this year's gathering is credit derivatives. This pairing makes eminent sense, in that the increasing prominence of hedge funds and the growth of the market for credit derivatives are both aspects of the remarkable wave of financial innovation that we have seen in recent years. Both of these developments have also been the subject of public policy debates, including calls for increased regulation. In my remarks today I will address, from the 30,000-foot level, the challenges that financial innovation poses for public policy and the nature of the appropriate regulatory response. I will argue that central banks and other regulators should resist the temptation to devise ad hoc rules for each new type of financial instrument or institution. Rather, we should strive to develop common, principles-based policy responses that can be applied consistently across the financial sector to meet clearly defined objectives.

In addressing the challenges and the risks that financial innovation may create, we should also always keep in view the enormous economic benefits that flow from a healthy and innovative financial sector. The increasing sophistication and depth of financial markets promote economic growth by allocating capital where it can be most productive. And the dispersion of risk more broadly across the financial system has, thus far, increased the resilience of the system and the economy to shocks. When proposing or implementing regulation, we must seek to preserve the benefits of financial innovation even as we address the risks that may accompany that innovation.

Clear thinking is therefore essential. In developing a regulatory framework, we need to be explicit both about what the public policy objectives of regulation are and about how, if at all, fresh developments threaten to undermine those objectives. We should also take into account the role that the market itself can play in controlling risks to public objectives; as I noted last month, market discipline can be an important element in a well-functioning regulatory scheme. And as I have already observed this morning, any regulatory changes should fulfill the test of consistency, across both institutions and instruments.

Ensuring a Consistent Approach
In thinking about how, or whether, to regulate innovative financial institutions (such as hedge funds) or instruments (such as credit derivatives), we should be wary of drawing artificial distinctions. Are the characteristics of hedge funds or credit derivatives that arouse concern peculiar to these institutions and instruments, or are they associated with others as well? If the characteristics in question are in fact a feature of the broader financial landscape, then a narrowly focused approach to regulation will be undermined by the incentives such an approach creates for regulatory arbitrage.

For example, while the complexity of new financial instruments and trading strategies is potentially a concern for policy, as I will discuss, not all credit derivatives are complex and--to state the obvious--not all complex financial instruments are linked to credit risk. Single-name credit default swaps and credit default swap indexes are relatively simple instruments, whereas derivatives based on other asset classes--such as exotic interest-rate and foreign-exchange options--can, by contrast, be quite complex. Moreover, derivatives in general are not necessarily more complex than some types of structured securities. In short, if complexity per se is the concern, we cannot address that concern by focusing on a single class of financial instruments. Similarly, hedge funds are hardly a homogeneous group of institutions, nor can their trading strategies be unambiguously distinguished from those of large global banks or of some traditional asset managers. A consistent regulatory strategy needs to be tailored to the essential characteristics of institutions or instruments that pose risks for policy objectives, not to arbitrary categories.

At last year's conference, I discussed a policy proposal focused narrowly on hedge funds--namely, the development of a database of hedge fund positions and portfolios. As I noted last year, given the complexity of trading strategies and the rapidity with which positions change, creating a database that would be sufficiently timely and detailed to be of practical use to hedge funds' creditors and investors or to regulators would be extremely difficult. Collecting such information also risks moral hazard, if some traders conclude that, in gathering the data, the regulators have somehow reduced financial risk. The principle of consistency on which I am focusing today raises an additional objection to this proposal, which is that it would make little sense to collect data on hedge funds' positions without gathering the same information for other groups of market participants that use similar strategies and take similar risks.

An analogous issue arises in the debate over transparency in the credit derivatives market. Some argue that policymakers should act to make trading in the credit derivatives market more transparent, on the grounds that the market and policymakers should know just who is holding the credit risk associated with a particular issuer. But if transparency about risk-bearing is important, then consistency seems to imply that full transparency should be required of credit markets broadly, not just of credit derivatives. And why stop with credit markets? Do we know exactly who is bearing the risk in equity markets or foreign exchange markets, for example?

Rather than addressing specific institutions or instruments in isolation, regulators should begin by identifying their objectives and then address the implications of the broad range of financial innovations for those objectives. By returning to the basics, we can increase the coherence, consistency, and effectiveness of the regulatory framework.

Public Policy Objectives
As public policymakers, we have three principal objectives in the financial sphere, objectives that have remained essentially unchanged over many decades even as the pace of financial innovation has accelerated. These objectives are financial stability, investor protection, and market integrity. These goals are widely shared by policymakers around the world and thus provide a basis for international cooperation.

From a central banker's point of view, the objective of ensuring financial stability remains critical. Indeed, the Federal Reserve was founded in large part because of concerns about periodic bouts of instability that damaged both the financial system and the broader economy. Policymakers cannot prevent financial shocks, but we can try to mitigate their effects by ensuring that the system remains fundamentally sound. In particular, as I will discuss, we can use our supervisory authority to ensure that the large institutions that form the core of the financial system--which happen to be the leading dealers in the credit derivatives markets and the principal counterparties and creditors of hedge funds--manage the risks that they face in a safe and sound manner.

Investor protection is another vital public objective. A loss of confidence in the financial system by investors, too, could undermine the system's stability and functioning. Of course, we cannot--and should not--prevent all investor losses. To avoid moral hazard and let market discipline work, investors must be allowed to bear the consequences of the decisions they make and the risks they accept. But investors are entitled to the information they need to make decisions appropriate to their personal circumstances.

Closely linked to the imperative of investor protection is the third public policy objective: preserving the integrity of the market. The stability and the efficiency of the market depend on a common understanding of and adherence to the rules of the game. Thus, policymakers must attach a high priority to preventing insider trading, market manipulation, and other activities that rig the game and undermine public confidence.

Challenges to Public Policy Objectives
The rapid pace of financial innovation creates challenges for policymakers with respect to each of these policy objectives. In particular, financial stability depends on adequate risk measurement and risk management by market participants. Failures of risk management by large institutions, or by a sufficient number of smaller ones, would threaten not only the solvency of the institutions themselves but also the health of the whole system.

Of course, in some respects financial innovation makes risk management easier. Risk can now be sliced and diced, moved off the balance sheet, and hedged by derivative instruments. Indeed, the need for better risk sharing and risk management has been a primary driving force behind the recent wave of innovation. But in some respects, new instruments and trading strategies make risk measurement and management more difficult. Notably, risk-management challenges are associated with the complexity of contemporary instruments and trading strategies; the potential for market illiquidity to magnify the riskiness of those instruments and strategies; and the greater leverage that their use can entail.

Complexity--especially when combined with illiquidity--amplifies the difficulty of measuring risk, both market risk and counterparty credit risk. For example, some complex instruments can be valued only with the aid of sophisticated modeling techniques. The problems of valuation and of risk measurement faced by investors in tranches of bespoke collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are a good example. Similar problems are faced by the core financial intermediaries that often act as counterparties to hedge funds in complex synthetic CDO transactions or that finance hedge funds' investments in bespoke CDO tranches. Complex trading strategies and positions, too, can create problems. For example, counterparty risks may be underestimated because of failures to aggregate exposures to risks across instruments and counterparties. What is essentially the same risk can appear in different forms; for example, investments in a CDO tranche, a bond, and a credit default swap may all entail credit risk to a given obligor.

Illiquidity, or the potential for illiquidity under some conditions, is also a problem for managers of market risk and counterparty credit risk. Substantial market risk may be associated with holdings of illiquid instruments; again, tranches of bespoke CDOs illustrate this well. A pattern of crowded trades may lead to market illiquidity--sometimes in surprising locations--when risk aversion heightens. In particular, counterparty exposures can be significantly increased if the closeout of positions of one or more hedge funds by their dealer counterparties leads to, or exacerbates, market illiquidity.

Market liquidity depends not only on the presence of willing buyers and sellers but also on the underlying infrastructure, including market-making capacity and the system for clearing and settling financial transactions. Twenty years ago this fall, the 1987 stock market crash was significantly worsened by the inability of trade-processing systems to keep up with order flows, including orders resulting from program trading. Of course, automated trading is far more pervasive today, and overall trading volumes have expanded greatly. As trading volumes grow, market infrastructures must adapt. Until 2005, reliance on paper-based procedures for confirming trades in the rapidly growing credit derivatives markets sometimes resulted in large backlogs of unconfirmed trades, which increased the risks to market participants. With leadership from their prudential regulators, dealers in those markets have adopted electronic confirmation platforms and greatly reduced the backlogs. Currently, regulators and market participants are beginning to address large backlogs of confirmations in the equity derivatives markets.

The leverage that can be embedded in new financial instruments and trading strategies compounds the difficulties of risk management. Embedded leverage can be difficult to measure; at the same time, like conventional leverage, it may increase investor vulnerability to market shocks. Some credit derivatives do make it easier for investors to take leveraged exposures to credit risk. For example, the first-loss tranche of the investment-grade CDX credit default swap index is exposed to the first 3 percent of losses on the index portfolio. Holding a $3 million position in this tranche exposes an investor to losses on an underlying portfolio of $100 million. A dealer taking the other side of the trade obviously needs to enhance its counterparty risk-management practices to take this greater leverage into account.

Complexity, illiquidity, and embedded leverage also create challenges for policymakers with respect to the objectives of protecting investors and maintaining market integrity. If hedge funds and the large banks that are hedge funds' counterparties and creditors have difficulty assessing the risks associated with complex financial instruments, many investors will find gaining a sufficient understanding of the risks even more burdensome. Investors may also not appreciate the extent to which they may have multiple exposures to the same source of risk--for example, arising from effective exposures to the same hedge fund through funds of funds or from investments in different funds with similar trading strategies. Current restrictions on hedge fund investors, which limit direct investors to institutions or wealthy individuals, reflect the recognition of the difficulties that a retail investor would face in adequately assessing these types of risk. But as instruments and trading strategies become more complex and intertwined, even the most sophisticated investors will be challenged to make reliable judgments about their risk exposures. Likewise, complex and difficult-to-value financial instruments could be exploited as vehicles for profiting from insider trading or market manipulation, although, as history shows, simpler instruments can be used in this way as well. Policymakers must be confident of their ability to detect such market abuses when they occur.

A Principles-Based, Risk-Focused Approach
How best to respond to these daunting challenges? As I noted, there are powerful arguments against ad hoc instrument-specific or institution-specific regulation. The better alternative is a consistent, principles-based, and risk-focused approach that takes account of the benefits as well as the risks that accompany financial innovation.

Some commentators have sought to draw a sharp distinction between the approach to financial regulation in the United States and that in the United Kingdom. These observers have characterized the British approach as being principles-based and as using a "light touch"--the implication being that these two features somehow go together. In a speech in February of this year, Sir Callum McCarthy, the head of the United Kingdom's Financial Services Authority (FSA), took issue with this interpretation.1 Sir Callum confirmed that the FSA's approach is built on a framework of principles, although he noted that the FSA also has an 8,500-page rulebook to accompany the eleven principles it has laid out. But the FSA head rejected the view that their approach is "light touch." Rather, he said, it is risk-based, which means that regulatory resources and attention are devoted to firms, markets, or instruments in proportion to the perceived risks to the FSA's regulatory objectives.

In fact, as in the United Kingdom, the principles-based, risk-focused approach to regulation has had considerable influence on this side of the Atlantic as well. For example, as you may know, the President's Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG) recently issued a statement of principles--ten in this case--relating to the regulation of private pools of capital, including hedge funds. Our aim in presenting these principles was to spell out how a combination of market discipline and government oversight could be most effective in addressing the challenges to public policy objectives that I have described. The principles make clear that regulators and supervisors should adopt the risk-focused approach described by Sir Callum. In particular, they emphasize that risks to financial stability are best addressed by focusing our attention on the large institutions at the core of the financial system.

Some care is needed in applying a risk-focused approach to regulation, however. In particular, when the government singles out particular institutions or markets as being especially critical to the stability of the system, moral hazard concerns may well follow. A perception that some institutions are "too big to fail" may create incentives for excessive risk-taking on the part of those institutions or their creditors. For that reason, part of an effective risk-focused approach is the promotion of market discipline as the first line of defense whenever possible. Market discipline is enhanced whenever regulators take positive steps to ensure that investors and managers bear the consequences of their financial decisions.

Reliance on market discipline should not be confused with a policy of laissez-faire or benign neglect. To the contrary, as the PWG's principles spell out, market discipline often needs to be buttressed by government oversight. Notably, supervisors must diligently ensure that regulated firms--especially those core financial firms that act as creditors, counterparties, and clearing firms for highly leveraged entities, including hedge funds--adopt and implement best practices for monitoring and managing risks. These best practices could include those identified through cooperative private-sector initiatives, such as those of the Counterparty Risk Policy Management Group II. Importantly, best practices must address the challenges I mentioned earlier, including those relating to the complexity of instruments and strategies (which can make exposures difficult to measure), the illiquidity or potential illiquidity of positions held by the firm or its counterparties, and the risks of embedded as well as explicit leverage.

In implementing risk-focused and principles-based policies, we must also face the reality that finance does not stop at the water's edge. Financial globalization and financial innovation are closely tied, with each trend promoting the other. As a consequence, global regulatory coordination and collaboration are more vital than ever. We already work closely with our counterparts in the major industrial countries as well as in international forums such as the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). To the extent possible, we should work toward common principles and approaches as well as improved information sharing. International cooperation is also essential for establishing and maintaining effective oversight of the payment and settlement systems that constitute the infrastructure of global financial markets. Organizations such as the Committee on Payments and Settlements Systems (CPSS) and IOSCO have developed shared international principles to ensure the safety and efficiency of payment systems.

Investor protection can also be addressed in a risk-focused, principles-based manner. Most important, disclosures and protections should be tailored to the level of sophistication of the investor. Mutual funds, for example, must provide disclosures sufficient to help retail investors make informed choices. When instruments and strategies are so complex that an unsophisticated investor could not be expected to effectively evaluate and manage the associated risks, U.S. regulators have chosen to limit the exposure of those investors. For example, most retail investors are effectively precluded from engaging in over-the-counter credit derivative transactions or from investing directly in hedge funds unless they meet various criteria regarding income and net worth.

Retail investors may have indirect exposures to complex instruments and strategies--for example, through pension funds. The appropriate principle for investor protection in this case is that the investors' agents--pension fund managers, for example--must apply sound risk-management practices and take risks consistent with the stated objectives of the ultimate investors. Regulators have a role to play in imposing fiduciary duties and standards on the investors' agents. For example, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) sets standards for private pension fund managers, including the requirements that, as fiduciaries, they act prudently and solely in the interest of the pension fund participants. Supervision of these fiduciaries must ensure that these standards are consistently met and that fiduciaries themselves fully understand the nature of their risk exposure.

Market integrity is the third public policy objective that I noted earlier. Consistent with a principles-based approach, U.S. securities laws against insider trading and market manipulation apply broadly to all financial institutions, including hedge funds, and to trading in a wide range of financial instruments, including securities-based over-the-counter derivatives transactions. Just as institutions and other investors need to adopt best practices to measure and manage risk, they should also have robust internal controls to ensure that the laws are not violated. For example, some market participants have expressed a concern that a bank may use nonpublic information in the credit derivatives market that it has obtained through its lending activities. To protect against such abuses, private-sector groups have proposed practices and principles for handling material nonpublic information--for example, by creating barriers between the staff members with access to such information and others. Risk-focused regulators and supervisors in turn should encourage effective implementation of these best practices, particularly in situations in which the potential for misuse, either intentional or unintentional, is high.

Financial innovation has great benefits for our economy. The goal of regulation should be to preserve those benefits while achieving important public policy objectives, including financial stability, investor protection, and market integrity. Although financial innovation promotes those objectives in some ways, for example by allowing better sharing of risks, certain aspects of financial innovation--including the complexity of financial instruments and trading strategies, the illiquidity or potential illiquidity of certain instruments, and explicit or embedded leverage--may pose significant risks. These risks should not be taken lightly.

Devising an appropriate regulatory response to financial innovation is challenging. I have argued today that we should strive to implement a regulatory regime that is principles-based, risk-focused, and consistently applied. Enhancing market discipline can complement and strengthen such an approach. As in the United Kingdom, a principles-based approach is not inconsistent with the use of rules, which can provide needed clarity or a safe haven from legal and regulatory risks. However, rules should implement principles rather than develop in an ad hoc manner. Admittedly, a fully consistent regulatory framework that focuses on the most significant threats to public policy objectives is an ideal that may never be fully realized, either here or abroad. However, determined efforts to work toward such a regime could provide substantial economic and social benefits.
Remarks by Chairman Ben S. Bernanke
At the Princeton Prize in Race Relations Awards Program, Washington, D.C.
May 22, 2007
Recognizing Leadership

As a former member of the Princeton community, I am very pleased to see the university recognizing these young people--the two prize winners, John Gentile and Brianna Casey Lyons, as well as the eight certificate recipients--for demonstrating exemplary leadership in the area of race relations. Slavery and segregation cast long dark shadows on our nation's history and our society, but there have been flickers of light in the form of people of good will and courage who fought against those evils. Today, I can think of no higher calling than promoting harmony, understanding, and respect among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The two prize winners, though young, have already contributed significantly. As you have heard, John energetically advocated improved race relations in his own school and helped to bring diversity concerns before a wider group of high schools in the District of Columbia metro area. Casey led a group of exurban teenagers in starting a 4-H Club at a more-urban, and racially mixed, elementary school.

If you are a baseball fan, as I am, you know that we recently observed the sixtieth anniversary of an important event in the history of race relations--Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball. Robinson was a great baseball player, but--critically, for the mission he set out to accomplish--he was also a great leader, a person of courage and character. As a second lieutenant in the Army in 1944, he refused to obey an order to move to the back of a military bus in Texas. Lieutenant Robinson was court-martialed but then acquitted by a military jury, and he received an honorable discharge. It was Jackie Robinson's character as much as his daring style of play that commanded the respect of players and fans and paved the way for other black athletes to enter the major leagues. No one who watched Robinson perform under often-hostile conditions could long deny that he was the equal of any white player, not only as an athlete but as a human being. Other flickers of light appear in this story as well, including the decision of Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey to give Robinson a chance and the public support provided Robinson by a few of his white teammates.

In a way, Jackie Robinson was lucky, because he was rewarded for his skills and courage. He was named Rookie of the Year, played on six World Series teams, and was once named the National League's Most Valuable Player. Someone less fortunate in this respect was Josh Gibson, considered the greatest power hitter of the Negro Leagues. He played right here in Washington for the Homestead Grays in the 1930s and 1940s. Some people say he was the equal of Babe Ruth as a hitter. But he never got the chance to play in the major leagues. He died at the age of thirty-five, three months before Jackie Robinson first trotted onto Ebbets Field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Both men played the game superbly, but whereas Jackie Robinson was honored and recognized in his lifetime for his achievements, both as a baseball player and a civil rights leader, recognition of Josh Gibson came only after his death. Gibson, along with other greats of the Negro Leagues, was finally admitted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972, a quarter century after he died and a decade after Robinson was admitted.

It is tragic that Gibson did not live to see the integration of major league baseball or to enjoy the honors that were due him. However, even though society's recognition of Gibson's achievements came too late for him to enjoy it, honoring him was still worthwhile. The belated recognition of Gibson illustrates a most important reason to honor achievement: We do it not so much for the person being honored but rather for ourselves. Please do not misunderstand me. I hope today is a joyous and proud day for today's prize winners and certificate recipients and their families. But I strongly suspect that when they set out on the path that earned them this recognition, they were not motivated at all by--and probably were not even aware of--the prospect of an award such as the Princeton Prize. They did what they did from inner motivation. So, if the prospect of recognition had little or nothing to do with their achievement, why go through the exercise? The reason they are being honored, and the reason we remember Jackie Robinson and Josh Gibson and countless other achievers in countless other endeavors, is because doing so provides inspiration for all of us. And, usually, the aspect of an achievement that is most worth recognizing is not the achievement itself but the spirit of energy, determination, and courage that made it possible. So, let me say to today's honorees: Thank you. Thank you not only for serving as a role model for your peers in high school but also for being exemplars for us all.

Now, because we are in the midst not only of baseball season but also of graduation season, I would like to touch briefly on the theme of education. The saddest aspect of Josh Gibson's story is that he had talent but was denied an opportunity. Then as now, the principal path to opportunity is through education. As an economist, I am persuaded that a strong educational system--one that promotes lifetime learning and skill development--is a critical factor in our nation's prosperity. The economic importance of education will only increase as technology advances and as the global economy becomes increasingly integrated and complex.

But education is important for non-economic reasons as well. By providing us with a broader view of the world, education helps each of us become the most complete person we can be. Many--I hope all--of the young people here today will continue their education, and I hope it leads them to work that brings financial success. But I also hope it cultivates their creativity and appreciation for other cultures and leads them to work they find personally satisfying and meaningful. I know it will help them continue to demonstrate the kind of leadership that they have already shown. Perhaps, as they acquire a deeper knowledge of places and times other than their own and a fuller understanding of people from backgrounds other than their own, it will also lead them to contribute positively at the national or international levels, as they already have done in their schools and local communities.

But this evening, I don't think we should dwell entirely on the future. I hope each of the honorees will take pride in what he or she has already achieved and will celebrate that achievement with family and friends. Congratulations to all of you.
Bernanke Excerpts:

The economy is set to grow at a sluggish pace in coming months but there are risks that elevated levels of inflation excluding food and energy may not recede, Bernanke said on Tuesday

'Although core inflation seems likely to moderate gradually over time, the risks to this forecast remain to the upside,' Bernanke said in remarks prepared for delivery to a monetary policy conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

The text of his speech was made available in Washington. Bernanke delivered his remarks by satellite.

Weakness in the housing sector is likely to restrain economic growth for longer than expected, Bernanke said.

'The adjustment in the housing sector is still ongoing, and the slowdown in residential construction now appears likely to remain a drag on economic growth for somewhat longer than previously expected,' he said.

Core inflation is 'somewhat elevated' but ebbing, Bernanke said, noting that while oil and gas prices have risen, energy costs overall are still lower than at peak levels in 2006.

In the meantime, the rate of increase in housing costs, which had contributed to a rise in core inflation, seems likely to slow, although the timing of that deceleration is uncertain, Bernanke said.

However, the tight labor market has the potential to contribute to price pressures, the U.S. central bank chairman said.

'The continuing high rate of resource utilization suggests that the level of final demand may still be high relative to the underlying productive capacity of the economy,' Bernanke said.