Too big to fail

FEMA for Finance

Modern financial systems are inherently vulnerable. The conversion of savings into investment—a basic function of finance—involves substantial risk. Creditors often demand liquid, short-term, low-risk assets; and borrowers typically wish to finance projects that take time to generate their uncertain returns. Intermediaries that bridge this gap—transforming liquidity, maturity and credit between their assets and liabilities—are subject to runs should risk-averse savers come to doubt the market value of their assets.

The modern financial system is vulnerable in a myriad of other ways as well. For example, if hackers were to suddenly render a key identification technology untrustworthy, it could disable the payments system, bringing a broad swath of economic activity to an abrupt halt. Similarly, the financial infrastructure that implements most transactions—ranging from retail payments to the clearing and settlement of securities and derivatives trades—typically relies on a few enormous hubs that are irreplaceable in the short run. Economies of scale and scope mean that such financial market utilities (FMUs) make transactions cheap, but they also concentrate risk: even their temporary disruption could be catastrophic. (One of our worst nightmares is a cyber-attack that disables the computer and power grid on which our financial system and economy are built.)

With these concerns in mind, we welcome our friend Kathryn Judge’s innovative proposal for a financial “Guarantor of Last Resort”—or emergency guarantee authority (EGA)—as a mechanism for containing financial crises. In this post, we discuss the promise and the pitfalls of Judge’s proposal. Our conclusion is that an EGA would be an excellent tool for managing the fallout from dire threats originating outside the financial system—cyber-terrorism or outright war come to mind. In such circumstances, we see an EGA as a complement to existing conventional efforts at enhancing financial system resilience.

However, the potential for the industry to game an EGA, as well as the very real possibility that politicians will see it as a substitute for rigorous capital and liquidity requirements, make us cautious about its broader applicability. At least initially, this leads us to conclude that the bar for invoking an EGA should be set very high—higher than Judge suggests….

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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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Time Consistency: A Primer

The problem of time consistency is one of the most profound in social science. With applications in areas ranging from economic policy to counterterrorism, it arises whenever the effectiveness of a policy today depends on the credibility of the commitment to implement that policy in the future.

For simplicity, we will define a time consistent policy as one where a future policymaker lacks the opportunity or the incentive to renege. Conversely, a policy lacks time consistency when a future policymaker has both the means and the motivation to break the commitment.

In this post, we describe the conceptual origins of time consistency. To emphasize its broad importance, we provide three economic examples—in monetary policy, prudential regulation, and tax policy—where the impact of the idea is especially notable....

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Free Riding in Finance: A Primer

Many features of our financial system—institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as the configuration of securities markets—are a consequence of legal conventions (the rules about property rights and taxes) and the costs associated with obtaining and verifying information. When we teach money and banking, three concepts are key to understanding the structure of finance: adverse selection, moral hazard, and free riding. The first two arise from asymmetric information, either before (adverse selection) or after (moral hazard) making a financial arrangement (see our earlier primers here and here).

This primer is about the third concept: free riding. Free riding is tied to the concept of a public good, so we start there. Then, we offer three examples where free riding plays a key role in the organization of finance: credit ratings; schemes like the Madoff scandal; and efforts to secure financial stability more broadly....

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Moral Hazard: A Primer

The term moral hazard originated in the insurance business. It was a reference to the need for insurers to assess the integrity of their customers. When modern economists got ahold of the term, the meaning changed. Instead of making judgments about a person’s character, the focus shifted to incentives. For example, a fire insurance policy might limit the motivation to install sprinklers while a generous automobile insurance policy might encourage reckless driving. Then there is Kenneth Arrow’s original example of moral hazard: health insurance fosters overtreatment by doctors. Employment arrangements suffer from moral hazard, too: will you shirk unpleasant tasks at work if you’re sure to receive your paycheck anyway?

Moral hazard arises when we cannot costlessly observe people’s actions and so cannot judge (without costly monitoring) whether a poor outcome reflects poor fortune or poor effort. Like its close relative, adverse selection, moral hazard arises because two parties to a transaction have different information. This information asymmetry manifests itself in two ways. Where adverse selection is about hidden attributes, affecting a transaction before it occurs, moral hazard is about hidden actions that have an impact after making an arrangement.

In this post, we provide a brief introduction to the concept of moral hazard, focusing on how various aspects of the financial system are designed to mitigate the challenges it causes....

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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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Ending Too Big to Fail: Resolution Edition

The failure of Lehman on September 15, 2008, signaled the most intense phase of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, fueling a run on a broad array of intermediaries. Following Congress’ approval of TARP funding that was used mostly to recapitalize U.S. financial firms, the mantra of U.S. regulators became “…we will not pull a Lehman” (Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, page 380). Thereafter, to ensure that another large institution did not fail, policymakers chose bailouts to contain the crisis. As a result, today we still have intermediaries that are too big to fail.  

The autumn 2008 experience convinced many observers of the need for a robust resolution regime in which financial behemoths could be re-organized quickly without risk of contagion or crisis. The question was, and remains, how to do it. Dodd-Frank provided a two-pronged answer: the FDIC would first rely on the bankruptcy code (Title I), and second, on a resolution temporarily funded (if necessary) by government resources (Title II). The second piece is commonly known as Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), which is funded by the Orderly Liquidation Fund (OLF).

In response to dissatisfaction with parts of this solution, Congress and the President are working on refinements. Last month, the House passed a bipartisan revision of the bankruptcy code (Financial Institutions Bankruptcy Act, or FIBA) that would expedite the resolution of adequately structured intermediaries. And, on April 21, President Trump ordered a Treasury review of OLA, expressing concern that the OLF authorization to use government funds “may encourage excessive risk taking by creditors, counterparties, and shareholders of financial companies.”

This post considers FIBA and how it fits in with the existing Dodd-Frank resolution mechanism....

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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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Dodd-Frank, the CHOICE Act and Small Banks

Critics of the Dodd-Frank Act argue that the new regulatory regime has weakened small banks (see, for example, Peirce, Robinson, and Stratmann). This criticism is echoed in the Financial CHOICE Act—proposed by House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling—that would largely scrap the current oversight of large systemic intermediaries in part to reduce the regulatory burden on “community financial institutions” (those with fewer than $10 billion in assets).

We share the goal of ensuring that regulation is cost effective for small banks that pose no threat to the financial system. However, we do not believe that the Dodd-Frank oversight regime of the largest, interconnected, complex intermediaries is a principal driver of the challenges facing most small banks.

Instead, we note that the decline of small banks has been going on for more than 30 years, decades before the Dodd-Frank Act became law in 2010...

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Better capitalized banks lend more and lend better

Many people seem to think that when authorities increase capital requirements, banks lend less. The advocates of this view go on to argue that, since credit is essential for economic growth, we should not impose overly tough constraints on banks. Put another way, a number of people believe that we have gone too far in making the financial system safe and the cost is lower growth and employment.

Treasury Secretary-designate Steven Mnuchin appears to share the view that financial regulation has restrained the supply of credit: in a recent interview, he is quoted as saying “The number one problem with Dodd-Frank is that it’s way too complicated and cuts back lending.” One interpretation of this is that Secretary-designate Mnuchin will support proposals like House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act to allow banks to opt for a simple capital standard as an alternative to strict regulatory scrutiny.

Our reaction to this is three-fold. First, for most banks, which are very small and pose little threat to the financial system, a shift toward simpler capital requirements—so long as they are high enough—may be both effective and efficient; for the largest, most systemic intermediaries, higher capital requirements should still be accompanied by strict oversight. Second, we see no evidence that higher bank capital is associated with lower lending. In fact, quite the opposite. Third, given that the 2007-09 financial crisis was the result of too much borrowing—and that over-borrowing is a leading indicator of financial crises—it follows that not all reductions in lending are bad. We take each of these points in turn...


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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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A Primer on Bank Capital

When a financial system is hit by unforeseen, adverse events, bank capital is the first line of defense. Capital, or net worth, is the owners’ stake in the bank. Profits and losses from a bank’s activities alter its net worth, guiding investment and risk-taking. If losses wipe out its capital, the bank becomes insolvent – its assets are inadequate to cover its fixed liabilities – and typically fails...

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Living Wills or Phoenix Plans: Making sure banks can rise from their ashes

Wills are for when you die. Living wills guide your affairs when you lose the capacity to act. We’re all mortal and fragile – not just people, but firms and banks, too. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 requires systemic intermediaries (and many others) to create “living wills” to guide their orderly resolution in bad times.

In August, these Dodd-Frank living wills made front-page business news when the FDIC and the Fed rejected those submitted by the biggest banks as inadequate. That should come as no surprise. In their current form, we doubt that living wills would do much to secure financial stability...

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Making Finance Safe

Walter Wriston, Citicorp’s chief for nearly two decades until 1984, used to argue that banks’ didn’t need much, if any, capital. The global financial crisis put that view to rest. Today, we know that if banks are going to be able to absorb large unforeseen losses that would otherwise threaten financial stability, they need to finance themselves with equity, not just debt.

But how much capital do banks need to have to ensure the financial system is safe? Even after the financial crisis, answers to this question range widely, making it the single most contentious source of debate among bankers, regulators, and academics...

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