Looking Back: The Financial Crisis Began 10 Years Ago This Week

In his memorable review of 21 books about the 2007-09 financial crisis, Andrew Lo evoked Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, to characterize the remarkable differences between these crisis accounts. Not only were the interpretations in dispute, but the facts were as well: “Even its starting date is unclear. Should we mark its beginning at the crest of the U.S. housing bubble in mid-2006, or with the liquidity crunch in the shadow banking system in late 2007, or with the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers and the ‘breaking of the buck’ by the Reserve Primary Fund in September 2008?”

In our view, the crisis began in earnest 10 years ago this week. On August 9, 2007, BNP Paribas announced that, because their fund managers could not value the assets in three mutual funds, they were suspending redemptions. With a decade’s worth of hindsight, we view this as a propitious moment to review both the precursors and the start of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But, first things first: What is a financial crisis? In our view, the term refers to a sudden, unanticipated shift from a reasonably healthy equilibrium—characterized by highly liquid financial markets, low risk premia, easily available credit, and low asset price volatility—to a very unhealthy one with precisely the opposite features. We use the term “equilibrium” to reflect a persistent state of financial conditions and note that—as was the case for Humpty Dumpty—it is easy to shift from a good financial state to a bad one, but very difficult to shift back again....

Read More

China: Deleveraging is Hard to Do

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moody’s recently downgraded the long-term sovereign debt of China, lowering its rating from Aa3 to A1. As is frequently true in such cases, the adjustment was overdue. Since China’s massive fiscal stimulus in 2008, the government has experienced a surge in contingent liabilities, as its (implicit and explicit) guarantees fueled an extraordinary credit boom that continues today.

While the need to foster financial discipline is obvious, the process will be precarious. Ning Zhu, the author of China’s Guaranteed Bubble, has compared the scaling back of state guarantees to defusing a bomb. China’s guarantees have distorted incentives and risk taking for so many years that stepping back and allowing market forces to operate will inevitably impose large, unanticipated losses on many people and businesses. Financial history is replete with failed policy efforts to address credit-fueled asset price booms, such as the current one in China’s real estate. There is no safe mechanism for economy-wide deleveraging.

China’s policymakers are clearly aware of the dangers they face and are making serious efforts to address them. This year, authorities have initiated a new crackdown aimed at reducing the systemic risks that have been stoked by the credit boom. This post focuses on that policy effort, including the background causes and what will be needed (aside from good fortune) to make it work....

Read More

Ending Too Big to Fail

More than six years after the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010, the controversy over how to end “too big to fail” (TBTF) remains a key focus of financial reform. Indeed, TBTF—which led to the troubling bailouts of financial behemoths in the crisis of 2007-2009—is still one of the biggest challenges in reducing the probability and severity of financial crises. By focusing on the largest, most complex, most interconnected financial intermediaries, Dodd-Frank gave officials a range of crisis prevention and management tools. These include the power to designate specific institutions as systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs), a broadening of Fed supervision, the authority to impose stress tests and living wills, and (with the FDIC’s “Orderly Liquidation Authority”) the ability to facilitate the resolution of a troubled SIFI. But, while Dodd-Frank has likely made the U.S. financial system safer than it was, it does not go far enough in reducing the risk of financial crises or in ensuring credibility of the resolution mechanism (see our earlier commentary here, here and here). It also is exceedingly complex.

Against this background, we welcome the work of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and their recently announced Minneapolis Plan to End Too Big to Fail (the Plan). While the Plan raises issues that require further consideration—including the potential for regulatory arbitrage and the calibration of the tools on which it relies—it is straightforward, based on sound principles, and focuses on cost-effective tools. In this sense, the Plan represents a big step forward...

Read More

How risky are the big U.S. banks?

Readers of this blog know that we are great fans of the Stern Volatility Lab’s estimates of systemic risk. Like many observers, including leading regulators, we find market-value rather than book-value measures of bank equity more useful for timely monitoring of systemic risk created by individual intermediaries. Equity prices are available in real time, rapidly incorporate bank-specific and economy-wide information, and are forward-looking. This makes them particularly helpful in assessing the impact of big events, like this summer’s Brexit referendum (see our earlier post).

So, based as it is on market indicators of bank risk, not surprisingly we share the recent assessment of Sarin and Summers (expressed in their September 2016 Brookings paper) that the increase of book capital in the banking system since the financial crisis ought not give rise to regulatory complacency. We have argued repeatedly for raising capital requirements (see, for example, here) and, like those authors, believe that we need mechanisms for the virtually automatic recapitalization of banks in a crisis (see here). 

Read More

Are European Stress Tests Stressful Enough?

We are huge fans of stress tests. In many ways, they are the best macroprudential tool we have for reducing the frequency and severity of financial crises.

The idea behind stress tests is simple: see if all financial institutions can simultaneously withstand a major negative macroeconomic event—a big fall in real output, a large decline in equity and property prices, a substantial widening of interest-rate spreads, an adverse move in the exchange rate. And, importantly, assume that in response to these adverse circumstances banks have no way to sell assets or raise equity. That is, the stress test asks whether each intermediary can stand on its own without help in the middle of an economic maelstrom. But for stress tests to be effective, they must be truly stressful. The tempest has to be the financial equivalent of a severe hurricane, not just a tropical storm.

This brings us to the latest European Banking Authority (EBA) 2016 stress tests. As we mentioned recently, the European financial system may be the biggest source of systemic risk globally. So, these tests are important not just for Europe, but for the world as a whole. Unfortunately, they just aren’t severe enough, so there is little reason to be confident about the resilience of European finance...

Read More

Brexit and Systemic Risk

“Is this a Lehman moment?”

In the days after the U.K. Brexit referendum, that was the leading question many people were asking. It is the right question. Unfortunately, despite years of regulatory reform in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the answer is: we don’t know. That is why policymakers are especially worried about heightened financial volatility in the aftermath of U.K. voters’ decision to leave the European Union....

Read More

Too Big to Fail: MetLife v. FSOC

Last week, a Federal District Court overturned the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s (FSOC) designation of MetLife—the nation’s largest insurer by assets—as a systemically important financial intermediary (SIFI). Until the Court unseals this decision, we won’t know why. If the ruling is based on narrow grounds that the FSOC can readily address, it will have little impact on long-run prospects for U.S. financial stability.

However, if the Court has materially raised the hurdle to SIFI designation—and if its ruling holds up on appeal—“too big to fail” nonbanks could again loom large in future financial crises, making them both more likely and more damaging...

Read More

The mythic quest for early warnings

Economists and policymakers are on a quest. They are looking for the elixir that will protect their economies from financial crises. Their strategy is to find an indicator that provides an early warning of collapse, and then respond with preventative measures.

We think the approach of waiting for warnings is seriously flawed. The necessary information may never be in our grasp. And even if it were, our ability to respond rapidly and effectively is far from clear. Rather than treating the symptoms of illness after they start to develop, we believe the better strategy is early immunization: the more resilient the financial system, the less reliance we will have on faulty or nonexistent warnings...

Read More