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too-big-to-fail

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).

Do We Need Big Banks?

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

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: