Besides Failing Corporate Finance 101, Holtz-Eakin’s Attack on Dodd-Frank Sets a Terrible Priority

May 8, 2015

The American Action Forum jumps into the financial reform debate with a letter on the growth consequences of Dodd-Frank penned by its president, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. This letter is a bad analysis, immediately violating the first thing you learn in corporate finance: capital structure doesn’t dictate funding costs. But there’s a deeper context that makes this letter reckless and a bad development, and I hope they are willing to walk back part of it.

Why reckless? It’s important to understand the role people like Holtz-Eakin play in the conservative movement. It is less about providing analysis (which is good, because this is a bad analysis), and more about signaling priorities. What should be done about Dodd-Frank if the Republicans win in 2016? This letter signals a new front I haven’t seen before on the right: one focused on going after higher capital requirements. Worse, going after them as if they were, using that conservative trigger word, a “tax.” I think that is a terrible move with serious consequences, and if they are going to do it, they need to do better than this.

A Bad Analysis

Americans for Financial Reform and David Dayen give us a solid overview of what is lacking in this analysis. It contains no benefits, confuses one-time and ongoing costs, assumes all costs derive from the cost of capital rather than profits, and so on. I’m also pretty sure there’s an error in the calculations, which would reduce the estimate by a third; I’m waiting for a response from them on that [1].

But I want to focus on capital requirements. Holtz-Eakin argues that the Solow growth model “can be used to transform the roughly 2 percentage point rise in the leverage ratio of the banking sector” into “a rise in the effective tax rate.” Wait, the tax rate? “The banking sector responded to Dodd-Frank by holding more equity capital,” writes Holtz-Eakin, “thus require it to have greater earnings to meet the market rate of return – the same impact as raising taxes.” Higher capital requirements, in this argument, function just like a tax.

He concludes that a 2 percentage point rise in capital requirements, much like what we just had, increases the cost of capital somewhere between 2 and 2.5 percent. (I believe I understand that to be the argument, though the paper itself is quick and not cited to any body of research.)

This is wrong, full stop. The Holtz-Eakin argument is predicated on the idea that capital structure directly affects funding costs. But our baseline assumption should be that there is virtually no impact of capital requirements on cost of capital. Economics long ago debunked the notion that changes in aggregate funding mixes can have an effect on the value of a business itself, much less a widespread, durable, macroeconomic effect. This is a theorem they teach you in Corporate Finance 101: the Modigliani–Miller theorem. And this has been one of the most important arguments in financial reform, with Anat Admati being a particularly influential advocate of pointing this out.

Just step back and think about what Holtz-Eakin’s model means. If Congress passed a law requiring companies to fund themselves with half as much equity as they did before, would the economy experience a giant growth spurt from changing the aggregate funding mix? No, of course not. The price of capital would simply adjust with this new balance; funding with more equity means funding with less debt, though the business is still the same. Investors are not stupid; they respond to a changing funding mix by simply changing the prices accordingly. This is how markets are supposed to work.

Of course, the real world doesn’t work exactly like these abstract economic models. If there’s a hierarchy of financing options, which seems reasonable, then moving up or down that ladder can impose some costs. Doug Elliott from Brookings, for instance, writes quite a bit arguing that the idea that equity and higher capital requirement is costless is a dangerous “myth” of financial reform. (Here is Admati responding.)

So Elliott’s not on the costless side, but does he agree with Holtz-Eakin’s numbers? Not even remotely. According to Elliott’s estimate, the cost of the entirety of Dodd-Frank increases the cost of capital 0.28 percent, and the “low levels of economic costs found here strongly suggest that the benefits in terms of less frequent and less costly financial crisis would indeed outweigh the costs.”

As shown in the graphic above, a model of higher capital requirements by Kashyap, Stein, and Hanson put the estimate of a 2 percent capital increase at between 0.05 percent (driven by the tax effects) and 0.09 percent (driven by a large slippage of Modigliani-Miller they assume to get a high-end estimate). These are broadly in line with other estimates throughout the past several years. Even the most industry-driven estimates designed to weaken capital requirements don’t remotely approach this 2.00+ percent increase.

(As a coincidence, Elliott did estimate what it would take to make the cost of capital rise Holtz-Eakin’s estimated 2 percent. In his view, it would be capital requirements on the order of 30 percent, which is the reach goal for some. But when you analyze Dodd-Frank and get numbers consistent with 30 percent capital ratios, you are probably doing it wrong.)

A Worse Priority

So the estimate is wrong in a fundamental way; but this is less about a specific analysis than it is about setting priorities for the conservative movement when it comes to Dodd-Frank. And if attacking capital requirements becomes a major priority for conservatives, that’s a worrying sign. When conservatives start calling things “taxes,” institutional forces go into play beyond the control of any specific person, and that’s dangerous for a successful reform with lots of support that is important for a better financial system.

A broad group of people has come together to argue for capital requirements. This includes important commentators across the spectrum, from Simon Johnson to John Cochrane to many others. And there’s good reason for this. The current capital requirement regime hits six birds with one stone: helping with solvency, balancing risk management, making resolution and the ending of Too Big to Fail more credible, preventing liquidity crises in shadow banking, right-sizing the scale and scope of the largest financial institutions, and macroeconomic prudential policy.

There are disagreements about specifics of what is the best way to do higher capital requirements—quite intense ones, actually. But there’s a broad consensus in favor of them. Having watched this from the beginning, this broad coalition is one of the most promising developments I’ve seen.

I’m excited to see the right go after Dodd-Frank. Is the argument that there’s too much accountability for consumers now, and we need to gut those regulators at the CFPB? Is it that derivatives regulations are too extensive, and we should build our future prosperity by letting a thousand AIGs bloom? Is it that there should be few, if any, consequences for firms that break the law or commit fraud? (As someone who is worried about over-policing, this is one area where I believe we are criminally under-policed.) Please, by all means, make these arguments.

But taking on capital requirements with this weak argument is a bad development. The financial market is not understudied, and though nobody has ever found anything like these results, and though it’s clear Holtz-Eakin’s analysis doesn’t even engage with this other research, those who think the cost of capital requirements are low could be wrong. But to prove that, we’ll need an analysis far better than the one provided here. And until one has that, the responsible thing is to not unleash the conservative movement against reform that is doing good work and that should be advanced rather than dismantled.

[1] I’m pretty sure for “rL-C” in equation 11 he uses net income ($151.2bn) rather than EBIT ($218.7bn), though, from equation 9, “rL-C” should be pre-tax. However using the wrong number is the only way I can replicate the estimate he has. I’ll update this either way if they respond.
If I’m right this decreases Holtz-Eakins’ growth costs of regulations by about 30%, meaning that the economy will probably be skyrocketing any second now.