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financial crisis

Too Big to Fail, or Too Big to Save?

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

Too big to fail has become a key issue in financial regulation. Indeed, in the recent crisis many institutions enjoyed subsidies precisely because they were deemed “too big to fail” by policymakers. The expectation that large institutions will be bailed out by taxpayers any time they get into trouble makes the job of regulators all the more difficult. After all, if someone else will pay for the downside risks, institutions are likely to take on more risk and get into trouble more often—what economists call moral hazard. This makes reaching too-big-to-fail status a goal in itself for financial institutions, given the many implicit and explicit benefits governments are willing to extend to their large institutions. Hence, all the proposed legislation to tax away some of these benefits.

But could it be that some banks have actually become too big to save? Particularly for small countries or those suffering from deteriorating public finances, this is a valid question. The prime example is Iceland, where the liabilities of the overall banking system reached around 9 times GDP at the end of 2007, before a spectacular collapse of the banking system in 2008. By the end of 2008, the liabilities of publicly listed banks in Switzerland and the United Kingdom had reached 6.3 and 5.5 times their GDP, respectively.

In a recent paper with Harry Huizinga, we try to see whether market valuation of banks is sensitive to government indebtedness and deficits. If countries are financially strapped, markets may doubt countries’ ability to save their largest banks. At the very least, governments in this position may be forced to resolve bank failures in a relatively cheap way, implying large losses to bank creditors.

Making the Case for Financial Openness

Ryan Hahn's picture

Rich countries and emerging markets alike have participated in a rapid integration into global capital markets over the last 25 years. Proponents of financial globalization believed this would bring a myriad of benefits via improved financial intermediation, with a more efficient allocation of capital to productive firms and increased access to finance to those outside the halls of political power.

But the recent financial crisis has given pause to the pro-globalization advocates. The marked increase in capital flows to emerging markets quickly reversed in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving these countries looking vulnerable. Might the globalizers have gotten their prescriptions wrong?

A recent paper entitled Does Financial Openness Lead to Deeper Domestic Financial Markets? finds that, in fact, developing countries have reaped a number of benefits from financial globalization. In particular, the authors of the paper have found that greater financial openness:

The Fad of Financial Literacy?

Bilal Zia's picture

Financial literacy has become an immensely popular component of financial reform across the world. As a response to the recent financial crisis, the United States government set up the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy in January 2008, charged with promoting programs that improve financial education at all levels of the economy and helping increase access to financial services. In the developing world, the Indonesian government declared 2008 “the year of financial education,” with a stated goal of improving access to and use of financial services by increasing financial literacy. Similarly, in India, the Reserve Bank of India launched an initiative in 2007 to establish Financial Literacy and Credit Counseling Centers throughout the country which would offer free financial education and counseling to urban and rural populations. The World Bank also hasn’t been missing out on the trend – it recently approved a $15 million Trust Fund on Financial Literacy. 

But what do we know about financial literacy? Does it work, and if so, through what mechanisms? Despite the money being ploughed into financial literacy programs, we know very little to address these important questions. While it is true that there is a large and growing body of survey evidence from both developed and developing countries that demonstrate a strong association between financial literacy and household well-being, we are still in the process of learning whether this relationship is causal.

Job Creation and the Global Financial Crisis

David McKenzie's picture

Each new jobs report in the U.S. reignites the debate about whether the government is succeeding in stemming job losses and doing enough to help stimulate the creation of new jobs.

The U.S. has been far from alone in pursuing active labor market policies during the crisis. In a new note, David Robalino and I take stock of what labor market interventions countries have put in place during the recent crisis and summarize what we know about their effectiveness to date, as well as discuss the emerging issues countries are facing as they adapt these policies to a recovery period.

The Pitfalls of Financial Regulatory Reform

Ryan Hahn's picture

On May 25 we invited Professor Charles Calomiris of Columbia University to come speak at the World Bank as part of our FPD Chief Economist Talk series. Professor Calomiris discussed the on-going process of regulatory reform, particularly in the U.S., and was, to put it mildly, less than sanguine about the legislation that is currently making its way through the U.S. Congress. Watch a video of his talk (below the jump). The talk itself runs about 46 minutes, and a Q&A session follows.

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. 

Thoughts on the Financial Crisis and Improving Financial Regulation

Editor’s Note: The following post was contributed by Ross Levine, the James and Merryl Tisch Professor of Economics at Brown University.  This post summarizes a presentation Professor Levine gave at the World Bank on April 28 entitled An Autopsy of the Financial System: Suicide, Accident, or Negligent Homicide?  The presentation from the event is available here and video of the event will be made available soon on the All About Finance blog.  

In this blog entry, I address three issues: (1) The causes of the cause of the financial crisis, (2) Core approaches to financial regulation, and (3) Systemic improvements.  I also direct readers to longer treatments of each of these issues.


In a recent paper, An Autopsy of the U.S. Financial System: Accident, Suicide, or Negligent Homicide, I show that the design, implementation, and maintenance of financial policies by U.S. policymakers and regulators during the period from 1996 through 2006 were the primary causes of the financial system’s collapse.  I study five important policies (1) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) policies toward credit rating agencies, (2) Federal Reserve policies that allowed banks to reduce their capital cushions through the use of credit default swaps, (3) SEC and Federal Reserve policies concerning over-the-counter derivatives, (4) SEC policies toward the consolidated supervision of major investment banks, and (5) government policies toward the housing-finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Let me be blunt—time and again, U.S. regulatory authorities and policymakers (1) were acutely aware of the growing fragility of the financial system caused by their policies during the decade before the crisis, (2) had ample power to fix the problems, and (3) chose not to.  This crisis did not just fall from the sky on the heads of policymakers; policymakers helped cause this crisis.  While Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve) depicts the financial crisis as a once in a “hundred years flood” and a “classic euphoric bubble,” the evidence is inconsistent with these overly simple characterizations.  More importantly, this focus on “irrational exuberance” self-servingly deflects attention from the policy determinants of the crisis.

Regulators were not simply victims of limited information or a lack of regulatory power. Rather, the role of regulators in the five policies I mention above demonstrates that the crisis represents the selection—and most importantly the maintenance—of policies that increased financial fragility.  The financial regulatory system failed systemically.  To fix it, we need more than tinkering, we need systemic change.