January 19, 2014
How you resolve financial crises determines how you regulate going forward
Posted by Erik Gerding

Nathaniel Popper’s story this week in the New York Times on the state of banking Iceland underscores how history makes a mess of neat divisions between financial crisis containment/resolution on the one hand and financial regulation for crisis prevention on the other.  The Times article does not delve extensively into Icelandic regulation, but this report outlines some of the dramatic changes in that country’s financial regulatory architecture since 2008 (see pages 17-21).  Iceland chose to let banks fail, and its financial services sector and its approach to regulation continues to reflect that choice. 

The following insight may sound obvious to the uninitiated: the path that a country chooses to deal with a financial crisis shapes the course that regulation will take after the crisis ends.  Even so, there remains a stark divide in scholarship between the study of regulation in normal times and the management of financial crises in not-so-normal times.  Management of a financial crisis reflects not just ad hoc decision-making under fire, but also clear policy and value choices of what the legal landscape should look like when the earth stops shaking. 

This story with respect to the United States can be told with much more nuance than simply equating the bail-out of big banks with the government green-lighting business as usual on Wall Street.  Disaggregating the “bailout” into its constituent parts – not just TARP, but also a series of bespoke interventions and an array of Federal Reserve facilities – reveals the extraordinary lengths the government went to in order to preserve the shadow banking system (a topic I’ve been writing about for a while and that appears in my new book) as it was.

Christian Johnson’s chapter on the Federal Reserve and Section 13(3) (which appears in this excellent edited volume) provides a travel guide to these government interventions.  Consider the least known aspects of the government intervention, the Federal Reserve facilities that provided guarantees and liquidity to various financial markets during the crisis.  Chewing through the letters of this alphabet soup – from ABCPMMMFLF (asset-backed commercial paper money market mutual fund liquidity facility) to TALF (Term Asset- Backed Securities Loan Facility) – it becomes clear that the government attempted to save securitization, money-market mutual funds and other shadow banking markets.  How did the Federal Reserve accomplish this?   It created complex structures that essentially replicated the mechanics of shadow banking.  In essence, the government became sponsor to one after another mammoth securitization vehicles.

And now the Economist tells us that securitization is back!

What’s the problem?  To start with, with these interventions, the government essentially adapted the same tools governments have used to fight banking crises throughout history to fight the (the first (so far)) shadow banking crisis.  What were the government interventions – both equity infusions, loans, and guarantees – if not deposit insurance for shadow banking investments, the government acting as liquidity-provider-of-last-resort to shadow markets, and the government resolving institutions that failed because of shadow banking investments.  However, the government offered all these forms of relief without acting like a bank regulator – charging an appropriate premium for insurance or loans or wiping out shareholders of failed institutions.

So we had a shadow system that performed the same functions as banks, posed the same risks as banks, suffered runs and failed just like banks, was rescued just like banks, but was never regulated like banks.  (For more on the role of regulation in fueling the shadow banking bubble, see Chapters 10 and 11 of my book).

And now that securitization has returned, the continuing failure of financial reform to address the risks of shadow banking has become even more worrisome.  What me worry?  We can’t have another crisis so soon after a bubble popped?  The financial industry and its advocates hate the term shadow banking.  Why?  Because disaggregating the financial crisis into various technocratic failures, allows them to say the problem has been fixed by the bubble gum (pun half-intended) and shoe string patchwork of financial reforms, and even to argue that this patchwork goes too far.  

To return to lesson of Iceland: the course of financial reform may have been set in the first responses to crisis management.  We could see that the government wanted to preserve shadow banking.  And a second lesson from Iceland: the government’s success in preventing a deeper crisis likely took the political wind out of the sails of deeper and more effective financial reform.

Finance, Financial Crisis, Financial Institutions | Bookmark

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