Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Financial Crisis and Too Big to Fail

[T]he financial crisis that began in the summer of 2007 has posed a major problem. We had grown rather accustomed to singing the praises of free financial markets. The crisis threatens to discredit them.

But this crisis was not the result of deregulation and market failure. In reality, it was born of a highly distorted financial market, in which excessive concentration, excessive leverage, spurious theories of risk management and, above all, moral hazard in the form of implicit state guarantees, combined to create huge ticking time-bombs on both sides of the Atlantic. The greatest danger we currently face is that the emergency measures adopted to remedy the crisis have made matters even worse...

Economists have long held that bank failures pose a "systemic" economic risk, because failed banks are associated with monetary contractions for the economy as a whole. There is therefore a presumption that, if big banks are threatened with liquidity or solvency problems, they should be bailed out by the action of the central bank or government. Despite much pious talk of "moral hazard" prior to 2007, little was done to disabuse big financial institutions of this notion. They could and did assume that they enjoyed an implicit government guarantee...

During the crisis it was often said that officials at the Federal Reserve and Treasury would do "whatever it takes" to avoid a Great Depression. Now they must do whatever it takes to address one of the key causes of the financial crisis: the existence of financial institutions that consider themselves too big to fail – but which are run in such a way that they are bound to do so.

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