Disturbing trends with financial crises

From the Economist:

Five devastating slumps—starting with America’s first crash, in 1792, and ending with the world’s biggest, in 1929—highlight two big trends in financial evolution. The first is that institutions that enhance people’s economic lives, such as central banks, deposit insurance and stock exchanges, are not the products of careful design in calm times, but are cobbled together at the bottom of financial cliffs. Often what starts out as a post-crisis sticking plaster becomes a permanent feature of the system. If history is any guide, decisions taken now will reverberate for decades.

This makes the second trend more troubling. The response to a crisis follows a familiar pattern. It starts with blame. New parts of the financial system are vilified: a new type of bank, investor or asset is identified as the culprit and is then banned or regulated out of existence. It ends by entrenching public backing for private markets: other parts of finance deemed essential are given more state support. It is an approach that seems sensible and reassuring. But it is corrosive. Walter Bagehot, editor of this newspaper between 1860 and 1877, argued that financial panics occur when the “blind capital” of the public floods into unwise speculative investments. Yet well-intentioned reforms have made this problem worse.

…..To solve this problem means putting risk back into the private sector. That will require tough choices. Removing the subsidies banks enjoy will make their debt more expensive, meaning equity holders will lose out on dividends and the cost of credit could rise. Cutting excessive deposit insurance means credulous investors who put their nest-eggs into dodgy banks could see big losses…..

Read more at Financial crises | The Economist.

Big trouble from little Cyprus – FT.com

I always enjoy Martin Wolf’s objectivity:

Many insist that any tax on deposits is theft. This is nonsense. Banks are not vaults. They are thinly capitalised asset managers that make a promise – to return depositors’ money on demand and at par – that cannot always be kept without the assistance of a solvent state. Anybody who lends to banks has to understand that. It is inconceivable that banking – a risk-taking financial business – can operate without exposure to loss of at least some classes of lenders. Otherwise, bank debt is government debt. No private business can be allowed to gamble with taxpayers’ money in this way. That is evident.

Read more at Big trouble from little Cyprus – FT.com.

Cyprus: Deposit insurance and moral hazard

The outcry over Cyprus levy on depositors in defaulting banks raises the question: Why were depositors not more wary of where they deposited their funds? Not all banks are created equal. The reason is deposit insurance for deposits under €100,000 implied that the government would stand behind its banks and rescue depositors should the banks ever default. The problem is that no one considered the possibility that all the banks would suffer losses sufficient that the government would be forced to default on both its explicit and implied obligations.

Some time ago I wrote about the moral hazard of deposit insurance:

Deposit Insurance: When too much of a good idea becomes a bad idea

Deposit insurance was introduced in the 1930s and saved the US banking system from extinction. Administered by the FDIC, and funded by a levy on all banking institutions, deposit insurance, however, encourages moral hazard. Depositors need not concern themselves with the solvency of the bank where they deposit their funds so long as deposits are FDIC insured. High-risk institutions are able to compete for deposits on an equal footing with well-run, low-risk competitors. This inevitably leads to higher failure rates, as in the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980s.

The FDIC does a good job of policing deposit-takers, but no regulator can substitute for market forces. Deposit insurance is critical during times of crisis, but should be scaled back when the crisis has passed. Either limit insured deposits to say $20,000 or only insure deposits to say 90% of value, where the depositor takes the first loss of 10%. That should be sufficient to keep depositors mindful as to where they bank. And restore the competitive advantage to well-run institutions.

Requiring depositors to take the first loss of 10 percent should be standard practice for deposit insurance. The same should hold true for bank creditors. But we need to distinguish between insolvency — where liabilities exceed assets — and a liquidity event where the central bank is only called on to provide temporary respite. If the bank is rescued from insolvency by the regulator, bond holders should be required to take an equivalent haircut — painful yet not life-threatening. No one is entitled to a free ride. And bank shareholders, if a there is a bail-out, should lose everything — similar to the Swedish approach in the 1990s.

Philip Maymin, Why Financial Regulation is Doomed to Fail | Library of Economics and Liberty

Philip Maymin highlights a problem with volatility:

…..securities with historically low volatility tended to have almost twice as much subsequent risk, while those with historically high volatility tended to have almost half as much subsequent risk. For both the riskiest and least risky securities, therefore, historical risk is a statistical illusion.

He further points out that regulation encourages banks to act in concert, increasing systemic risk, while deposit insurance reduces the level of self-imposed discipline among banks.

Read more at Philip Maymin, Why Financial Regulation is Doomed to Fail | Library of Economics and Liberty.

Berlin is ignoring the lessons of the 1930s – FT.com

Germans must understand that bank recapitalisation, European deposit insurance and debt mutualisation are not optional; they are essential to avoid an irreversible disintegration of Europe’s monetary union. If they are still not convinced, they must understand that the costs of a eurozone break-up would be astronomically high – for themselves as much as anyone.

After all, Germany’s prosperity is in large measure a consequence of monetary union. The euro has given German exporters a far more competitive exchange rate than the old Deutschmark would have. And the rest of the eurozone remains the destination for 42 per cent of German exports. Plunging half of that market into a new Depression can hardly be good for Germany.

via Berlin is ignoring the lessons of the 1930s – FT.com.