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The AAF Virtual Debates: Charles Calomiris's Response on State-Owned Banks

Charles Calomiris's picture

I have to admit, I am a bit puzzled by my friend Franklin Allen’s first entry in this debate. There simply is no evidence—none—in support of his statement that mixed systems of state and private banking tend to be a good idea. And his mention of China is doubly puzzling. China’s state-owned banks have been a disaster, fiscally, allocatively, and socially. They cost the Chinese people hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout costs a decade ago, and, according to most informed observers, may very well soon repeat a similar magnitude of losses. Allocatively, they are famously wasteful of resources, as they have been a political tool for propping up the unproductive state-owned sector, which explains their continuing huge losses (recognized and unrecognized). The internal corporate governance of these unwieldy institutions is a nightmare. The financing arrangements that have succeeded in attracting private capital are well understood to be a political deal between global banks and the Chinese government; global banks invest in the state-owned sector as part of the price they must pay for entry into the Chinese market. And these banks are the central nexus of corruption and influence peddling in Chinese society. China’s growth has occurred in spite of these banks’ distorted lending policies, not because of them.

Some observers have wondered how it was possible for China to grow despite the lack of a deep private formal lending sector. The answer is simple: If a country’s basic economic development is constrained for centuries, then when economic liberalization finally occurs, the marginal product of capital is huge and high returns can be generated from almost any reasonably well-managed enterprise. If retained earnings can reliably earn high annual returns irrespective of how they are invested, growth will be rapid even without a banking system. But that initial bank-independent growth is not sustainable. The Chinese government’s recent financial policy initiatives show that it is well aware that China’s continuing growth is highly dependent on its ability to develop the legal, political, and institutional foundations that will support increasingly selective, private, arms-length lending for productive investments. That transformation of the Chinese banking system is a future prospect, not a current reality, and it is by no means a certainty (see, for example, Minxin Pei’s book, China’s Trapped Transition, or the contributions to my edited volume, China’s Financial Transition at the Crossroads).

The AAF Virtual Debates: Franklin Allen's Response on State-Owned Banks

Franklin Allen's picture

Charlie and Nachiket Mor raise very good points about the problems posed by public banks. India illustrates many of these difficulties—there is much too much political interference, regulations are designed to help state banks, and so forth. But India’s mix of banks is about four-fifths state-owned and only one-fifth privately owned. I’m suggesting precisely the inverse: about one-fifth of the banking sector would be state-owned and four-fifths would be privately owned. Reducing the share of state-owned banks to this minimal level should help alleviate many of the political economy issues. The state-owned commercial banks would need to compete with private banks in normal times as discussed in the blog and this should also act as a constraint on the problems.

The real advantage would come when there is a crisis. Rather than having central banks intervene in commercial credit markets where they have little expertise, the state-owned commercial bank can temporarily expand its role both in terms of assets and loans. This should considerably improve the functioning of the economy and overcome some of the credit crunch problems that Charlie has identified in his research and discusses in his post. The government should also find it easier to avoid bailouts and allow private banks to fail, which is an issue that recurs with every financial crisis. The most recent crisis is a clear case in point: at the moment large banks are not really privately owned. Large banks are privately owned until they get into trouble, at which point the state takes over ownership.

The AAF Virtual Debates: Charles Calomiris on State-Owned Banks

Charles Calomiris's picture

Editor's Note: The following post was submitted by Charles Calomiris, the Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions at Columbia University, as part of the AAF Virtual Debates. In this opening statement, Professor Calomiris gives a negative answer to the question: "Can state-owned banks play an important role in promoting financial stability and access?"

It is quite correct to say, as Asli’s introduction to this debate noted, that academic work strongly supports “a growing consensus that the track record of state-owned banks has been quite poor” and has been associated with “inefficiencies, increased risk of crises, and less inclusion and greater concentration of credit,” and support for “cronies.” Not only do studies of the performance of state-controlled banks confirm these findings over and over again, the presence of state-controlled banks is so clearly understood to be a poisonous influence on financial systems that measures of the presence of state banking are often used as control variables when evaluating the performance of private banks. These studies indicate powerfully the negative effects of state-controlled banks on the banking systems of the countries in which they operate. The winding down of state-controlled banks was rightly celebrated in many countries in the 1990s as creating new potential for economic growth and political reform.

Why are state banks such a disaster? There are three main reasons:

The AAF Virtual Debates: Franklin Allen on State-Owned Banks

Franklin Allen's picture

Editor's Note: The following post was submitted by Franklin Allen, the Nippon Life Professor of Finance and Economics at the Wharton School, as part of the AAF Virtual Debates. In this opening statement, Professor Allen gives an affirmative answer to the question: "Can state-owned banks play an important role in promoting financial stability and access?"

The prevailing view in the academic literature holds that private banks are much superior to state-owned or public banks. In many emerging-market countries public banks have been corrupt and inefficient. In contrast private banks have performed much better in terms of efficiently allocating resources over the long run.

However, the crisis has underlined the fact that public banks enjoy several advantages over private banks, and their merits may need to be reevaluated. At the height of the crisis in the fall of 2009, the three largest banks by market capitalization in the world were all state-owned:  the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank, and Bank of China. Although they are publicly listed, the Chinese government owns the majority of their shares. Their structure provides an interesting governance model. Perhaps more importantly, most large privately owned banks in Europe and the U.S. received government funds and guarantees during the crisis. Without this government intervention, many would have failed. The governments bore the downside risk but without full control, generating a significant moral hazard problem in these banks’ future operations.

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

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

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?

Can Financial Deepening Reduce Poverty? Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa

Raju Jan Singh's picture

Editor's Note: Raju Jan Singh recently presented the findings of the paper discussed in the following blog post at a session of the FPD Academy. Please see the FPD Academy page on the All About Finance blog for more information on this monthly World Bank event.

The recent financial crisis has renewed concerns about the merits of financial development, especially for the most vulnerable parts of the population. While financial development and its effects on economic growth have attracted much attention in the literature, far less work has been done on the relationship between financial deepening and poverty. Yet some economists have argued that lack of access to finance is among the main causes of persistent poverty.

Studies on the relationship between financial development and income distribution have been inconclusive. Some claim that by allowing more entrepreneurs to obtain financing, financial development improves the allocation of capital, which has a particularly large impact on the poor. Others argue that it is primarily the rich and politically connected who benefit from improvements in the financial system.

Can We Boost Demand for Rainfall Insurance in Developing Countries?

Xavier Gine's picture

Ask small farmers in semiarid areas of Africa or India about the most important risk they face and they will tell you that it is drought. In 2003 an Indian insurance company and World Bank experts designed a potential hedging instrument for this type of risk—an insurance contract that pays off on the basis of the rainfall recorded at a local weather station.

The idea of using an index (in this case rainfall) to proxy for losses is not new. In the 1940s Harold Halcrow, then a PhD student at the University of Chicago, wrote his thesis on the use of area yield to insure against crop yield losses. In the past two decades the market to hedge against weather risk has grown, especially in developed economies: citrus farmers can insure against frost, gas companies against warm winters, ski resorts against lack of snow, and couples against rain on their wedding day.

Rainfall insurance in developing countries is typically sold commercially before the start of the growing season in unit sizes as small as $1. To qualify for a payout, there is no need to file a claim: policyholders automatically qualify if the accumulated rainfall by a certain date is below a certain threshold. Figure 1 shows an example of a payout schedule for an insurance policy against drought, with accumulated rainfall on the x-axis and payouts on the y-axis. If rainfall is above the first trigger, the crop has received enough rain; if it is between the first and second triggers, the policyholder receives a payout, the size of which increases with the deficit in rainfall; and if it is below the second trigger, which corresponds to crop failure, the policyholder gets the maximum payout. This product has inspired development agencies around the world, and today at least 36 pilot projects are introducing index insurance in developing countries.

Building a Robust Case for Microsavings

Ignacio Mas's picture

Editor's Note: The following post was submitted jointly by Jake Kendall and Ignacio Mas of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

At the Financial Services for the Poor team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation we have made a deliberate choice to focus on promoting savings (you can read about our strategy here). We think that saving in a formal, prudentially regulated financial institution is a basic option that everyone should have. Having a safe place to save allows people to manage what little they have more effectively and to self-fund life-improving or productivity-enhancing investments without paying the high interest rates associated with small loans. Accessing other people’s money through credit may not be right for everyone, but making the most out of your own income surely is. From a donor perspective, we need to move beyond microcredit and support the development of broader markets. In fact, too much focus on microcredit risks tilting the incentives of local financial intermediaries to funding their credit portfolio from external soft funds rather than via mobilizing local deposits.

As I go around the world talking up these issues, I am struck by how often I need to justify the value of savings for poor people intellectually. Sure, we should do more to demonstrate these benefits with actual data, and we are funding a bunch of studies in this regard. But why is the notion so counter-intuitive for many people? I would trace that to two misconceptions and two fears.

Bank Capital Regulations: Learning the Right Lessons from the Crisis

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

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.