Stress Testing Financial Networks: The Case of CCPs

Following the crisis of 2007-09, in which AIG’s bilateral derivatives trades played a notable role, the G20 leaders called for central clearing of standardized derivatives. The resulting shift has been dramatic: central counterparties (CCPs) now clear about three-fourths of interest rate contracts, up from less than one-fourth a decade earlier (see Faruqui, Huang and Takáts).

By substituting a CCP as the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer, central clearing mutualizes and can—with appropriate margining, trade compression, position liquidation procedures, and reporting—reduce counterparty risk (see Tuckman). CCPs also contribute to financial resilience by promoting uniform margin standards, reducing collateral and liquidity needs, and making risk concentrations (like that of AIG in the run-up to the crisis) more transparent.

At the same time, the shift to central clearing has concentrated risk in the CCPs themselves. Reflecting economies of scale and scope, as well as network externalities, a few CCPs serving global clearing needs have grown enormous. For example, as of the last report at end-September 2018, open interest at LCH Clearnet exceeded $250 trillion. Moreover, the clearing activity of some CCPs lacks any short-run substitute. As a result, to avoid disrupting large swathes of the global financial system, any recovery or resolution plan for these CCPs must ensure continuity of service (see CCP Resolution Working Group presentation to the OFR Financial Research Advisory Committee). Finally, CCPs are the most interconnected intermediaries on the planet, making them channels for transmission and amplification of financial distress within and across jurisdictions. As then-Governor Powell clearly states in the opening quote, the safety of CCPs is central to the resilience of the global financial system.

We and Richard Berner have been studying how regulators use stress tests (see our earlier posts here and here) to assess the resilience of financial networks, including banks and nonbanks. In our joint work, we focus on CCPs due to their centrality, their extreme interconnectedness and their lack of substitutability. This post is based on our research….

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Taking the **Sock** out of FSOC

In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2009, the U.S. Congress created the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC – pronounced “F-Sock”)—a panel of the heads of the U.S. regulatory agencies—“to identify risks to the financial stability of the United States”; “to promote market discipline” by eliminating expectations of government bailouts; and “to respond to emerging threats” to financial stability.

Despite these complex and critical objectives, the law limited FSOC’s authority to the designation of: (1) specific nonbanks as systemically important financial intermediaries (SIFIs), and; (2) critical payments, clearance and settlement firms as financial market utilities (FMUs). Nonbank SIFIs are then supervised by the Federal Reserve, which imposes stricter scrutiny on them (as it does for large banks), while FMUs are jointly overseen by the Fed and the relevant market regulators.

At the peak of its activity in 2013-14, the FSOC designated four nonbanks as SIFIs: AIG, GE Capital, MetLife, and Prudential Insurance. Following the Council’s October 16 rescission of the Prudential designation, there are no longer any nonbank SIFIs. Not only that, but by making a future designation highly unlikely, Treasury and FSOC have undermined the deterrence effect of the FSOC’s SIFI authority. In short, by taking the sock out of FSOC, recent actions seriously weaken the post-crisis apparatus for securing U.S. (and global) financial stability. In the remainder of this post we review the Treasury’s revised approach to SIFI designation in the context of the Prudential rescission….

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Financial Crisis: The Endgame

Ten years ago this month, the run on Lehman Brothers kicked off the third and final phase of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2009. In two earlier posts (here and here), we describe the prior phases of the crisis. The first began on August 9, 2007, when BNP Paribas suspended redemptions from three mutual funds invested in U.S. subprime debt, kicking off a global scramble for safe, liquid assets. And the second started seven months later when, in response to the March 2008 run on Bear Stearns, the Fed provided liquidity directly to nonbanks for the first time since the Great Depression, completing its crisis-driven evolution into an effective lender of last resort to solvent, but illiquid intermediaries.

The most intense period of the crisis began with the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. Credit dried up; not just uncollateralized lending, but short-term lending backed by investment-grade collateral as well. In mid-September, measures of financial stress spiked far above levels seen before or since (see here and here). And, the spillover to the real economy was rapid and dramatic, with the U.S. economy plunging that autumn at the fastest pace since quarterly reporting began in 1947.

In our view, three, interrelated policy responses proved critical in arresting the crisis and promoting recovery. First was the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus: after Lehman, within its mandate, the Fed did “whatever it took” to end the crisis. Second was the use of taxpayer resources—authorized by Congress—to recapitalize the U.S. financial system. And third, was the exceptional disclosure mechanism introduced by the Federal Reserve in early 2009—the first round of macroprudential stress tests known as the Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP)—that neutralized the worst fears about U.S. banks.

In this post, we begin with a bit of background, highlighting the aggregate capital shortfall of the U.S. financial system as the source of the crisis. We then turn to the policy response. Because we have discussed unconventional monetary policy in some detail in previous posts (here and here), our focus here is on the stress tests (combined with recapitalization) as a central means for restoring confidence in the financial system….

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Size is Overrated

This month, in the guise of supporting community banks, the U.S. Senate passed a bill (S.2155) that eases regulation of large banks. We share the critics’ views that this wide-ranging dilution of existing regulation will reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system.

In its best known and most publicized feature, the Senate bill raises the asset size threshold that Dodd-Frank established for subjecting a bank to strict scrutiny (such as the imposition of stress tests, liquidity requirements, and resolution plans) from $50 billion to $250 billion. In this post, we examine the role of asset size in determining the systemic importance of a financial intermediary. It turns out that (aside from the very largest institutions, where it does in fact dominate) balance sheet size is not a terribly useful indicator of the vulnerability a bank creates. We conclude that Congress should ease the strict oversight burden on institutions that pose little threat to the financial system without raising the Dodd-Frank threshold dramatically.

Judge makes an elegant proposal for accomplishing this. For institutions with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion, Congress should just flip the default. Rather than obliging the Fed to prove a mid-sized bank’s riskiness, give the bank the opportunity to prove it is safe. This approach gives institutions the incentive to limit the systemic risk they create in ways that they can verify. It also sharply reduces the risk of litigation by banks that the Fed deems risky...

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Tougher capital regulation pays off

Banks continue to lobby for weaker financial regulation: capital requirements are excessive, liquidity requirements are overly restrictive, and stress tests are too burdensome. Yes, in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, we needed reforms, they say, but Basel III and Dodd-Frank have gone too far.

Unfortunately, these complaints are finding sympathetic ears in a variety of places. U.S. authorities are considering changes that would water down existing standards. In Europe, news is not promising either. These developments are not only discouraging, but they are self-defeating. Higher capital clearly improves resilience. And, at current levels of capitalization, it does not limit banks’ ability to support economic activity.

As it turns out, on this particular subject, there may be less of a discrepancy between private and social interests than is commonly believed. The reason is that investors reward banks in jurisdictions where regulators and supervisors promote social welfare through tougher capital standards....

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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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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....

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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...

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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). 

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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...

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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....

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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...

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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...

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