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December 04, 2013

Is (Risk) Sharing Always a Virtue?

The financial system cannot be made completely safe because it exists to allocate funds to inherently risky projects in the real economy. Thus, an important question for policymakers is how best to structure the financial system to absorb these losses while minimizing the risk that financial sector failures will impair the real economy.

Standard theories would predict that one good way of reducing financial sector risk is diversification. For example, the financial system could be structured to facilitate the development of large banks, a point often made by advocates for big banks such as Steve Bartlett. Another, not mutually exclusive, way of enhancing diversification is to create a system that shares risks across banks. An example is the Dodd-Frank Act mandate requiring formerly over-the-counter derivatives transactions to be centrally cleared.
However, do these conclusions based on individual bank stability necessarily imply that risk sharing will make the financial system safer? Is it even relevant to the principal risks facing the financial system? Some of the papers presented at the recent Atlanta Fed conference, "Indices of Riskiness: Management and Regulatory Implications," broadly addressed these questions and others. Other papers discuss the impact of bank distress on local economies, methods of predicting bank failure, and various aspects of incentive compensation paid to bankers (which I discuss in a recent Notes from the Vault).

The stability implications of greater risk sharing across banks are explored in "Systemic Risk and Stability in Financial Networks" by Daron Acemoglu, Asuman Ozdaglar, and Alireza Tahbaz-Salehi. They develop a theoretical model of risk sharing in networks of banks. The most relevant comparison they draw is between what they call a "complete financial network" (maximum possible diversification) and a "weakly connected" network in which there is substantial risk sharing between pairs of banks but very little risk sharing outside the individual pairs. Consistent with the standard view of diversification, the complete networks experience few, if any, failures when individual banks are subject to small shocks, but some pairs of banks do fail in the weakly connected networks. However, at some point the losses become so large that the complete network undergoes a phase transition, spreading the losses in a way that causes the failure of more banks than would have occurred with less risk sharing.

Extrapolating from this paper, one could imagine that risk sharing could induce a false sense of security that would ultimately make a financial system substantially less stable. At first a more interconnected system shrugs off smaller shocks with seemingly no adverse impact. This leads bankers and policymakers to believe that the system can handle even more risk because it has become more stable. However, at some point the increased risk taking leads to losses sufficiently large to trigger a phase transition, and the system proves to be even less stable than it was with weaker interconnections.

While interconnections between financial firms are a theoretically important determinant of contagion, how important are these connections in practice? "Financial Firm Bankruptcy and Contagion," by Jean Helwege and Gaiyan Zhang, analyzes the spillovers from distressed and failing financial firms from 1980 to 2010. Looking at the financial firms that failed, they find that counterparty risk exposure (the interconnections) tend to be small, with no single exposure above $2 billion and the average a mere $53.4 million. They note that these small exposures are consistent with regulations that limit banks' exposure to any single counterparty. They then look at information contagion, in which the disclosure of distress at one financial firm may signal adverse information about the quality of a rival's assets. They find that the effect of these signals is comparable to that found for direct credit exposure.

Helwege and Zhang's results suggest that we should be at least as concerned about separate banks' exposure to an adverse shock that hits all of their assets as we should be about losses that are shared through bank networks. One possible common shock is the likely increase in the level and slope of the term structure as the Federal Reserve begins tapering its asset purchases and starts a process ultimately leading to the normalization of short-term interest rate setting. Although historical data cannot directly address banks' current exposure to such shocks, such data can provide evidence on banks' past exposure. William B. English, Skander J. Van den Heuvel, and Egon Zakrajšek presented evidence on this exposure in the paper "Interest Rate Risk and Bank Equity Valuations." They find a significant decrease in bank stock prices in response to an unexpected increase in the level or slope of the term structure. The response to slope increases (likely the primary effect of tapering) is somewhat attenuated at banks with large maturity gaps. One explanation for this finding is that these banks may partially recover their current losses with gains they will accrue when booking new assets (funded by shorter-term liabilities).

Overall, the papers presented in this part of the conference suggest that more risk sharing among financial institutions is not necessarily always better. Even though it may provide the appearance of increased stability in response to small shocks, the system is becoming less robust to larger shocks. However, it also suggests that shared exposures to a common risk are likely to present at least as an important a threat to financial stability as interconnections among financial firms, especially as the term structure and the overall economy respond to the eventual return to normal monetary policy. Along these lines, I recently offered some thoughts on how to reduce the risk of large widespread losses due to exposures to a common (credit) risk factor.

Photo of Larry WallBy Larry Wall, director of the Atlanta Fed's Center for Financial Innovation and Stability


Note: The conference "Indices of Riskiness: Management and Regulatory Implications" was organized by Glenn Harrison (Georgia State University's Center for the Economic Analysis of Risk), Jean-Charles Rochet, (University of Zurich), Markus Sticker, Dirk Tasche (Bank of England, Prudential Regulatory Authority), and Larry Wall (the Atlanta Fed's Center for Financial Innovation and Stability).

December 4, 2013 in Banking, Financial System | Permalink


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