Systemic risk

What Risk Professionals Want

As memories of the 2007-09 financial crisis fade, we worry that complacency is setting in. Recent news is not good. In the name of reducing the regulatory burden on small and some medium-sized firms, the Congress and the President enacted legislation that eased the requirements on some of the largest firms. Under the current Administration, several Treasury reports travel the same road, proposing ways to ease regulatory scrutiny of large entities without changing the law (see here, here and here). And, recently, the Federal Reserve Board altered its stress test in ways that make it more likely that poorly managed firms will pass. It also voted not to raise capital requirements on systemically risky banks over the next 12 months.

A few weeks ago, one of us (Steve) had the privilege to speak at the 20th Risk Convention of the Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP). Founded in 1996, GARP engages in the education and certification of risk professionals and has several hundred thousand members worldwide. (Disclosure: Brandeis International Business School and NYU Stern are GARP Academic Partners.) The organizers allowed us to solicit the views of the 100-plus attendees on two issues that are central to financial resilience: Are bank capital requirements high enough? And, do central counterparties (CCPs) have sufficient loss-absorbing buffers? They answered both questions with a resounding “NO” ….

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Resolution Regimes for Central Clearing Parties

Clean water and electric power are essential for modern life. In the same way, the financial infrastructure is the foundation for our economic system. Most of us take all three of these, water, electricity and finance, for granted, assuming they will operate through thick and thin.

As engineers know well, a system’s resilience depends critically on the design of its infrastructure. Recently, we discussed the chaos created by the October 1987 stock market crash, noting the problems associated with the mechanisms for trading and clearing of derivatives. Here, we take off where that discussion left off and elaborate on the challenge of designing a safe derivatives trading system―safe, that is, in the sense that it does not contribute to systemic risk.

Today’s infrastructure is significantly different from that of 1987. In the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, authorities in the advanced economies committed to overhaul over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets. The goal is to replace bilateral OTC trading with a central clearing party (CCP) that is the buyer to every seller and the seller to every buyer....

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Operational Risk and Financial Stability

Recent disasters—both natural and man-made—prompt us to reflect on the relationship between operational risk and financial stability. Severe weather in sensitive locations, such as Hurricane Irma in Florida, raises questions about the resilience of the financial infrastructure. The extraordinary breach at Equifax highlights the public goods aspect of data protection, with potential implications for the availability of household credit.

At this stage, it’s important to pose the right questions about these operational shocks and, over time, to draw the right lessons. We expect that systemic financial intermediaries’ risk managers, members of their boards, their regulators, and their ultimate legislative overseers are currently in the midst of an intensive review of exposures (and that of the financial system as a whole) to these risks.

So, what is operational risk (OR)? The Basel Committee for Banking Supervision (BCBS) defines OR as “the risk of loss resulting from inadequate or failed internal processes, people and systems or from external events”....

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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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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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The Treasury's Missed Opportunity

Last week, the U.S. Treasury published the first of four reports designed to implement the seven core principles for regulating the U.S. financial system announced in President Trump’s Executive Order 13772 (February 3, 2017).

Seven years after the passage of Dodd-Frank, it’s entirely appropriate to take stock of the changes it wrought, whether they have been effective, and whether in certain cases they went too far or in others not far enough. President Trump’s stated principles provide an attractive basis for making the financial system both more cost-effective and safer. And much of the Treasury report focuses on welcome proposals to reduce the unwarranted compliance burden imposed by a range of regulations and supervisory actions on small and medium-sized depositories that—if adequately capitalized—pose no threat to the financial system. We hope these will be viewed universally as “motherhood and apple pie.”

Unfortunately, at least when considering the largest banks, our conclusion is that adopting the Treasury’s recommendations would sacrifice resilience to achieve cost reductions, yet with little prospect for boosting economic growth. Put simply, implementation of the Treasury plan would reduce regulation of the most systemic intermediaries, and in so doing, unacceptably reduce the resilience of the U.S. financial system....

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Regulating Wall Street: The Financial CHOICE Act and Systemic Risk

With the shift in power in Washington, among other things, the people newly in charge are taking aim at financial sector regulation. High on their agenda is repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, the most far-reaching financial regulatory reform since the 1930s. The prime objective of Dodd-Frank is to prevent a wholesale collapse of financial intermediation and the widespread damage that comes with it. That is, the new regulatory framework seeks to reduce systemic risk, by which we mean that it lowers the likelihood that the financial system will become undercapitalized and vulnerable in a manner that threatens the economy as a whole.

The Financial CHOICE Act proposed last year by the House Financial Services Committee is the most prominent proposal to ease various regulatory burdens imposed by Dodd-Frank. The CHOICE Act is complex, containing provisions that would alter many aspects of Dodd-Frank, including capital requirements, stress tests, resolution mechanisms, and more. This month, more than a dozen faculty of the NYU Stern School of Business (including one of us) and the NYU School of Law published a comprehensive study contrasting the differences between the CHOICE Act and Dodd-Frank.

Regulating Wall Street: CHOICE Act vs. Dodd-Frank considers the impact both on financial safety and on efficiency. In some cases, the CHOICE Act would slash inefficient regulation in a manner that would not foster systemic risk. At the same time, the book highlights the key flaw of the CHOICE Actthe failure to address systemic risk properly....

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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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Monetary Policy and Financial Stability

In June 2015, a committee of Federal Reserve Bank Presidents conducted a “macroprudential tabletop exercise”—a kind of wargame—to determine what tools to use should risks to financial stability arise in an environment when growth and inflation are stable. The conventional wisdom—widely supported in policy pronouncements and in a range of academic studies—is that the appropriate tools are prudential (capital and liquidity requirements, stress tests, margin requirements, supervisory guidance and the like). Yet, in the exercise, the policymakers found these tools more unwieldy and less effective than anticipated. As a result, “monetary policy came more quickly to the fore as a financial stability tool than might have been thought.”

This naturally leads us to ask whether there are circumstances when central bankers should employ monetary policy tools to address financial stability concerns. Making the case for or against use of monetary policy to secure financial stability is usually based on assessing the costs and benefits of a policy that "leans against the wind" (LAW) of financial imbalances...

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A Primer on Securities Lending

Securities lending (SL) is one of the less-well-publicized shadow banking activities. Like repurchase agreements (repo) and asset-backed commercial paper, SL can be a source of very short-term wholesale funding, allowing a shadow bank to engage in the kind of liquidity, maturity and credit transformation that banks do. And, like other short-term funding sources, it can suddenly dry up, making it a source of systemic risk. When funding evaporates, fire sales and a credit crunch follow.

Indeed, SL played a supporting role in the 2007-09 financial crisis, being partly responsible for the collapse of the large insurance company AIG when the market seized in September 2008 (see chart). While SL has not garnered the attention of capital and liquidity regulation or central clearing, or even repo markets, it is still worth understanding what securities lending is and the risks it poses. That is the purpose of this post...

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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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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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Opportunities in Finance

“We’re really only at 1% of what is possible, and probably even less than that. […] We should be building great things that don’t exist.”     Larry Page, Google I/O 2013 Keynote

With the summer coming to an end, professors everywhere are greeting a new group of students. So, our thoughts turn to the opportunities and challenges that those interested in finance will face over the course of their careers.

Like many important activities, finance is constantly evolving, so the “facts” that students learn in classes today will almost certainly change rapidly. With that in mind, we always strive to find a set of core principles that will endure, so that students can build a career based both on a set of specialized skills and on a broad capacity to imagine where finance and the financial system are heading...

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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 Stress Test

The U.K. Brexit referendum is providing us with the first significant test of our sparkling new regulatory system. Everyone knew about the referendum months in advance, giving them plenty of time to prepare. Yet, we are left with some fundamental questions related to global financial stability. Do banks have sufficient capital and liquidity to withstand the “shock?” Will financial markets continue to serve their key functions?  Or, is the financial system only as strong as its weakest link? Will turmoil once again prompt liability holders to run, triggering asset fire sales, and compelling central banks once again to do whatever it takes to keep avert a meltdown?

As the rating agencies might say, we are on “stress watch” with a negative outlook. Or, to mix metaphors, numerous lights are flashing yellow, so we are worried...

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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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Leverage and Risk

A highly leveraged financial system is one prone to collapse. This notion underlies modern financial regulation: the control of systemic risk requires controlling leverage. And, it is what drives proposals for high capital requirements and to tax leverage. But, as is always the case with regulation, the devil is in the details. For one thing, we need a way to measure leverage. This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult task. Second, while risk varies positively with leverage, risk-taking can increase without increasing leverage, so we need to think about all major forms of risk-taking that can threaten financial stability...

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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 Regulatory Counterintelligence Agency

Some days the tone of the financial news matches that of the sports page. Adversaries appear to be locked in an epic battle, with the official sector setting regulations in an attempt to keep the system safe on one side,  and financiers pushing for rules that ensure profitability on the other. The skirmish over the level of large bank capital requirements and the clash over whether municipal bonds can be used to meet liquidity requirements are just two recent examples. (See our earlier posts here and here.)

Following the day-to-day struggle can make it hard to see who is winning. But if history is any guide, the financiers will prevail—to the benefit of their owners and managers—at the expense of systemic fragility.

Can we change this? Can we create a system with greater balance between the authorities and the institutions?

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Market liquidity and financial stability

Everyone seems to be worried about market liquidity – the ability to buy or sell a large quantity of an asset with little or no price impact. Some observers complain that post-crisis financial regulation has reduced market liquidity by forcing traditional market makers – say, in corporate bonds – to withdraw. Others focus on episodes of sudden, unforeseen loss of liquidity – for example, in the equity and Treasury markets – suggesting that structural changes (such as the spread of high-frequency algorithmic trading) are now a source of fragility. We’ve written about these issues before (here and here).

But it is worth taking a step back to ask exactly what it is that we care about. The answer turns out to be complex, so working out remedies will be a big challenge...

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