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Financial risk, resilience and realism: ‘New Economic Thinking,’ amid ominous tremors from the eurozone

Christopher Colford's picture



How safe and how stable is today’s international financial system? Eight years since the global bond markets started quaking – and almost seven years since the Lehman Brothers debacle triggered a worldwide meltdown – is the financial system resilient enough to recover from sudden shocks?

These are not just rhetorical questions, but urgent ones. Amid the ominous recent tremors within the European Union – with the intensifying risk that insolvent Greece could soon “crash out” of the eurozone if it fails to extract more bailout money from its exasperated rescuers – the global financial system may be about to get another real-life lesson in riding out traumatic turbulence.

So mark your calendars for this Wednesday, May 6, when a top-level conference with some of the world’s leading financial luminaries will be livestreamed online at (click here) this website from 9 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Many of the world’s top regulators, policymakers and scholars – brought together by the Institute for New Economic Thinking – will gather at the International Monetary Fund for a day-long exploration of “Finance and Society.”

A sense of déjà vu might seem to surround the conference agenda, especially for World Bank and IMF colleagues who recall the nonstop financial anxiety that consumed the Spring Meetings just a few weeks ago. A similar economic dread reportedly pervaded last week’s Milken Global Economic Conference in Los Angeles.

Yet the INET conference may be poised to offer a somewhat different perspective. The Spring Meetings featured the familiar lineup of business-suited, grim-and-greying Finance Ministers – mostly male, mostly middle-aged, mostly mainstream moderates – but the group of experts at the “Finance and Society” conference will reflect a welcome new dose of diversity. Every major speaker on the agenda is a woman.

The economists at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful financial institutions – Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Janet Yellen of the U.S. Federal Reserve System – will keynote the conference, and the proceedings will include such influential financial supervisors as Sarah Booth Raskin of the U.S. Treasury and Brooksley Born and Sharon Bowen of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There’ll also be a pre-conference speech by the woman who has suddenly galvanized the Washington economic debate: No, not Hillary Clinton, but Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The new global roster of financial leaders – in this conference's case, all of them women – illustrates how economic policymaking is now, at last, drawing on the skills of an ever-wider-ranging talent pool. The economic expertise featured this week is bound to mark a positive step forward, considering the ruinous impact of the recent mismanagement by middle-aged mainstream men. (Sorry, guys, but can you really blame people for noticing that the pale-stale-and-male crowd allowed the world to drift toward the Crash of 2008?)

This week’s conference agenda is admirably forthright about the challenge: “Complexity, special interest, and weak systems of governance and accountability continue to interfere with the ability of the financial system to serve society's needs.” With Lagarde and Yellen setting the tone – and with Warren adding an injection of populist vigor – this week’s INET conference seems likely to offer some imaginative insights that go beyond the familiar Spring Meetings formula.

If ever there were a time when an INET-style dose of “new economic thinking” might be needed, it’s now. Growth is sluggish and sometimes even stagnant in many developed nations, amid what Largarde calls “the new mediocre.” Markets are fragile and currencies are volatile in many developing countries. A commodity-price slump may drain the coffers of many resource-rich but undiversified economies. As mournful pundits have been lamenting seemingly ad infinitum and sans frontières, the global economy is suffering from a prolonged hangover after its pre-2008 binge of irrational exuberance.

As if the worries about “secular stagnation” were not enough, there’s also the tragedy of Greece, where an economic calamity has unfolded like a slow-motion car wreck as financial markets breathlessly await the all-too-predictable collision. Regular readers of this blog will surely have noted that fears of Greece’s potential crashout from the eurozone have been nearing a crescendo – and the possible default-to-the-drachma drama may soon reach its catharsis.

The Influence of Greece's Debt Crisis on the Banking Sector

Sergio Schmukler's picture

The crisis in Greece and the Eurozone has escalated as depositors flee banks in fear not only of the consequences of sovereign default but also of Greece abandoning the Euro. Unfortunately, this development makes the crisis much deeper and more difficult to manage. As we (along with Eduardo Levy Yeyati) highlighted in a VoxEU piece in June 2011, the main risk of the Greek debt crisis was its potential spillover to the banking sector.

Viewpoint on a rising dragon

Justin Yifu Lin's picture

As a counterpoint to grim forecasts coming out of Europe, I am hopeful that we can anticipate an Asian century where China will grow dynamically for another 20 years. Yet there are caveats to this optimistic scenario: Success in China will require a process of continual transformation and the wherewithal to tackle what I describe as a triple imbalance at the national level. I expound on this and other points in a BBC viewpoint piece published on November 23.

Triplet Crises: Lessons European Leaders Can Learn From Emerging Markets

Maria Soledad Martinez Peria's picture

Much of the discussion surrounding the current European crisis focused initially on whether a default by Greece was inevitable and how that would impact bond holders. Over time, the attention has shifted to banks and the potential for a generalized run and failure of the financial system, not only in Greece but also in other countries. Unfortunately, the developments in Europe are awfully similar to those in emerging economies in the past. The lessons learned in emerging markets might have helped European policymakers lessen the spillovers from macroeconomic risk to the financial sector, and even at this stage may still be useful for understanding how to manage the on-going crisis.

Many emerging economies used to follow exchange rate pegs, had large degree of liability dollarization, and ran fiscal deficits financed by the banking sector, which led to “triplet crises” involving debt, currency, and banking collapses. The  crises in Argentina and Uruguay in 2000–02 are illustrative. In a recent paper co-authored with Levy Yeyati, we show that macroeconomic risks like exchange rate devaluations or sovereign debt defaults can quickly cause the collapse of banking systems. These macroeconomic events are not random or driven by contagion across banks. Macroeconomic factors that are largely irrelevant in explaining depositor behavior during tranquil times can rapidly become the main driver of market response during crisis episodes, even after controlling for standard bank-specific traits. Furthermore, a crisis in one country (Argentina) can contaminate the banking system of a neighboring country (Uruguay) in a matter of days.