Liquidity

Understanding Bank Capital: A Primer

Over the past 40 years, U.S. capital markets have grown much faster than banks, so that banks’ share of credit to the private nonfinancial sector has dropped from 55% to 34% (see BIS statistics here).  Nevertheless, banks remain a critical part of the financial system. They operate the payments system, supply credit, and serve as agents and catalysts for a wide range of other financial transactions. As a result, their well-being remains a key concern. A resilient banking system is, above all, one that has sufficient capital to weather the loan defaults and declines in asset values that will inevitably come.

In this primer, we explain the nature of bank capital, highlighting its role as a form of self-insurance providing both a buffer against unforeseen losses and an incentive to manage risk-taking. We describe some of the challenges in measuring capital and briefly discuss a range of approaches for setting capital requirements. While we do not know the optimal level of capital that banks (or other intermediaries) should be required to hold, we suggest a practical approach for setting requirements that would promote the safety of the financial system without diminishing its efficiency....

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Black Monday: 30 Years After

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent, nearly twice the next largest drop—the 12.8 percent Great Crash on October 28, 1929, that heralded the Great Depression.

What stands out is not the scale of the decline—it is far smaller than the 90 percent peak-to-trough drop of the early 1930s—but its extraordinary speed. A range of financial market and institutional dislocations accompanied this rapid plunge, threatening not just stocks and related instruments (domestically and globally), but also the U.S. supply of credit and the payments system. As a result, Black Monday has been labeled “the first contemporary global financial crisis.” And, a new book—A First-Class Catastrophe—narrates the tense human drama that it created for market and government officials. A movie seems sure to follow.

Our reading of history suggests that it was only with a great dose of serendipity that we escaped catastrophe in 1987. Knowing that fortune usually favors the well prepared, the near-collapse on Black Monday prompted market participants, regulators, the lender of last resort, and legislators to fortify the financial system.

In this post, we review key aspects of the 1987 crash and discuss subsequent steps taken to improve the resilience of the financial system. We also highlight a key lingering vulnerability: we still have no mechanism for managing the insolvency of critical payment, clearing and settlement (PCS) institutions....

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Eclipsing LIBOR

The manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) began more than a decade ago. Employees of leading global firms submitted false reports to the British Banking Association (BBA), first to influence the value of LIBOR-linked derivatives, and later (during the financial crisis) to conceal the deterioration of their employers’ creditworthiness. U.S. and European regulators reported many of the details in 2012 when they fined Barclays, the first of a dozen financial firms that collectively paid fines exceeding $9 billion (see here). In addition to settling claims of aggrieved clients, these firms face enduring reputational damage: in some cases, management was forced out; in others, individuals received jail terms for their wrongdoing.

You might think that in light of this costly scandal, and the resulting challenges in maintaining LIBOR, market participants and regulators would have quickly replaced LIBOR with a sustainable short-term interest rate benchmark that had little risk of manipulation. You’d be wrong: the current administrator (ICE Benchmark Administration), which replaced the BBA in 2014, estimates that this guide (now called ICE LIBOR) continues to serve as the reference interest rate for “an estimated $350 trillion of outstanding contracts in maturities ranging from overnight to more than 30 years [our emphasis].” In short, LIBOR is still the world’s leading benchmark for short-term interest rates.

Against this background, U.K. Financial Conduct Authority CEO Andrew Bailey, recently called for a transition away from LIBOR before 2022 (see here). In this post, we briefly explain LIBOR’s role, why it remains an undesirable and unsustainable interest rate benchmark, and why it will be so difficult to replace (even gradually over several years) without risking disruption.

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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....

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An Open Letter to the Honorable Randal K. Quarles

Dear Mr. Quarles,

Congratulations on your nomination as the first Vice Chairman for Supervision on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. We are pleased that President Trump has chosen someone so qualified, and we are equally pleased that you are willing to serve.

Assuming everything goes according to plan, you will be assuming your position just as we mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the global financial crisis. As a direct consequence of numerous reforms, the U.S. financial system—both institutions and markets—is meaningfully stronger than it was in 2007. Among many other things, today banks finance a larger portion of their lending with equity, devote more of their portfolios to high-quality, liquid assets, and clear a large fraction of derivatives through central counterparties.

That said, in our view, the system is not yet strong enough. In your new role, it will be your job to continue to fortify the financial system to make it sufficiently resilient.

With that task in mind, we humbly propose some key agenda items for the first few years of your term in office. We divide our suggestions into five broad categories (admittedly with significant overlap): capital and communications, stress testing, too big to fail, resolution, and regulation by economic function....

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How to Ensure the Crisis Provision of Safe Assets

Changes in financial regulation are having a profound impact on the demand for safe assets—assets with a fixed nominal value that may be converted at all times without loss into the means of payment. Not only is demand for safe assets on the rise, but the ability of the private sector to produce them is being constrained by new rules that limit the extent and nature of things like securitizations.

So far, the fallout from increased demand and constrained supply looks reasonably benign. But for several years now, broad financial conditions have been very calm, with measures of financial volatility and stress at or near long-term lows. What will happen when the financial system comes under stress again? What if there is a drop in risk tolerance (or a surge in risk awareness) and a flight to safety that causes a jump in the demand for safe assets or a plunge in the supply? Or, as in 2008, what will happen if both materialize at the same time? We need to be ready.

As we will explain in more detail, central banks in advanced economies can satisfy the heightened need for safe assets under stress (as well as the precautionary demand in normal times) by offering commercial banks committed lines of credit for a fee against collateral, as the central banks in Australia and South Africa currently do. In our view, this mechanism for ensuring sufficient supply of safe assets in a crisis has important advantages compared to one in which the central bank operates perpetually—in good times and bad—with a very large balance sheet.

To see how this would work, we start with an explanation of post-crisis liquidity regulation....

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Liquidity Transformation and Open-end Funds

In the aftermath of Britain’s July 2016 vote to exit the European Union, six U.K. open-end property funds with nearly £15 billion in assets suspended redemptions. These funds had routinely engaged in an extreme version of liquidity transformation: offering investors the ability to convert their shares into cash daily on demand, while holding highly illiquid commercial properties. Fortunately, the overall sector was small, and its post-referendum disruption neither spilled over broadly to funds holding other assets, nor prompted a wave of fire sales that might have undermined the balance sheets of leveraged intermediaries. Nevertheless, the episode was of sufficient concern that the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is now reviewing its “regulatory approach to open-ended funds that invest in illiquid assets” (see here).

The FCA is not alone in its concerns. Other regulators have been looking closely at risks associated with the liquidity transformation performed by open-end funds. And, interest in the official sector has been accompanied by a wave of academic research on liquidity management in open-end funds that generally buttresses the regulators’ concerns. In this piece, we briefly highlight the work of the regulators, summarize the research, and finally reprise our proposal to convert open-end funds into exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

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Reforming mutual funds: a proposal to improve financial market resilience

U.S. capital markets are the deepest and broadest in the world, fortifying the country’s financial system and making its assets both liquid and attractive. A major part of this capital market advantage is due to the role played by mutual funds, which provide retail investors with a low-cost means of diversifying risk while earning a market return on their savings.

However, a growing class of mutual funds—those that hold mostly illiquid assets—appear to be a potential source of systemic risk. In this post we explain why, and then go on to suggest a change that is simple to implement and might mitigate the problem.

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The World of ETFs

The first U.S. exchange-traded fund (ETF)—the SPY based on the S&P500—began trading in 1993. Since then, the number of such funds has grown dramatically, so that by mid-2016 there were more than 1,600 ETFs on U.S. exchanges valued at roughly $2.2 trillion. This means that ETFs are now roughly one-sixth the size of open-end mutual funds. And, with this ETF growth has come a broadening in their scope and character. Today, there are ETFs that include less liquid assets such as corporate bonds and emerging market equities, and there are funds that provide inverse or leveraged exposure to the underlying assets.

Given these trends, it is no surprise that ETFs have attracted regulators’ attention (see, for example, here and here). Should they be concerned? Is this a consumer protection issue? Do ETFs contribute to systemic risk? Or, is their design stabilizing? Might financial stability even be served by the conversion of all open-end mutual funds into ETFs? ...

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The Scandal is What's Legal

If you haven’t seen The Big Short, you should. The acting is superb and the story enlightening: a few brilliant outcasts each discover just how big the holes are that eventually bury the U.S. financial system in the crisis of 2007-2009. If you’re like most people we know, you’ll walk away delighted by the movie and disturbed by the reality it captures. [Full disclosure: one of us joined a panel organized by the film’s economic consultant to view and discuss it with the director.]

But we're not film critics, The moviealong with some misleading criticismprompts us to clarify what we view as the prime causes of the financial crisis. The financial corruption depicted in the movie is deeply troubling (we've written about fraud and conflicts of interest in finance here and here). But what made the U.S. financial system so fragile a decade ago, and what made the crisis so deep, were practices that were completely legal. The scandal is that we still haven't addressed these properly....

 

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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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Bond market liquidity: should we be worried?

Equities are the stars, they are the financial instruments in the headlines. But it is bonds that are the cast and crew. They do the day-to-day work behind the scenes. And, as with any tradable asset, the confidence that prices are fair and that you can sell what you buy is essential.

So, when knowledgeable people express concerns that regulatory changes are causing bond markets to malfunction (see, for example, here), it leads us to ask some tough questions. Are these markets somehow impaired? Is enhanced financial regulation to blame? Is this creating risks to the financial system as a whole...? 

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Narrow Banks Won't Stop Bank Runs

Every financial crisis leads to a new call to restrict the activities of banks. One frequent response is to call for “narrow banks.” That is, change the legal and regulatory framework in a way that severely limits the assets that traditional deposit-taking banks can hold. One approach would require that all liabilities that are demandable at par be held in the form of deposits at the central bank. That is, accounts that can be withdrawn without notice and have fixed net asset value would face a 100% reserve requirement. The Depression-era “Chicago Plan” had this approach in mind.
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