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Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's blog

Crisis Recovery and the Role of Credit: Do Phoenix Miracles Exist?

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One of the most hotly debated policy questions with respect to the 2008 global crisis is how to stimulate business recovery. Because the crisis started in and severely affected the financial sector, the conventional assumption is that the recovery of the financial sector is a precondition to recovery in the corporate sector. While this conjecture appears reasonable, some have challenged it, pointing to numerous crises across the world in recent years in which real sector recovery preceded that of the financial sector. Of particular interest are episodes characterized by Calvo et al. (2006) as Systemic Sudden Stops (3S episodes) where output declines are associated with sharp declines in the liquidity of a country’s financial sector. Subsequent credit-less recoveries—in which external credit collapses with output but fails to recover as output bounces back to full recovery—have been termed “Phoenix Miracles.”

Empirically, 3S episodes offer an unusual natural experiment since they provide an opportunity to observe how firms are affected in economies which have been subjected to a financial shock that precedes or is contemporaneous with a recession. To date there has been little evidence at the firm-level on how corporations respond to crises in general. In a recent paper, my co-authors Meghana Ayyagari, Vojislav Maksimovic and I use a database of listed firms in emerging markets to analyze the recovery process after a financing crisis. We try to see if recovery of the financial sector precedes or occurs at the same time as the recovery in output of the corporate sector. In other words, we ask: Do firms experience Phoenix Miracles where their sales recover without a recovery in external credit? We then compare and contrast the experience of emerging market firms to that of US firms during the 2008 US financial crisis and investigate if the recent US recovery process qualifies as a Phoenix Miracle.

Optimal Financial Structures for Development? Some New Results

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One of the interesting debates in the finance and development literature is on financial structures: does the mix of institutions and markets that make up the financial system have any impact on the development process? Last week we hosted an interesting conference on the topic at the World Bank (click here for the agenda and papers). Those of you who have been following this literature will know this is not the first time this topic has been discussed – we held a conference on financial structures over ten years ago.

What do financial structures look like? How do they evolve with economic development? What are the determinants and impact of financial structures? Years ago Ross Levine and I, along with many others, tried to answer these questions and saw clear patterns in the data. One stylized fact: Financial systems become more complex as countries become richer with both banks and markets getting larger, more active, and more efficient. But comparatively speaking, the structure becomes more market-based in higher-income countries. We also saw that countries did not get to B from A in a single, identical path. You didn’t have any market-based financial structures in the lowest-income countries, but as soon as you got to lower-middle income, financial structures became very diverse: Costa Rica was bank-based, whereas Jamaica was much more market-based; Jordan was bank-based, Turkey was market-based etc. etc. So countries were all over the place and the correlation between GDP per capita and financial structure was less than 30 percent.

Generating Jobs in Developing Countries: A Big Role for Small Firms

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These days, job creation is a top priority for policymakers. What role do small and medium enterprises (SMEs) play in employment generation and economic recovery? Multi-billion dollar aid portfolios across countries are directed at fostering the growth of SMEs. However, there is little systematic research or data informing the various policies in support of SMEs, especially in developing countries. Moreover, the empirical evidence on the firm-size growth relationship has been mixed. Recent work of Haltiwanger, Jarmin, and Miranda (2010) in the U.S., suggests that (1) Startups and surviving young businesses are critical for job creation and contribute disproportionately to net growth and (2) There is no systematic relationship between firm size and growth after controlling for firm age. It is not clear whether these findings apply in developing countries where there are greater barriers to entrepreneurship, and where venture capital markets that finance young firms are not as well developed as in the US.

In a recent paper Meghana Ayyagari, Vojislav Maksimovic and I put together a database that presents consistent and comparable information on the contribution of SMEs and young firms to total employment, job creation, and growth across 99 developing economies. Our sample consists of 47,745 firms surveyed in the period 2006-2010. We then examine the relationship between firm size, age, employment, and productivity growth and how this varies with country income and find the following:

Do We Need Big Banks?

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In the past several decades banks have grown relentlessly. Many have become very large—both in absolute terms and relative to their economies. During the recent financial crisis it became apparent that large bank size can imply large risks to a country’s public finances. In Iceland failures of large banks in 2008 triggered a national bankruptcy. In Ireland the distress of large banks forced the country to seek financial assistance from the European Union and International Monetary Fund in 2010.

An obvious solution to the public finance risks posed by large banks is to force them to downsize or split up. In the aftermath of the EU bailout Ireland will probably be required to considerably downsize its banks, reflecting its relatively small national economy. In the United Kingdom the Bank of England has been active in a debate on whether major U.K. banks need to be split up to reduce risks to the British treasury. In the United States the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (or Dodd-Frank Act) passed in July 2010 prohibits bank mergers that result in a bank with total liabilities exceeding 10 percent of the aggregate consolidated liabilities of all financial companies, to prevent the emergence of an oversized bank.

So public finance risks of systemically large banks are obvious. But what are some of the other costs (and benefits) associated with bank size? This is the question Harry Huizinga and I try to address in a recent paper. Specifically, we look at how large banks are different in three key areas:

Bank Lending to SMEs: How Much Does Type of Bank Ownership Matter?

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Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) account for close to 60 percent of global manufacturing employment. So it is no surprise that financing for SMEs has been a subject of great interest to both policymakers and researchers. More important, a number of studies using firm-level survey data have shown that SMEs perceive access to finance and the cost of credit to be greater obstacles than large firms do—and that these factors really do constrain the growth of SMEs.

In recent years a debate has emerged about the nature of bank financing for SMEs: Are small domestic private banks more likely to finance SMEs because they are better suited to engage in “relationship lending,” which requires continual, personalized, direct contact with SMEs in the local community in which they operate? Or can large foreign banks with centralized organizational structures be as effective in lending to SMEs through arm’s-length approaches (such as asset-based lending, factoring, leasing, fixed-asset lending, and credit scoring)? And how well do state-owned banks—for which expanding access to finance is often among their top objectives—serve SMEs?

Bank Capital Regulations: Learning the Right Lessons from the Crisis

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The recent financial crisis demonstrated that existing capital regulations—in design, implementation, or some combination of the two—were completely inadequate to prevent a panic in the financial sector. Needless to say, policymakers and pundits have been making widespread calls to reform bank regulation and supervision. But how best to redesign capital standards? Before joining the calls for reform, it’s important to look at how financial institutions performed through the crisis to see if we’re learning the right lessons from the crisis. Is capital regulation justified? What type of capital should banks hold to ensure that they can better withstand periods of stress? Should a simple leverage ratio be introduced to reduce regulatory arbitrage and improve transparency? These are some of the questions addressed in a recent paper I wrote with Enrica Detragiache and Ouarda Merrouche.


Since the first Basel capital accord in 1988, the prevailing approach to bank regulation has put capital front and center: banks that hold more capital should be better able to absorb losses with their own resources, without becoming insolvent or necessitating a bailout with public funds. In addition, by forcing bank owners to have some “skin in the game,” minimum capital requirements help counterbalance incentives for excessive risk-taking created by limited liability and amplified by deposit insurance and bailout expectations. However, many of the banks that were rescued in the latest turmoil appeared to be in compliance with minimum capital requirements shortly before and even during the crisis. In the ensuing debate over how to strengthen regulation, capital continues to play an important role. A consensus is being forged around a new set of capital standards (Basel III), with the goal of making capital requirements more stringent.  

The Global Financial Inclusion Indicators: An Important Step towards Measuring Access to Finance

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How inclusive are financial systems around the world? What proportion of the population uses which financial services? Despite all the work we have done so far, most of the figures cited by experts in this field are still just estimates (see, for example, here and here). But this is about to change—in a big way.

To help us understand the scope and breadth of financial activity by individuals around the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced an $11 million, 10-year grant to the World Bank’s Development Research Group to build a new publicly accessible database of Global Financial Inclusion Indicators. The ultimate goal of the project is to improve access to finance; achieving this goal requires reliably measuring financial inclusion in a consistent manner over a broad range of countries and over time to provide a solid foundation of data for researchers and policymakers. We will carry out three rounds of data collection, starting with Gallup, Inc’s 2011 Gallup World Poll, which will survey at least 1,000 people per country in 150 countries about their access and use of financial services.

Islamic Banking: Can it Save Us from Crises?

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Pundits in the financial press have been asking an intriguing question: if too much debt and insufficient equity was partly responsible for the financial crisis, might Islamic banking be part of the solution? After all, Islamic principles require that financial transactions cannot include interest rate payments on debt, but rather have to rely on profit-loss risk-sharing arrangements (as in equity). For example, demand deposits that do not pay interest are fine, but savings deposits generally participate in the profits of the bank since these cannot accrue interest. Lending also generally follows a partnership model where the bank provides the resources and the client provides effort and expertise, and profits are shared at some agreed ratio. So can the heightened risk-sharing required by Sharia curb excess risk-taking by banks?

In practice Islamic scholars have also developed products that resemble those offered by conventional banks, replacing interest rate payments and discounting with fees and contingent payment structures. Nevertheless, Islamic banking still retains a strong element of equity participation. How does this affect bank risk-taking? Conceptually, the answer is not immediately clear. On the one hand, the equity-like nature of savings instruments may increase depositors’ incentives to monitor and discipline banks. On the other hand, if deposit instruments are equity-like, banks’ incentives to monitor and discipline borrowers may also be reduced since banks no longer face the threat of immediate withdrawal. Similarly, the equity-like nature of partnership loans can reduce the important discipline imposed on entrepreneurs by debt contracts.

Financial Access and the Crisis: Where Do We Stand?

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Do you wonder how the recent global crisis affected access to financial services? Well I do, and a report by the World Bank Group and CGAP just provided the answer: Data show that even as countries were suffering because of the financial crisis, access to formal financial services grew in 2009.  Indeed, the number of bank accounts grew world-wide, while at the same time the volume of loans and deposit accounts dropped. The physical outreach of financial systems— consisting of branch networks, automated teller machines (ATMs), and point-of-sale (POS) terminals—all expanded.

That’s a relief. Readers of this blog know by now that I am a strong believer in expanding access. Lack of access to finance is often the critical element underlying persistent income inequality as well as slower growth. But the recent global financial crisis has led us to question many of our beliefs and re-opened old debates. It also exposed an important tension between access and stability. Were we wrong to emphasize access in the light of what happened?