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May 2010

Bank Competition and Access to Finance

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

In a recent blog post, I talked about whether there are trade-offs between bank competition and financial stability.  But what about access to finance?  What does competition imply for access?

Theory supplies conflicting predictions, as usual.  According to standard economic theory, a banking system characterized by market power delivers a lower supply of funds to firms at higher cost; hence greater competition improves access.  However, several theoretical contributions have shown that when we take into account problems of information asymmetry, this relationship may not hold.  For example, banks with greater market power can have more of an incentive to establish long-term relationships with young firms and extend financing since the banks can share in future profits.  In competitive banking markets, however, borrower-specific information may become more dispersed and loan screening less effective, leading to higher interest rates. Indeed, while it has been shown that concentration may reduce the total amount of loanable funds, it may also increase the incentives to screen borrowers, thereby increasing the efficiency of lending.  However, all these models also assume a developed economy, with a high degree of enforcement of contracts and developed institutional environments in general. This is obviously not the case for most of the countries where the Bank works.

Bank Concentration, Competition and Financial Stability: What Are the Trade-offs?

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

Competition in the financial sector has a long list of obvious benefits: greater efficiency in the production of financial services, higher quality financial products, and more innovation.  When financial systems become more open and contestable, we generally see greater product differentiation, a lowering of the cost of financial intermediation, and more access to financial services.  But when we turn to the issue of financial stability, it is no longer so obvious whether competition is beneficial or not.  Is there a trade-off between increased competition and financial sector stability?

In one camp, there are some who stress the notion of charter value—the proposition that the financial sector is unlike other sectors of the economy and that too much competition may be harmful because it reduces margins and may foster excessive risk taking.  In a second camp are those who argue that a more concentrated banking system may exacerbate banking fragility.  This view holds that less competition leads to greater concentration and increased market power, with banks charging higher interest rates and obliging firms to assume greater risks.  Those in the second camp might also point to the recent crisis, arguing that if banks become “too big to fail” the implicit guarantees provided to them can distort their risk-taking incentives, leading to significantly higher fragility.

As usual, theory is conflicted, so we must turn to empirical evidence to help sort out these claims. In fact a substantial amount of empirical evidence supports the idea that competition per se is not detrimental to financial stability when adequate institutional frameworks are in place.  For example, using data for 69 developed and developing countries Thorsten Beck, Ross Levine and I study the impact of bank concentration and regulatory environment on a country’s likelihood of suffering a systemic banking crisis.  In short, we find that concentration makes banking systems more stable. At the same time, we find that the more competitive financial systems—those with lower barriers to bank entry, fewer restrictions on bank activities, greater economic freedoms and higher quality of regulations—tend to be more stable.  Hence, concentrated banking systems are not necessarily uncompetitive. 

Bailing Out the Banks: Reconciling Stability and Competition in Europe

Thorsten Beck's picture

The relationship between market structure, competition and stability in banking has been a policy-relevant but controversial one (see Beck, 2008 for a pre-crisis survey).  The current crisis has put the topic back on the front-burner, and particularly so in Europe, where competition concerns about the effect of national bail-out packages on competition across Europe rank high.  Together with four other European economists, I have tackled this question in a recent CEPR report: Bailing out the Banks: Reconciling Stability and Competition.

The crisis has provoked two common but quite different reactions concerning the role of competition policy in the banking sector.  One reaction has been to jump to the conclusion that financial stability should take priority over all other concerns and that therefore the "business as usual" preoccupations of competition regulators should be put on hold.  Another reaction has been to fear that intervention to restore financial stability will lead to massive distortions of competition in the banking sector, and therefore to conclude that competition rules should be applied even more vigorously than usual, with the receipt of State aid being considered presumptive grounds for suspecting the bank in question of anti-competitive behavior.  We endorse neither of these points of view.