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Viral V. Acharya, Thomas Cooley, Matthew Richardson and Ingo Walter1





We analyze the financial crisis of 2007-2009 through the lens of market failures

and regulatory failures. We present a case that there were four primary failures

contributing to the crisis: excessive risk-taking in the financial sector due to mispriced government guarantees; regulatory focus on individual institution risk rather than systemic risk; opacity of positions in financial derivatives that produced externalities from individual firm failures; and runs on the unregulated banking sector that eventually threatened to bring down the entire financial sector. In emphasizing the role of regulatory failures, we provide a description of regulatory evolution in response to the panic of 1907 and the Great Depression, why the regulation put in place then was successful in addressing market failures, but how, over time, especially around the resolutions of Continental Illinois, Savings and Loans crisis and the Long-Term Capital Management, expectations of too-big-to-fail status got anchored. We propose specific reforms to address the four market and regulatory failures we identify, and we conclude with some lessons for emerging markets.

Viral V. Acharya is Professor of Finance at the New York University Stern School of Business and a Research Affiliate of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) and National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Thomas Cooley is Richard R. West Dean and the Paganelli-Bull Professor of Economics at the New York University Stern School of Business.

Matthew Richardson is Charles Simon Professor of Applied Financial Economics at the New York University Stern School of Business and Sidney Homer Director of the Salomon Center for Research in Financial Institutions and Markets, and a Research Associate of the NBER. Ingo Walter is Vice Dean of Faculty and Seymour Milstein Professor of Finance, Corporate Governance and Ethics at the New York University Stern School of Business. Some of the material in this article is based on the book Restoring Financial Stability: How to Repair a Failed System (ed. Acharya and Richardson, 2009a). The authors would like to the thank the discussant, Marcus Miller, and are grateful to their colleagues at NYU-Stern who contributed to the book and to the thinking that has influenced this essay greatly.

I. Introduction The severity of the financial crisis of 2007-2009 has forced academics, regulators and policymakers to rethink contours of the current financial system. Calls for the greatest regulatory overhaul since the Great Depression have become common. Indeed, many observers, including ourselves, view the crisis first and foremost as a regulatory failure and are convinced that the current regulatory architecture -- the product of many ad-hoc responses to prior crises and antiquated in the face of the evolving structure and role of financial institutions -- is in need of repair. But regulation is a tricky business – the law of unintended consequences always applies. The wrong decisions may well make future crises more likely and more severe, while regulation that is too heavy-handed could stifle future financial efficiency and innovation.

While the current crisis has exposed multiple cracks in the financial system, the instinctive reaction of some is to call for a paradigm shift -- even blaming the nature of capitalism itself. In reality, the problem is far less dramatic. A good rule of thumb for designing effective regulation is to focus almost exclusively on the specific source of the market failures and evaluate robust ways of addressing these failures through regulatory interventions.

History can be a good guide here. Somewhat paradoxically, even though financial crises are rare, they are recurring phenomena, just like the business cycle.

Thus, it is possible to think about crises – and how to respond to them – in a systematic manner. What are the common causes of crises across their recurrences? Are there lessons to be learned from the crises of the past that can be helpful in the future? What responses to crises have been most successful? And based on these, what do we do next to try to improve stability without unduly undermining efficiency and innovation?

One view of the financial crisis of 2007-2009 has been that it illustrates the failure of the market-driven view of economic activity. In this view, the past decades of liberalizing markets, removing regulatory restrictions, and trusting markets to discipline themselves have had the unintended consequence of destabilizing the financial system.

A companion view is that we can best understand behavior in markets as behavioral phenomena – like herd behavior – where market participants all move in the same direction in waves of pessimism and optimism. And indeed, if one had to describe market behavior in terms of bubbles and collapses, this turns out to be a very useful description. But there is an important distinction to be made between description and explanation. The notion of herd behavior or “animal spirits” carries with it little, if any, positive prescription for policy.

A contrasting view is an analytical market-driven view that asks what the specific market failures were that led to the crisis, and paves the way for thinking about regulatory solutions that can address these failures. We argue in this essay that such an analytical view also provides a better positive explanation of the financial crisis.

The set of institutions that today provide the architecture for our financial system in the United States – the Federal Reserve System (Fed), the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) – all emerged over time in response to events, most often to past crises. Regulatory institutions that survive today exist because they turned out to be useful. They are seen to have contributed to the stability and growth of the U.S. financial markets for many decades. There were many other institutions that did not meet this test, either because they were ill-conceived from the beginning or because financial innovation rendered them obsolete.

Today, there is a strong desire to reform the surviving institutions, and there is some urgency to do so because of the enormous costs to society associated with their manifest failure in the current financial crisis. In this paper, we document the market failures that characterized the recent financial crisis and then develop a sensible set of policy responses to reform the regulatory landscape.

Section II reviews some of the historical precedents, panics and banking crises that got us to the environment we have today and that shaped the current regulatory system.

Section III describes the recent financial crisis in terms of specific market failures

as they relate to the following:

(i) the excessive risk-taking incentives of financial institutions when government guarantees are not priced or are mispriced;

–  –  –

In Section IV, we lay out some principles of regulation that address these

failures. Specifically, we propose the following regulation to address these issues:

The government guarantees in the system (e.g., deposit insurance, too-big to-fail, and implicit subsidies to hybrid financial intermediaries, such as the GSEs) need to be priced to align the risk-taking incentives of financial firms.

The systemic risk associated with actions of individual financial institutions • needs to be priced; that is, firms need to be forced to internalize the costs of the negative externalities imposed by their actions on the system as a whole.

Arguably, the leading candidate for the bottleneck that emerged in the • financial system was the over-the-counter (OTC) market for derivatives; we argue for much greater transparency in this market.

A key aspect of the crisis centered on runs in the wholesale funding markets • (asset-backed commercial paper, repurchase agreements, unsecured commercial paper, and unsecured inter-bank lending). We argue for liquidity requirements for financial institutions that are similar in spirit to the way capital requirements are imposed.

Section V illustrates, through a series of examples, that these principles are as relevant for emerging markets as they are to the global wholesale markets.

II. Lessons from Past Crises

Focusing for the moment on the United States during the 20 th century, it may be surprising to find that it has suffered a number of significant financial crises. Among them were the Panic of 1907, a severe contraction in 1921, the banking panic of the 1930s and the Great Depression, the failure of the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company in 1984, the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, and the Long-Term Capital Management crisis in 1998. We discuss several of these, in turn, to illustrate the relationship between market failure and financial regulation.

Table 1 provides a summary of our discussion. In brief, we argue that the financial regulation of the 1930s was successful to the extent that it addressed the main sources of market failure at the time, namely uncertainty about which institutions were insolvent. Financial crises began to recur in the 1980s. In contrast to the 1930s, however, the problems that arose in the more recent period – runs in the wholesale funding market, excessive risk-shifting and legal barriers to winding down institutions – were not repaired by regulatory responses. In hindsight, some of these regulatory failures sowed the seeds for the crisis of today, just as poor regulatory responses today could likely sow the seeds of crises tomorrow.

Table 1: Description of Five Financial Crises in the United States During the 20 th Century

–  –  –

The panic of 1907 was triggered in the “curbside” stock market that was organized outside of the formal confines of the New York Stock Exchange. Investors tried to corner the market in United Copper Company by executing a short squeeze.

Their scheme failed, and the price of United Copper plummeted. The same investors were also heavily involved with a number of banks and brokerages. When the United Copper play collapsed, it raised concerns about the safety of the banks that had lent to back their scheme. The panic spread and led to pressure on other banks, forcing a number of banks to close their doors and suspend operations.

The problem that faced the banks and financial markets more broadly was the inherent contradiction of fractional reserve banking. All of the institutions involved in the panic were engaged in intermediation of one form or another, with less than 100% reserves. When depositors became concerned and demanded their money back, even solvent financial institutions found their cash and gold reserves insufficient to meet demand. Drained of cash, they were forced to shut their doors. The institutions that had evolved endogenously (see Gorton 1985) to address the problems of temporary liquidity shortages were bank clearing house associations that pooled resources to provide liquidity in times of stress and performed many of the functions of a central bank.

However, two problems emerged in the Panic of 1907. The first was that private clearing house associations also faced the risk of default. The second was that some companies, notably the Trust Companies in New York, were not allowed to be members of the Clearing House Association due to the internecine rivalry between commercial banks and trust companies.

There were many important lessons to be derived from the Panic of 1907. First, fractional reserve banking is inherently precarious. Second, information on solvency (or lack thereof) of financial institutions is incredibly valuable but extremely difficult to gather, and at the time, no institution existed to provide it. Finally, a lender of last resort (LOLR) for solvent but illiquid institutions is needed for financial stability, but the private provision of that liquidity through the Clearing House Associations was ineffective when it was most needed.

In May 1908, Congress passed the Aldrich Vreeland Act that created something called the National Monetary Commission, Chaired by Senator Nelson Aldrich, whose mission was to study the underlying causes of the panic of 1907 and develop proposals to make such events less likely in the future. The final report of the National Monetary Commission was published on January 11, 1911. For nearly two years, legislators debated the proposal and it was not until December 22, 1913, that Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act. The bill was signed by President Woodrow Wilson on December 22, 1913, creating the Federal Reserve System.

The Federal Reserve has evolved over time and periodically has been severely challenged, notably in the 1930s and in the crisis of 2007-2009. But it has quite successfully served one of the critical purposes for which it was created, that is, the need for a credible lender of last resort facility. This was only a partial solution, however, since it failed to resolve the information problem of consumers who had to decide whether or not to join a run on a bank in the first place. It took the banking panics of the 1930s to focus additional attention on sources of instability other than illiquidity.

B. Lesson #2 -- The Banking Panic of the 1930s

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