Clearing up the banks

©Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

If the general consensus is correct-that the roots of global economic crisis are in the financial system-then it follows that to resolve the crisis the global financial governance and financial market regulation must be fixed.

Some reforms are being implemented, but if a targeted and thorough overhaul is put off, the authorities could leave flaws in place that could cause another crisis in the future.

This is one of the key concerns that emerges from a chapter in the latest edition of Financial Market Trends.* The cost of the crisis rose, the authors point out, because policy action failed to keep pace with the deterioration of bank assets. This led to insolvency and a sharp contraction of financial activity, which has hit the real economy.

Referring to past solvency crises, such as the US savings and loans problems of the 1980s, when the issuing of insurance and other guarantees proved ineffective against falling asset prices, and the 1990s' Japanese crisis, when keeping "zombie companies" on bank balance sheets became "selfdefeating", the report focuses on the three basic policy lessons: first, insure all relevant deposits during the crisis to prevent runs on banks; second, remove the "bad assets" from bank balance sheets; and third, recapitalise the asset-cleansed banks. The second step is crucial, the authors say, as deleveraging and uncertainty rise in a declining economy, impairing assets not previously at risk and causing the crisis to spread. Institutions that are not systemically important and cannot reasonably be saved, should be promptly closed or nationalised.

Only if bank assets are "cleansed" will private investors participate in the important third step of recapitalisation. As the report asks, why would investors buy any bank shares with hidden problems that hurt earnings in years to come?

Is it feasible to cleanse banks' balance sheets with available funds? And how much capital is needed for a healthy banking system? The report looks at these issues and concludes that off-balance-sheet activity not yet consolidated onto bank balance sheets, or disguised by financial engineering with derivatives, remains a concern. This concern is perhaps greatest in Europe, which is the strongest issuer of synthetic (derivative-based) collateralised loan and debt obligations.

The clear advice is that to address the impact on the real economy, policymakers must deal properly with the financial crisis first.

The financial market collapse has since spread to the real economy in what has become a vicious circle. Banks have cut lending, including to credit-worthy clients, while people losing their jobs have been unable to pay off debt, leading to further loan impairment, falls in asset prices, and so on.

Arresting the deleveraging process as quickly as possible is a priority, the report says, not least for small and medium-sized firms, which are major employers and depend on banks for raising capital. Fiscal spending helps too, but can take more time to get under way. And though the cost of the crisis must be borne by the taxpayer, steps are also needed to prevent anti-competitive market structures and protectionist sentiment.

Beyond the crisis, the authors are adamant about one thing: the design of crisis measures cannot be divorced from thinking about "exit" and the sustainability of the strategies undertaken. Budget deficits are projected to rise to some 9% of GDP in the OECD as a whole by 2010, with government gross financial liabilities-or public debt-expected to rise to around 100% of OECD GDP, up from 74.5% in 2007.

The guarantees, loans, purchases of assets and capital injections amount to 73.7% of GDP in the US, 47.5% in the UK, and around 20% in France and Germany, with far higher numbers in some smaller European countries. Budget deficits clearly have to be reduced and the loans, guarantees and investments on the public balance sheet have "to a very large extent" to be transferred to the private sector. But this "exit" process should not be rushed, the report warns, to avoid exacerbating the crisis, pointing out that the more policy actions are consistent with longrun goals, the more markets will judge these actions as credible. RJC

©OECD Observer No. 273, June 2009

References

OECD (2009), "Dealing with the Crisis and Thinking about the Exit Strategy", by Adrian Blundell-Wignall, Paul Atkinson and Lee Se-Hoon, Financial Market Trends 11/2009, No.96.

See also www.oecd.org/finance




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