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Can bank regulators and central banks prevent future liquidity crises?

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When the rivers run dry

Mar 6th 2008 | From The Economist print edition

Can bank regulators and central banks prevent future liquidity crises?

POLICYMAKERS and academics are still grappling with the causes and consequences of the credit crunch. One broad area of agreement is that ample “liquidity” encouraged the lax lending that led to bad mortgage debts, and a sudden dearth of it helped to precipitate the crisis. But what is liquidity, why does it suddenly evaporate and what can central banks and regulators do to ensure that its ebb and flow does not destabilise economies? This and much else is the subject of a special issue of the Bank of France's Financial Stability Review.

The essence of liquidity is the ability to raise ready money to meet pressing spending needs. A firm is liquid if it has enough cash to pay its suppliers and employees and finance its investment. This funding liquidity is linked to a second facet, market liquidity—the ease with which assets can be sold without losing their value. If financial markets were complete and perfectly liquid, firms and households could always raise cash by pledging their future earnings in return. Both funding and market liquidity rely on a big enough pool of monetary liquidity to draw upon. This is a third aspect of liquidity: the amount of central-bank money flowing around the economy.
Commercial banks play a vital role in providing liquidity. They furnish ready cash to households and firms in exchange for pledges of future income, such as mortgages and loans. Banks make their profits from bearing liquidity risk (holding on to long-term pledges that cannot easily be sold), as well as from credit risk (the danger that such promises may not be kept). The two sources of risk are linked, since the greater the uncertainty about the creditworthiness of borrowers, the harder it is to sell on their loans to a third party. Banks can minimise their credit risk by vetting borrowers carefully. It is trickier to limit liquidity risk, which depends on the willingness of others to trade in markets.
Banks are not the only source of liquidity of course. Large firms can raise funds by selling bonds or shares directly to savers in the capital markets. Banks themselves have sold on bundles of their loans as securities. For a while, indeed, the securitisation boom made the old textbook role of banks seem somewhat redundant. But one of the lessons of the credit crunch is that banks are still important underwriters of liquidity when markets dry up. When investors began to turn their nose up at securities linked to souring subprime mortgages and other risky loans, banks ended up financing them.
That has been one of the main causes of the convulsions in interbank lending markets, a usually humdrum corner of the financial system which once again is showing signs of strain. In normal times, banks share their cash reserves with each other through short-term loans at interest rates that should closely track the policy rates set by central banks. Since the crisis broke, interbank lending rates have sometimes been unusually high compared with policy rates. Again this week they were signalling that banks may be hoarding liquidity—either because they are worried about their rivals' exposure to dodgy loans, or because they do not want to be caught out in the scramble for cash.
Throughout the crisis central banks have sought to iron out these kinks. At first they offered emergency lending facilities, but banks were reluctant to tap them, because of the stigma attached. To counter the strains in money markets, central banks in America and Britain decided to ease the terms of their lending to all commercial banks. Interbank borrowing costs eased over the new year after the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Federal Reserve injected $660 billion between them into money markets. If interbank spreads continue to widen, the ECB, the Fed and other central banks may have to intervene once again.

Prevention or cure?

Given these recurrent tensions in the market, how might future liquidity shocks be prevented or, at least, coped with? The proposals in the Bank of France's symposium have two broad thrusts. The first says that central banks should get their hands dirtier during liquidity crises. Andrew Crockett, a former head of the Bank for International Settlements, thinks central banks should broaden the range of collateral they accept when they supply cash to commercial banks. This would make it easier to soothe funding pressures in money markets. It would also improve market liquidity for assets eligible as security for central-bank money, to the benefit of overall financial stability.

The second, more orthodox, proposal is for tougher regulation of banks' liquidity. Holding low-yielding liquid assets is costly for commercial banks. They are reluctant to forgo profitable lending just to protect themselves against the remote chances of a liquidity shock—especially when, in a crisis, the central bank is likely to step in with extra cash. For these reasons banks should be encouraged to consider more seriously the liquidity of their loans as well as their default risk.

There is something complementary about these two proposals. The bigger the role that central banks have in offering liquidity support, the less commercial banks need to worry about their liquidity risk—which is why tougher regulation of liquidity is required. The worry is that an overly liberal collateral regime could displace private markets and their discipline; the ECB, for instance, which accepts a broad range of collateral, is believed to have taken some undesirable securities that could not easily be funded elsewhere. The offer of liquidity insurance may influence the price of the affected private-sector assets; it would also discourage private rescuers from holding liquidity by making fire-sales less likely. Why, finally, should the state offer broad liquidity insurance: isn't that what commercial banks are for?

The Fed is delaying the day of reckoning

By Charles Wyplosz | The Financial Times

Published: March 12 2008 16:39 | Last updated: March 12 2008 16:39

In 1971, with the greenback weak and falling, US Treasury secretary John Connally famously told the rest of the world that the US dollar was “our currency and your problem”. Thirty years later, with the dollar strong and still rising, Robert Rubin, his successor, no less famously stated that “a strong dollar is in the interest of the United States”.
These days, because the dollar is weak and falling, we would have expected US officials to return to Connally’s mantra but they unexpectedly chose Rubin’s. On reflection, glorifying a strong dollar when it is so weak means they do not care. Connally without compassion, if you prefer.
Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, is thereby left bemoaning “excessive exchange rate moves”. This, too, is an extraordinary statement. In the past week the dollar has barely lost 1 per cent vis a vis the euro. That is significant, but “excessive”? Yes, he may be reacting to the 6 per cent dollar depreciation in the past month. Or to the 17 per cent change over the past 12 months. Or perhaps the 31 per cent depreciation since the dollar was last strongish in late November 2005.
Well, currencies float. They are bound to be sometimes overvalued and sometimes undervalued. This is what they do and these numbers are not especially large by historical standards. Margaret Thatcher, former UK prime minister, was right when she said that exchange rates were a matter for markets to decide.
Of course, markets react to monetary policies. As the US economy faces a recession, a weak dollar is in the country’s interests. As inflation exceeds its own definition of price stability, a strong euro is in the interests of the eurozone. End of story? Not quite.
We are witnessing one of those instances when the monetary authorities are not co-operating with each other. Co-ordinated emergency loans – with dubious soothing effects – hit the front lines, but they leave national monetary policies out of the equation. This raises two questions.
First, is one side needlessly creating hardships for the other? If Mr Trichet thinks the US Federal Reserve is overreacting, he has a point. Economic conditions surely call for medicine, but the speed and scope of monetary easing is unheard of.
More worrisome is that it may not be the right medicine. One ill is the bursting of the housing bubble, which is partly the consequence of the subprime folly of past years. Driving the interest rate to the floor will not solve the problem.
Another ill is the continuing difficulty faced by banks as a consequence of reckless lending and poor investment judgment. The rebound of anxiety in the past few days amply demonstrates that massive easing of monetary policy is not working.
The banking problem calls for surgical treatment, not interest rate Band-Aids. Certainly, surgery may result in bank failures. The time for administering painkillers will come after the operation, not before. Right now, the Fed is delaying the day of reckoning and, in the process, exporting the US’s problems by adopting policies that, intentionally or not, weaken the dollar.
The second question is what co-operation could look like in the remote eventuality that it is seriously considered. Should the ECB also lower its interest rates?
A case could be made that Europe will have to support demand for US goods and services anyway. This is currently done by knocking off European competitiveness, in effect spreading recessionary forces across the Atlantic. It would seem much better to lower interest rates in Europe and support the US economy with a strong European economy.
The problem is inflation. Bad luck has it that most primary commodity and food prices have risen at this most inauspicious time. The Fed has obviously chosen to risk letting the inflation genie out of the bottle, and is probably betting on the economic slowdown to keep the cork in place. Should the ECB follow suit?
Assume it does. The hope is that this would restart growth in the eurozone and simultaneously strengthen the dollar. Another scenario is as plausible, however. European banks, too, suffer from their own mista-kes, so the lower interest rate may fail to produce the expected boost.
Alternatively the markets, enchanted by a possible resumption of growth in Europe, could push the euro even higher. Thus we would ask the ECB to take the risk of rekindling inflation, or simply of giving the impression that it does not care about inflation, in exchange for highly uncertain results. One does not have to be pathologically prudent to turn down that option.
In the end, exchange rates fluctuate, pretty much as they should under the circumstances, and seem to capture attention while financial institutions wobble but manage to escape the wrath of their supervisors. The authorities should co-operate, yes, but where it matters.

El efecto mariposa

ÁNGE LUBIDE | EL PAÍS | 19/03/2008
Este fin de semana se anunció la compra de Bear Stearns por JP Morgan al precio de dos dólares por acción, tras haber cerrado el viernes a 30 dólares por acción. El precio de la adquisición fue de 240 millones de dólares, muy inferior al valor de tan sólo los inmuebles de la firma, e incluía un préstamo de la Fed de 30.000 millones de dólares para financiar activos de incierta calidad. A su vez, la Reserva Federal redujo el domingo por la tarde el tipo de descuento en 25 puntos y anunció una nueva ventanilla donde tendrán acceso a prestamos de cuantía ilimitada, por primera vez en la historia, los bancos de inversión, durante un periodo de al menos seis meses, argumentado para ello la existencia de circunstancias "exigentes e inusuales". Esto se une a la larga lista de medidas destinadas a mejorar la liquidez del sistema financiero americano y a las múltiples bajadas de tipos -300 puntos básicos- desde septiembre. La salud del sistema financiero americano se ha deteriorado rápidamente y el riesgo de una crisis bancaria ha aumentado significativamente.
Al igual que el batir de las alas de una mariposa puede generar un temporal en otra parte del mundo, el fiasco de las hipotecas subprime y el colapso de la titulización han generado un vendaval financiero. La clave para entender la gravedad de la situación es el fenómeno del cisne negro: los cisnes negros en teoría no existen, hasta que aparece el primero. De la misma manera, los activos con un rating AAA en teoría deberían tener un riesgo asociado muy bajo y sus spreads nunca deberían aumentar demasiado. Con esta premisa, bancos y fondos de inversión invirtieron en los últimos años en estos activos con altísimos niveles de apalancamiento -para extraer un retorno adecuado de un activo con un spread muy bajo hay que comprar una gran cantidad-.
Sin embargo, en los últimos meses ha aparecido el cisne negro: múltiples activos con rating AAA, sobre todo derivados hipotecarios y crediticios, han experimentado violentas variaciones de precios, generando enormes pérdidas -ya que las cantidades invertidas eran inmensas- y forzando la liquidación de carteras que a su vez han creado ulterior presión bajista a los precios de los activos. Lo que nunca debería suceder ha sucedido, y la "seguridad" asociada al rating AAA se ha convertido en una trampa.
Las pérdidas asociadas a este evento inesperado han mermado el capital de bancos y fondos de inversión e iniciado un proceso de liquidación que ha puesto en jaque a las partes más débiles y expuestas del sistema financiero. Los bancos han reducido o incluso eliminado líneas de crédito, se han aumentado los descuentos sobre el colateral, incluso el de mayor calidad como los bonos soberanos, y la desconfianza se ha agigantado. El resultado, una crisis sistémica que se ha cobrado varios fondos y Bear Stearns como víctimas.
La Fed ha desplegado todas sus armas para contener el deterioro del sistema financiero: reducciones drásticas de tipos, inyecciones de liquidez a cambio de colateral de mayor riesgo, y podría incluso adquirir activos hipotecarios directamente. Con la Fed ejerciendo de prestamista de última instancia el mercado de crédito se ha estabilizado un poco, y ha llegado el turno de la política fiscal. Limitado por un elevadísimo déficit por cuenta corriente que ha mermado el ahorro privado doméstico, Estados Unidos necesita una infusión de capital, ya sea público o extranjero. El proyecto de ley del congresista Barney Frank, que serviría para reestructurar las hipotecas de más de un millón de personas que deben más que el valor de sus viviendas y, por tanto, reduciría el volumen de reposesiones inmobiliarias, puede servir para frenar el deterioro del mercado de la vivienda y poner fin a la sangría de pérdidas del sector financiero.
Estados Unidos ha tenido la suerte de no tener que aumentar los tipos de interés para defender su moneda, como sucedió durante las crisis gemelas de los noventa, y por tanto el impacto sobre la economía real será menor. Pero la aritmética económica no deja lugar para milagros: la resolución de la crisis requiere el uso urgente de dinero público para frenar el deterioro inmobiliario, recapitalizar el sistema, y reconstruir la confianza. Y esto requerirá, a su vez, controlar el dólar. Reconocer la existencia del problema es el primer paso para su resolución, y el tiempo apremia.

Emergencia americana

EL PAÍS | EDITORIAL | 19/03/2008

Con independencia del desenlace de la crisis financiera en EE UU, no puede decirse que la Reserva Federal no esté haciendo todo lo posible por neutralizarla. Cuestión distinta es que acabe teniendo éxito. La nueva reducción de 0,75 puntos en los tipos de interés sobre los fondos federales, hasta situarlos en el 2,25%, es la última de un rosario de medidas que difícilmente acabará con el vía crucis que está atravesando aquel sistema financiero. Y, por extensión, el de la mayoría de las economías del mundo.

La crisis de las hipotecas subprime ha quebrantado la confianza en el conjunto de las instituciones financieras. Las cuantiosas pérdidas de algunas de ellas justifican parcialmente ese temor, pero la insuficiencia de información sobre su estado sigue bloqueando las transacciones en los mercados mayoristas. La ausencia de liquidez extiende las dificultades a los bancos inicialmente solventes. El crédito al sector real de las economías se resiente y, con él, el crecimiento y el empleo. Los inversores huyen de los activos financieros con algo de riesgo y su precio se precipita arrastrando a la moneda que los denomina, el dólar.

La amenaza de recesión es lo que ha llevado a la Reserva Federal a desplegar una amplia batería de actuaciones innovadoras y no exentas de controversia: masivas inyecciones de liquidez, creación de nuevas modalidades de subasta, ampliación de las posibilidades de descuento, reducciones de tipos de interés o incluso la participación directa en el salvamento del banco de inversión Bearn Stearn. Algunas son medidas no previstas en su estatuto y otras constituyen un apoyo concreto a entidades; todas, en definitiva, expresan una gran flexibilidad y demuestran que se ha arrumbado la ortodoxia para evitar males mayores. Que quiebre alguna de las grandes instituciones financieras es uno de esos males a evitar para EE UU y para el resto del mundo.

No es necesario un desenlace de semejantes proporciones para que el impacto de esta crisis financiera en Europa sea más severo del observado hasta ahora. Por eso llama la atención la relativa indiferencia que exhiben las autoridades económicas de la región, incluido el Banco Central Europeo (BCE). Además del impacto sobre la actividad económica, particularmente la inversión, el conjunto del sistema bancario europeo puede verse afectado si los problemas persisten al otro lado del Atlántico. Y no hay indicios de que hayan acabado.

La demostrada solvencia del sistema bancario español no significa que sus entidades estén a salvo de la intensificación de los problemas de liquidez si la confianza no se restaura. Ya se da por descontado que la intensa apelación que han hecho en los últimos años a la captación de crédito exterior no podrá mantener su ritmo. La cuestión más relevante es arbitrar las actuaciones necesarias para, al menos, no colapsar el moderado crecimiento de la inversión en el sector privado.

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