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Addressing the Too-Big-to-Fail Problem before the Banks Become Too-Big-to-Save

Inci Otker-Robe's picture

The unprecedented scope and intensity of the ongoing global financial crisis has underscored the too-important-to-fail (TITF) problem associated with systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). Ahead of the crisis, implicit government backing permitted these institutions to take on greater risks without being adequately subjected to market discipline, and to enjoy a competitive funding advantage over systemically less important institutions. When the crisis broke, their scale, complexity, and interconnectedness, which had made them difficult to manage and supervise, also proved too significant to permit them to fail. The large-scale public support provided during the crisis has reinforced the moral hazard problem and allowed SIFIs to grow even more complex and larger.

In a recent IMF Staff Position Note with my coauthors, Aditya Narain, Anna Ilyina, Jay Surti, and other IMF colleagues, we found that a regionally diverse group of 84 banks, which are sufficiently large or interconnected to be considered systemic at national, regional, or global levels, doubled their share of total global financial assets over the period 2000-09, to about a quarter (Figure 1). The assets of some of these banks exceed multiples of the size of their home economies (Figure 2). This importance, in turn, gives such banks greater influence over the regulatory and legislative process and a competitive advantage over systemically less important institutions, while making the rescue of such institutions, when they get into trouble, a very costly affair. In countries affected by the recent financial crisis, governments protected many of these institutions from failure by providing direct and indirect support to contain the damage to the broader economy (the direct support, excluding guarantees, is estimated at 6.4 percent of GDP on average in the most crisis-affected countries in end-2010).