Corporate governance of banks and financial stability
Luc Laeven, Lev Ratnovski21 July 2014
Bank distress during the recent crisis caused significant damage to the real economy. Appropriately, the policy response focused on stronger bank supervision and regulation. This column asks if there is a role for improvements in bank corporate governance. Based on the literature the authors suggest that better risk management, regulation of pay, and enhanced market discipline can help make banks safer. However, corporate governance cannot substitute for strong supervision: it can at best provide a helping hand.
Corporate governance is the practice of shareholders exercising control over managers so that they act in shareholders’ interests. In non-financial firms, this maximises firm efficiency. Such efficiency effects also exist in banks. For example, banks that face more active takeover markets are more cost-efficient (Brook et al. 1998).
Unlike non-financial firms, bank operations have another relevant dimension besides efficiency: risk. Banks are prone to risk-taking, due to:
Large banks have grown and become more involved in market-based activities since the late 1990s. This column presents evidence that large banks receive too-big-to-fail subsidies and create systemic risk, whereas economies of scale in banking are modest. Hence, some large banks may be ‘too large’ from a social perspective. Since the optimal bank size is unknown, the best policies are capital surcharges and better bank resolution and governance.
Large banks have grown significantly in size and become more involved in market-based activities since the late 1990s. Figure 1 shows how the balance-sheet size of the world’s largest banks increased two- to four-fold in the ten years prior to the crisis. Figure 2 illustrates how banks shifted from traditional lending towards market-oriented activities.
To date, much uncertainty exists about how large the spillovers would be from the default of a systemically important bank. This column shows evidence that the market values of US and EU banks hardly respond to changes in the default risk of banks that the Financial Stability Board considers globally systemically important (G-SIBs). However, changes in all G-SIBs’ default risk explain a substantial part of changes in bank market values. These findings have implications for financial-crisis management and prevention policies.
Financial-crisis management and prevention policies often focus on mitigating spillovers from the default of systemically important banks. During the recent crisis, governments avoided large bank failures by insuring and purchasing intermediaries’ troubled assets, by providing them with capital injections, and even by outright nationalisations. After the crisis, financial regulators designed additional requirements for those institutions that the Financial Stability Board designated as globally systemically important banks (G-SIBs).
Exploring the transmission channels of contagious bank runs
Martin Brown, Stefan Trautmann, Razvan Vlahu10 April 2014
Contagious bank runs are an important source of systemic risk. However, with observational data it is near-impossible to disentangle the contagion of bank runs from other potential causes of correlated deposit withdrawals across banks. This column discusses an experimental investigation of the mechanisms behind contagion. The authors find that panic-based deposit withdrawals can be strongly contagious across banks, but only if depositors know that the banks are economically related.
Financial contagion – the situation in which liquidity or insolvency risk is transmitted from one financial institution to another – is viewed by policymakers and academics as a key source of systemic risk in the banking sector. In particular, the events in the 2007–2009 Global Crisis have turned the attention of policymakers towards the potential contagion of liquidity withdrawals across banks and the resulting implications for financial stability.
Charles Calomiris talks to Romesh Vaitilingam about his recent book, co-authored with Stephen Haber, ‘Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit’. They discuss how politics inevitably intrudes into bank regulation and why banking systems are unstable in some countries but not in others. Calomiris also presents his analysis of the political and banking history of the UK and how the well-being of banking systems depends on complex bargains and coalitions between politicians, bankers and other stakeholders. The interview was recorded in London in February 2014.
How much is enough? The case of the Resolution Fund in Europe
Thomas Huertas, María J Nieto18 March 2014
The European Resolution Fund is intended to reach €55 billion – much less than the amount of public assistance required by individual institutions during the recent financial crisis. This column argues that the Resolution Fund can nevertheless be large enough if it forms part of a broader architecture resting on four pillars: prudential regulation and supervision, ‘no forbearance’, adequate ‘reserve capital’, and provision of liquidity to the bank-in-resolution. By capping the Resolution Fund, policymakers have reinforced the need to ensure that investors, not taxpayers, bear the cost of bank failures.
During the crisis, individual institutions such as Hypo Real Estate required public assistance of €100 billion or more.1 So how can a European Resolution Fund of only €55 billion possibly suffice for all banks in the Eurozone?
It could, provided the Fund is part of a well-designed architecture for regulation, supervision, and resolution, that makes banks not only less likely to fail but also safe to fail – meaning that they can be resolved without cost to the taxpayer and without significant disruption to financial markets or the economy at large.
Viral Acharya talks to Viv Davies about his recent work with Sascha Steffen that, using publicly available data and a series of shortfall measures, estimates the capital shortfalls of EZ banks that will be stress-tested under the proposed Asset Quality Review. They also discuss the difference in accounting rules between US and EZ banks and the future potential for banking union in the Eurozone. The interview was recorded by phone on 25 February 2014.
Falling short of expectations? Stress-testing the European banking system
Viral Acharya, Sascha Steffen17 January 2014
The Single Supervisory Mechanism – a key pillar of the Eurozone banking union – will transfer supervision of Europe’s largest banks to the ECB. Before taking over this role, the ECB will conduct an Asset Quality Review to identify these banks’ capital shortfalls. This column discusses recent estimates of these shortfalls based on publicly available data. Estimates such as these can defend against political efforts to blunt the AQR’s effectiveness. The results suggest that many banks’ capital needs can be met with common equity issuance and bail-ins, but that public backstops might still be necessary in some cases.
The Eurozone is mired in a recession. In 2013, the GDP of the 17 Eurozone countries fell by an average of 0.5%, and the outlook for 2014 shows considerable risks across the region. To stabilise the common currency area and its (partly insolvent) financial system, a Eurozone banking union is being established. An important part of the banking union is the Single Supervisory Mechanism, which will transfer the oversight of Europe’s largest banks to the ECB (Beck 2013).
Foreign-currency loans and systemic risk in Europe
Pınar Yeşin26 November 2013
Before the onset of the financial crisis, European households and non-financial firms were borrowing heavily in lower-yielding foreign currencies to finance their home mortgages or business investments, even though they did not necessarily have a steady income in the currency concerned. Five years after the financial crisis, banks still hold a substantial amount of foreign currency loans to unhedged borrowers on their balance sheets. This column quantifies the systemic risk that these foreign currency loans pose to the European banking sector.
Before the onset of the financial crisis, foreign currency loans to the non-banking sector in Europe became remarkably prevalent. In particular, households and non-financial firms were taking bank loans denominated in lower-yielding foreign currencies and investing in high-yielding domestic currencies (e.g., in the form of home mortgages or business investments), even though these agents did not necessarily have a steady income in the foreign currency concerned. Therefore these retail foreign currency loans were usually dubbed 'small men’s carry trade'.
Violations of the uncovered interest-rate parity – a zero-profit equilibrium condition in foreign-exchange markets – seems to consistently give rise to profitable currency trading. This column highlights the risky nature of this phenomenon, arguing that it is the exposure to stock-market cash flows that is the key secret to making money from global currency portfolio investments. High returns from currency trading compensate investors for taking on severe stock-market risks.