Credit risk

FEMA for Finance

Modern financial systems are inherently vulnerable. The conversion of savings into investment—a basic function of finance—involves substantial risk. Creditors often demand liquid, short-term, low-risk assets; and borrowers typically wish to finance projects that take time to generate their uncertain returns. Intermediaries that bridge this gap—transforming liquidity, maturity and credit between their assets and liabilities—are subject to runs should risk-averse savers come to doubt the market value of their assets.

The modern financial system is vulnerable in a myriad of other ways as well. For example, if hackers were to suddenly render a key identification technology untrustworthy, it could disable the payments system, bringing a broad swath of economic activity to an abrupt halt. Similarly, the financial infrastructure that implements most transactions—ranging from retail payments to the clearing and settlement of securities and derivatives trades—typically relies on a few enormous hubs that are irreplaceable in the short run. Economies of scale and scope mean that such financial market utilities (FMUs) make transactions cheap, but they also concentrate risk: even their temporary disruption could be catastrophic. (One of our worst nightmares is a cyber-attack that disables the computer and power grid on which our financial system and economy are built.)

With these concerns in mind, we welcome our friend Kathryn Judge’s innovative proposal for a financial “Guarantor of Last Resort”—or emergency guarantee authority (EGA)—as a mechanism for containing financial crises. In this post, we discuss the promise and the pitfalls of Judge’s proposal. Our conclusion is that an EGA would be an excellent tool for managing the fallout from dire threats originating outside the financial system—cyber-terrorism or outright war come to mind. In such circumstances, we see an EGA as a complement to existing conventional efforts at enhancing financial system resilience.

However, the potential for the industry to game an EGA, as well as the very real possibility that politicians will see it as a substitute for rigorous capital and liquidity requirements, make us cautious about its broader applicability. At least initially, this leads us to conclude that the bar for invoking an EGA should be set very high—higher than Judge suggests….

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What Should the Fed Own?

The Federal Reserve began to consider just how far its balance sheet consolidation should go well before the tapering actually began nearly a year ago. Earlier staff analyses pointed to a gradual runoff of long-term debt that could take years to reduce Fed assets to a new long-run equilibrium. More recently, market observers have speculated about an early end to consolidation that would result in a higher steady-state level.

Yet, as a recent Wall Street Journal article highlights, policymakers and analysts have devoted less attention to the mix of assets that the Fed should select once the balance sheet shrinks to its long-run equilibrium and policymakers allow it to expand slowly—say, in line with the increase of demand for currency.

In this post, we argue that the Fed should aim in normal times—when the economy is expanding and absent any financial strains—for a portfolio that has minimal liquidity, maturity and credit risk. In practical terms, this means that their portfolio should be composed largely of Treasury bills and short-term notes, with an average maturity that is very short….

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Regulating the Credit Rating Agencies? Less Would be More

Guest post by Prof. Lawrence J. White, Robert Kavesh Professor in Economics, NYU Stern School of Business

The major credit rating agencies (CRAs)—Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s (S&P), and Fitch—contributed significantly to the financial crisis of 2007-09. Their excessively high initial ratings of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) helped fuel the bubble of mortgage finance that ultimately burst, with near catastrophic consequences for the U.S. financial sector.

These disastrous failings motivated the post-crisis urge to tighten regulation of the CRAs. It’s not hard to share the (metaphorical) desire—reflected in the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010—to grab them by the lapels and shout “Do a better job!” 

There is, however, a better way, albeit one that is less intuitive and possibly less gratifying: namely, eliminate—or at least greatly reduce—the regulation of the CRAs. This would encourage entry into the credit rating business, stimulate innovation and, eventually, improve the efficiency of capital markets....

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Banks and interest rates: be careful what you wish for

Many people seem to think that – as a new BIS working paper concludes – banks benefit when monetary policy tightens and interest rates rise (especially from a low level). Do they? In some instances, perhaps, but as a general principle, surely not.

A casual glance at recent U.S. stock market behavior seems to support the idea that higher interest rates would be good for banks now. When the Federal Open Market Committee decided not to hike interest rates on September 17, the S&P500 dropped by 1.85% over two days, while the KBW index of bank stocks fell by 4.85%. A week later, when Fed Chair Yellen speaking about inflation dynamics expressed her continued expectations for a rate hike this year, the S&P500 edged lower, but the bank index rose by nearly 2%...

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