Solvency

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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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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Why the central bank should be a leading supervisor

Should central banks be a leading supervisor, including supervising systemically important institutions? This is a question that members of the U.S. Congress periodically raise.  Our answer is unequivocally yes. As the lender of last resort, as the monetary policy authority, and as the organization responsible for overseeing the health and stability of the overall financial system—what we could call a systemic regulator—the central bank needs to be a leading supervisor....

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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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The Lender of Last Resort and the Lehman Bankruptcy

Professor Larry Ball, our friend and colleague, has written a fascinating monograph reexamining the September 14, 2008 failure of Lehman Brothers. Following an exhaustive study of documents from a variety of sources, Professor Ball concludes that the Fed could have rescued Lehman. The firm had sufficient collateral to meet its liquidity needs, and may have been solvent. The implication is that the worst phase of the financial crisis was preventable. (A short summary is available here.)

We are skeptical on several fronts—that Lehman was solvent, that policymakers had authority to lend to an insolvent institution, and that doing so would have limited the financial crisis...

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A note on the lender of last resort

With the publication of former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s book Stress Test comes a reconsideration of the many aspects of government intervention during the years of the financial crisis. Should banks have been nationalized? Should the fiscal stimulus have been larger? Should underwater households have received mortgage assistance? 
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