Discount lending

Ten Years After Bear

Ten years ago this week, the run on Bear Stearns kicked off the second of three phases of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In an earlier post, we argued that the crisis began in earnest on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime mortgage debt. In that first phase of the crisis, the financial strains reflected a scramble for liquidity combined with doubts about the capital adequacy of a widening circle of intermediaries.

In responding to the run on Bear, the Federal Reserve transformed itself into a modern version of Bagehot’s lender of last resort (LOLR) directed at managing a pure liquidity crisis (see, for example, Madigan). Consequently, in the second phase of the GFC—in the period between Bear’s March 14 rescue and the September 15 failure of Lehman—the persistence of financial strains was, in our view, primarily an emerging solvency crisis. In the third phase, following Lehman’s collapse, the focus necessarily turned to recapitalization of the financial system—far beyond the role (or authority) of any LOLR.

In this post, we trace the evolution of the Federal Reserve during the period between Paribas and Bear, as it became a Bagehot LOLR. This sets the stage for a future analysis of the solvency issues that threatened to convert the GFC into another Great Depression.

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Making Banking Safe

Professor Mervyn King, our friend, NYU Stern colleague and the former Governor of the Bank of England, has written a wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking new book, The End of Alchemy. His goal is not just to explain the sources of the 2007-09 crisis, but to provide a template for financial reform that would reduce the frequency and severity of future crises. In the end, Professor King proposes a radical structural change intended to make banking safe while preserving the intermediation function that is critical to modern economies.

The alchemy to which Professor King refers in his book’s title is banks’ traditional function of transforming high-risk, illiquid and long-maturity assets into low-risk, liquid and short-term liabilities. But, in the presence of limited liability for the banks’ owners and the government safety net (in the form of deposit insurance and the lender of last resort that remove both solvency and liquidity risk for the depositors), banks’ incentive is to transform too much. Holding assets that are overly risky, insufficiently liquid and too long-term makes banks fragile and run-prone, providing fodder for systemic crises....

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