Archives for posts with tag: Financial Contagion

[R]ecognition of a state of bankruptcy would have the effect of an atomic bomb. Within a minute, economic agents would try to sell their assets, investors would empty their accounts, foreigners would flee, banks would be forced to close their counters. It’s hard to imagine what state of civil war would be the French and European society.

A bankrupt would have more serious than the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008 systemic effects immediately.

Or in the original;

[L]a reconnaissance d’un état de faillite aurait l’effet d’une bombe atomique. Dans la minute, les agents économiques essaieraient de vendre leurs actifs, les épargnants videraient leurs comptes, les étrangers s’enfuiraient, les banques seraient obligées de fermer leurs guichets. On a du mal à imaginer dans quel état de guerre civile serait la société française et européenne.

Un état de faillite aurait immédiatement des effets systémiques plus graves que la faillite de Lehman Brothers en septembre 2008.

Up on Jean-Marc Sylvestre’s blog. It is an interesting (and convenient) theory that the French Government cannot admit of its own financial distress and do something about it because it would trigger systemic risk, when several subsequent rating cuts have not had this effect. Sylvestre’s ideal type can only be a naive investor who’s been living under a rock and bases his investments decisions exclusively on Government announcements. In the real world, though, all empirical studies on flights and runs find that investors are informed and that adverse reactions are rather rational and sophisticated.

I especially appreciate likening flights and runs to atomic bombs and civil wars, all within the same paragraph. John Kay has also used the atom bomb comparison to discuss systemic risk recently. Now, perhaps we should pause and think about the level of sustained economic slowdown that would be necessary to actually destroy capital in a magnitude that is comparable to nuclear explosions or a civil war.

The passage ends with a comparison to Lehman Brothers. Now, this is particularly interesting, because Lehman Brothers did not recognize their own financial distress and tried to push it as far back as they could, willingly failing to prepare for insolvency. It was perfectly understandable, though morally reprehensible, when the worst your financial distress is the bigger are your chances are at securing a bailout. This is one of the principal reason why Lehman’s failure to secure a bailout turned out to be problematic; it had failed to act as diligens paterfamilias and prepare for a wind down. Contrary to the exaggerations in Sylvestre’s column, Lehman Brothers’ experience suggests that “systemic risk,” if there is such a thing, is what happens when recognition of financial distress is pushed back until it cannot be ignored anymore,  much like the French Government is doing.

One justification for the very broad powers of the regulators in the Dodd-Frank Act Title II’s Orderly Liquidation Authority mechanisms is that it would allow the FDIC to act very quickly. This usually means “act very quickly once the process is initiated,” but one key aspect of insolvency resolution is that it also has to be initiated quickly, so as to limit shareholder and manager moral hazard to make things even worse.

Yet, the initiation of insolvency procedures in Dodd-Frank follows from a so-called “three key turning” mechanism. The first key is that the Treasury secretary has to suggest that the firm is “in default or in danger of default,”‘ and have consulted with the President (possibly the fourth key). The second and third key are that two-thirds of the Federal Reserve board, and two-thirds of either the Security and Exchange Commission board for investment banks, two-thirds of the Federal Insurance Office board for insurance companies, or two-thirds of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation board must have recommended the initiation of resolution procedures. As should be apparent, this process requires the coordination of multiple agencies, and multiple board members, and is unlikely to be triggered rapidly, if only because of coordination considerations.

Moreover, because initiating insolvency resolution is an admission of failure of prior control, and because the costs of delaying the initiation are essentially shifted onto the FDIC that manages the resolution process, there’s incentives not to recognize the insolvency or to keep hush about it. This was a huge problem for example during the 1980’s Savings & Loans crisis, where insolvent thrifts remained opened for an average period of 17 months before resolutions were initiated, and in a few cases for as much as ten years. The 1993 FDIC Improvement Act sought to fix this problem, by giving the FDIC power to initiate procedures itself, rather than having to rely on the bank’s primary regulator, and by allowing the FDIC to act before the bank is effectively insolvent through what is called “prompt corrective action.” This has, however, obviously not been a success, as in most cases of bank failures during 2008-2009 there were no prompt corrective actions taken, and procedures were initiated after the bank’s equity had dropped in negative territory. This means that, even without rules that require the coordination of multiple agencies with possibly misalligned incentives, regulators’ incentives and knowledge problem generally pushes the initiation of insolvency procedures back.

We actually do have something close enough to a benchmark to see how hard it might be for all “3 keys” to agree and coordinate. The Systemic Risk Exemption of the 1993 FDIC Improvement Act has a similar mechanism, where it required a two-third vote of the FDIC’s board, a two-third vote of the Fed’s Board of Governors, and the Treasury Secretary who has to consult with the President. Triggering this exemption allows the FDIC to bypass the “least cost resolution” provisions of the FDICIA, and allows it to be more generous with its “insurance” fund, providing larger coverage to “uninsured” depositors than is usually the case. It’s essentially an institutionalized bailout procedure.

Despite the fact that it would have allowed the FDIC a lot more flexibility, the Systemic Risk Exemption was triggered only 3 times in nearly 20 years. All 3 cases are recent, as those are Citigroup, Bank of America and Wachovia. In the case of Wachovia, those powers were ultimately not used, as Wells Fargo purchased it instead. This is suggestive that those powers are hard to invoke and use, and might suggest something about triggering the Orderly Liquidation Authority. On the other hand, it is true that the Systemic Risk Exemption could have been triggered much more often under a director that is more bailout-happy than Sheila Bair was (say, Geithner for example).

Given those features of the Orderly Resolution Authority, there’s a chance that initiation might be delayed. Delayed initiation means larger losses, more adverse market reactions, and stronger temptations to bailout, with accompanying calls for further regulation.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, ZeroHedge posted a very revealing figure, detailing the new European Bank Resolution directives and what could be called its “8 key turning mechanism”…

Thus, the right to terminate or close-out financial market contracts is important to the stability of financial market participants in the event of an insolvency and reduces the likelihood that a single insolvency will trigger other insolvencies due to the nondefaulting counterparties’ inability to control their market risk. The right to terminate or close-out protects federally supervised financial institutions, such as insured banks, on an individual basis, and by protecting both supervised and unsupervised market participants, protects the markets from systemic problems of “domino failures.”

Source: Ireland, Oliver. 1999. “Testimony of Oliver Ireland, Associate General Counsel, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, on the proposed Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1999.” Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, Committee on the Judiciary. U.S. House of Representatives, March 18.

Qualified financial contracts privileges to avoid bankruptcy stay, greatly expanded by a 2005 amendment to bankruptcy laws, were one of the principal source of so-called “disorderly” liquidation during in Fall of 2008, and the main motivation behind most of the 2008 bailouts. It became a primary source of “systemic risk.” See Roe, Mark J. 2011. “Derivatives Market’s Payment Priorities as Financial Crisis Accelerator.” Stanford Law Review 63 (3): 539-590.

File in “systemic risk exaggerations.”

Source: Cihak, Martin, and Erlend Nier. 2009. The Need for Special Resolution Regimes for Financial Institutions—The Case of the European Union. IMF Working paper. September.

[T]he mischief takes a wide range. Those who have been accommodated with loans must pay, whatever their readiness or ability to do so. Further advances cannot be obtained. Other banks must call in their loans and refuse to extend credit in order to fortify themselves against the uneasiness and even terror of their own depositors. Confidence is destroyed. Enterprises are stopped. Business is brought to a standstill. Securities are enforced. Property is sacrificed, and disaster spreads from locality to locality. All these incidents of the banking business are matters of common knowledge and experience.

Court of Kansas. 1911. Schaake v. Dolley, 118 p. 80, 83 (Kansas denying a charter to a new bank because “the economy could not support another bank”).

Here’s something I wrote, up for comments. Here’s the abstract:

A 2000 paper by Philippe Aghion, Patrick Bolton, and Mathias Dewatripont off ers a model where what they describe as a free banking system is vulnerable to contagious bank runs through clearinghouse loans. The paper ignores key contributions to both free banking and financial history literature, such that the paper is of little relevance to the understanding of the stability of both free banking systems and clearinghouse arrangements. Our criticism concentrates on the institutions of banking absent or misrepresented. It is argued that it is not clear whether the paper even features banks.

Thirteen years is a very long delay for a comment, but I was not able to find anything addressing this paper, and since it is still cited in almost every literature review on systemic risk, I thought it deserved a comment. Suffice to say, I don’t think think free banking can be dismissed in 6 pages, without giving a proper definition and citing any work on the subject matter.

My usual collaborators in our department seem to be abroad or on vacation this week, so please think of this as a crowdsourced seminar and please do leave a comment.

A widely held belief in the United States and the world financial community is that the default of major debtors-whether companies or municipalities or sovereign countries-could lead to bank failures that would precipitate a financial crisis. The remedy proposed by those propagating this view is that major debtors therefore must be rescued from the threat of bankruptcy to avert the projected dire consequences for banks and for the stability of the financial system. I shall argue that (a) a debtor whose affairs have been mismanaged should be liquidated or reorganized under new management; (b) default by major debtors need not result in bank failures; (c) if defaults do result in bank failures, so long as the security of the private sector’s deposits is assured, no financial crisis will ensue. The bugaboo of financial crisis has been created to divert attention from the true remedies that the present financial situation demands.

Schwartz, Anna J. (1987) “Real and Pseudo-Financial Crises,” in Schwartz, Anna J. (ed.) Money in Historical Perspective, University of Chicago Press, p. 271-288.

Most papers on the random withdrawal theory of bank runs suggest that bank runs are not only self-fulfilling prophecies, that alone is bad enough, but that once the run is motion nothing can stop it. This has serious implications, if bank runs are self-fulfilling prophecies that can’t be stopped then you would expect that there would be a lot of bank failures that are only due to bank runs. You’d expect there would be contagious bank runs. Especially during the National Banking era, which was rife with banking panics. This table suggests otherwise.

Source: p. 183 of U.S. Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report Vol. 1 1920. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Source: p. 183 of U.S. Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report Vol. 1 1920. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Out of 594 bank failures during the National banking era, only 9 had bank runs as their primary cause. Out of those 9, two were banks closed in anticipation of runs. Out of the remaining 7 bank failures, 6 were eventually restored to solvency by the receivership, so I’m going to assume the losses weren’t that important. Only 4 bank failures out of those 9 occured before the advent of the Federal Reserve, including one case where the bank was closed prior to the run, and the bank that was not restored to solvency by the receivership.

Other bank failures might have been sped up by bank runs, but it was not the primary cause of failure. This means that the run, while certainly costly, might have been salutary and closed down the bank before its managers could enlarge losses. It also suggests that bank runs are, in most cases at least, not self-fulfilling prophecies, and that partial “verification” runs can occur.

So, what this means is that, over the whole National Banking Era, we only have only one potential case of contagious bank run leading to an unsalvable bank failure. I say potential and not definitive, because it might be the case that the failure was, after all, more a result of predation than a result of the bank run. What I mean by that is that it is pretty much always in the interest of other banks, and clearinghouses, to come to the rescue of banks in difficulty, because they can profit from those situations. It wouldn’t be surprising to me that what appears to be the only national bank failure due to contagious bank runs, is actually a case of other banks letting it die so that it can acquire its assets at a discount.

More research is obviously necessary on all of this, especially on the outcome of the receiverships.


Source: page 90 of O’Connor, J. F. T. 1938. The Banking Crisis and Recovery under the Roosevelt Administration. Chicago: Callaghan and Co.

“In economics, as in any empirical science, the advancement of knowledge essentially falls in one of two categories. At times, some noteworthy phenomenon is observed empirically, and we seek plausible models which display the same phenomenon. If our catalogue of models does not contain one that displays the observed phenomenon, then we try to construct models that do. On the other hand, sometimes we find that a particular model in our catalogue displays an unusual or remarkable phenomenon. In this case, we go looking for empirical evidence of that the phenomenon actually occurs in real life.

Systemic risk falls in neither category. We do not have any serious models that can be said to display systemic risk. Thus systemic risk is not a theoretical phenomenon in search of empirical confirmation. Furthermore, we do not have any convincing empirical evidence of phenomenon that can be readily identified as systemic risk. About the only evidence we have for systemic risk is that many central bank officials speak of it when discussing their lender of last resort function or the risk containment measures they impose on private settlement arrangements.”

Jeffrey M. Lacker, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Comments presented at the Second Joint Central Bank Research Conference on Risk Measurement and Systemic Risk at the Bank of Japan, Tokyo, November 16-17, 1998. [Has been edited for brevity and inner consistency.]

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