Rodge Cohen: Are We Preparing to Fight the Last War?

March 1st, 2019

risk-3-1-19.pngHis name might not command the same recognition on the world stage as the mononymous Irish singer and song-writer known simply as Bono, but in banking and financial services just about everyone knows who “Rodge” is.

H. Rodgin Cohen–referred to simply as Rodge—is the unrivaled dean of U.S. bank attorneys. At 75, Cohen, who is the senior chairman at the New York City law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, is still actively involved in the industry, having recently advised SunTrust Banks on its pending merger with BB&T Corp.

Cohen has long been considered a valued advisor within the industry.

In the financial crisis a decade ago, he represented corporate clients like Lehman Brothers and worked closely with the federal government’s principal players, including Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. His character even made an appearance in the movie “Too Big To Fail,” based on a popular book about the crisis by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Eleven years later, Cohen says the risk to the banking industry is no longer excessive leverage or insufficient liquidity—major contributing factors to the last crisis.

The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, passed nearly a decade ago, raised bank capitalization levels substantially compared to pre-crisis levels. In fact, bank capitalization levels have been rising for 40 years, going back to the thrift crisis in the late 1980s. Dodd-Frank also requires large banks to hold a higher percentage of their assets in cash to insure they have enough liquidity to weather another financial storm.

The lesson from the last crisis, says Cohen, revolves around the importance of having a fortress balance sheet. “I think that was the lesson which has been thoroughly learned not merely by the regulators, but by the banks themselves, so that banks today have exponentially more capital, and the differential is even greater in terms of having more liquidity,” says Cohen.

But does anyone know if these changes will be enough to help banks survive the next crisis?

“I don’t think it is possible to calculate this precisely, but if you look at the banks that did get into trouble, none of them had anywhere near the level of capital and liquidity that is required now,” says Cohen. “Although you can’t say with certainty that this is enough, because it’s almost unprovable, there’s enough evidence that suggests that we are at levels where no more is required.”

It is often said that generals have a tendency to fight the last war even though advances in weaponry—driven by technology—can render that war’s tactics and strategies obsolete. Think of the English cavalry on horseback in World War I charging into German machine guns.

It can be argued that regulators, policymakers and even customers in the United States still bear the emotional scars of the last financial crisis, so we all find comfort in the fact that banks are less leveraged today than they have been in recent history, particularly in the lead up to the last crisis.

But what if a strong balance sheet isn’t enough to fight the next war?

“I think the biggest risk in the [financial] system today is a successful cyberattack,” says Cohen. While a lot of attention is paid to the dangers of a broad attack on critical infrastructure that poses a systemic risk, Cohen worries about something different.

“That is a very serious risk, but I think the more likely [danger] is that a single bank—or a group of banks—are hit with a massive denial of service for a period of time, or a massive scrambling of records,” he says. This contagion could destabilize the financial system if depositors begin to worry about the safety of their money.

Cohen believes that financial contagion, where risk spreads from one bank to another like an infectious disease, played a bigger role in the financial crisis than most people appreciate. And he worries that the same scenario could play out in a crippling cyberattack on a major bank.

“Until we really understand what role contagion played in 2008, I don’t think we’re going to appreciate fully the risk of contagion with cyber,” he says. “But to me, that is clearly the principal risk.”

And herein lays the irony of the industry’s higher capital and liquidity requirements. They were designed to protect against the risk of credit bubbles, such as the one that precipitated the last crisis, but they will do little to protect against the bigger risk faced by banks today: a crippling cyberattack.

“That’s why I regard [cyber] as the greatest threat,” says Cohen, “because a fortress balance sheet won’t necessarily help.”

jmilligan

Jack Milligan is editor-in-chief of Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can connect with Jack on LinkedIn or follow @BankDirectorEd on Twitter.