Last Friday, Mark Thoma wrote a guest post for The Hearing arguing that the “shadow banking system” was a significant contributor to the financial crisis and needed to be regulated. This prompted a series of posts either attacking or defending his position; for a rundown, see today’s Hearing post.
For now, I just want to highlight the analysis by Mike at Rortybomb (hat tip Mark Thoma). (Those who have read Gary Gorton’s new paper can probably skip this post.) Mike points out that people mean at least three different things by “shadow banking system:”
1) Subprime lenders, who were not subject to the same regulatory burden as depository institutions.
2) A market that trades “informationally insensitive” debt as the result of the repo market and securitized debt as collateral. Where depositors are corporations and money market funds and where lenders are financial firms.
3) Traditional firms who took big bets in the investment markets while their regulators were not present or asleep at the wheel.
For Mike, #2 is the the one that matters. Here’s his explanation:
A bank is, in abstract, an institution that borrowers short and lends long.
Your local bank borrows short deposits and lends long investments. If it needs liquidity it can always go to the central bank’s discount window. The central bank’s discount window is the market maker of last resort for this banking system. [Regulated banks can always borrow money from the Fed at a pre-set interest rate, so they always have access to cash.] This prevents bank runs. In exchange it is regulated by the government.
Your local shadow bank took in money in the repo market as deposits, and used senior tranches of debt as the collateral. Now what happens when it needs liquidity? There is no market maker of last resort who the system as a whole could turn to. Repeat that again. It exists in the shadows, there is nowhere to turn to for emergency liquidity. There is no regulation/liquidity tradeoff here. This is what is meant by being unregulated – not that there weren’t any government agents in sight.
I’ll take that last paragraph a little slower. A repo, or repurchase agreement, is a transaction where one party (the “shadow bank”) sells some securities to another party (the “depositor”) in exchange for cash and simultaneously agrees to buy those securities back at a predetermined (higher) price at some date in the (near) future (like tomorrow). In effect, the depositor is lending cash to the shadow bank, and holding the securities as collateral; the difference in the two prices is the interest. It wants the collateral because nothing else is guaranteeing its loan to the shadow bank (as opposed to ordinary FDIC-insured deposits). The collateral is generally worth at least as much as the amount of the loan, to minimize the risk to the depositor; but the remaining risk is that the shadow bank won’t make good on the repo and the collateral will fall in value.
Why would this happen? The depositors do it because they get higher interest rates than they can get in an ordinary deposit account at a commercial bank. Why would the shadow bank offer higher interest rates? It wants to attract the cash so it can lend it out at a yet higher interest rate (”lend” here could mean buying up subprime mortgages to package into securities that are then used as the collateral for more repurchase agreements to start the cycle again); it doesn’t want to become a commercial bank because commercial banks were traditionally more highly regulated. For example, the major commercial banks were significantly less leveraged than the investment banks during the boom.
The problem that Mike highlights is that there was no liquidity backstop for the shadow banking system. So when the “depositors” got nervous about investment banks like Bear Stearns, they refused to roll over their repo agreements (that is, when the shadow bank closed a repo by buying back the securities, the depositor refused to lend new cash via a new repo), or they imposed a larger “haircut” – they lent less cash for the same amount of collateral. The result is a bank run – only this time the run is on the shadow bank. (Gorton focuses on a slightly different problem, which is that when the same collateral doesn’t bring in as much cash, you have to shrink your balance sheet by dumping assets.)
Mike’s analysis draws heavily on Gorton’s paper, which is helpfully summarized by Ezra Klein. The basic conclusion of both Mike and Gorton is that banking systems need to be reliable, the shadow banking system is a banking system, and hence the shadow banking system must be regulated to some degree. Robert Lucas, quoted in Mike’s post, puts it well:
The regulatory problem that needs to be solved is roughly this: The public needs a conveniently provided medium of exchange that is free of default risk or “bank runs.” The best way to achieve this would be to have a competitive banking system with government-insured deposits.
But this can only work if the assets held by these banks are tightly regulated. If such an equilibrium could be reached, it would still be possible for an institution outside this regulated system to offer deposits that are only slightly more risky but that also pay a higher return than deposits at the regulated banks. Some consumers and firms will find this attractive and switch their deposits. But if everyone does, the regulations will no longer protect anyone. The regulatory structure designed in the 1930s seemed to solve this problem for 60 years, but something else will be needed for the next 60.