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financial stability

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. 

What Do We Know about the Consequences of Foreign Bank Participation in Developing Countries?

Maria Soledad Martinez Peria's picture

The process of financial globalization that accelerated in the 1990s has brought many changes to the financial sectors of developing countries.*  Countries have opened up their stock markets to foreign investors, allowed domestic firms to cross-list and issue debt overseas, and welcomed foreign direct investment into their local financial sectors.  When it comes to the banking sector, arguably no change has been as transformative as the increase in foreign bank participation in developing countries.  On average, across developing countries, the share of bank assets held by foreign banks has risen from 22 percent in 1996 to 39 in 2005.  At the same time, foreign bank claims on developing countries, which together with the loans extended by foreign bank branches and subsidiaries include cross-border loans, increased from 10 percent of GDP in 1996 to 26 percent in 2008 (see Figure 1).

Total foreign claims

Life After the Crisis: Where Do We Go from Here?

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

There are many who argue that the financial crisis proved that we have been wrong about most of our policy recommendations in the financial sector. I am not one of them. For example, consider the renewed fascination with development banks. Given the reluctance of private institutions to lend more during the crisis, many countries used their public banks to expand credit. (But others without such institutions used other innovative ways to do this – such as the US Federal Reserve.) Should we then conclude that government ownership of banks is desirable? Similarly, the crisis was so intense that many governments ended up as large shareholders in their banking systems (which is turning out to be temporary, as expected). Does this mean developing countries should abandon their bank privatization programs? Others interpret the crisis as a vivid example of market failure and wonder if much more aggressive regulation is a good idea.

You may have guessed already that my answer to these questions is no. Research is seldom conclusive, but in the area of state ownership of banking the evidence is as overwhelming as it gets. When it comes to lending, it appears that the state banks are the best at lending to cronies. Government officials face conflicts of interest that go against efficient allocation of resources – such as securing their political bases and rewarding supporters. Overall, greater state ownership of banking is associated with less financial sector development, lower growth, lower productivity and even less stability – and it is more damaging at lower per capita income levels where there are typically fewer checks and balances. So it is no wonder that many countries embarked on privatization programs and ought to continue with them. Surely this is a difficult process – but there is again plenty of evidence that well-designed privatization can significantly increase bank performance. 

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