Is the financial system as resilient as policymakers say?

This is the question that Sir Paul Tucker poses in a BIS Working Paper titled “Is the financial system sufficiently resilient: a research programme and policy agenda” (BIS WP790) and answers in the negative. Tucker’s current role as Chair of the Systemic Risk Council and his experience as Deputy Governor at the Bank of England from 2009 to 2013 suggests that, whether you agree or disagree, it is worth reading what he has to say.

Tucker is quick to acknowledge that his assessment is “… intended to jolt the reader” and recognises that he risks “… overstating weaknesses given the huge improvements in the regulatory regime since 2007/08”. The paper sets out why Tucker believes the financial system is not as resilient as claimed, together with his proposed research and policy agenda for achieving a financial system that is sufficiently resilient.

Some of what he writes is familiar ground but three themes I found especially interesting were:

  1. The extent to which recourse by monetary policy to very low interest rates exposes the financial system to a cyclically higher level of systemic risk that should be factored into the resilience target;
  2. The need to formulate what Tucker refers to as a “Money Credit Constitution” ; and
  3. The idea of using “information insensitivity” for certain agreed “safe assets” as the target state of resilience for the system.

Financial stability is of course one of those topics that only true die hard bank capital tragics delve into. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) demonstrated, however, that financial stability and the resilience of the banking system is also one of those topics that impacts every day life if the technocrats get it wrong. I have made some more detailed notes on the paper here for the technically inclined while this post will attempt (and likely fail) to make the issues raised accessible for those who don’t want to read BIS working papers.

Of the three themes listed above, “information insensitivity” is the one that I would call out in particular. It is admittedly a bit clunky as a catch phrase but I do believe it is worth investing the time to understand what it means and what it implies for how the financial system should be regulated and supervised. I have touched on the concept in a couple of previous posts (here, here, and here) and, as I worked through this post, I also found some interesting overlaps with the idea introduced by the Australian Financial System Inquiry that systemically important banks should be required to be “unquestionably strong”.

How resilient is the financial system?

Tucker’s assessment is that Basel III has made the financial system a lot safer than it was but less resilient than claimed. This is because the original calibration of the higher capital requirements under Basel III did not allow for the way in which any subsequent reduction in interest rates means that monetary policy has less scope to help mitigate economic downturns. All other things being equal, any future stress will have a larger impact on the financial system because monetary policy will have less capacity to stimulate the economy.

We could quibble over details:

  • The extent to which the capital requirements have been increased by higher Risk Weights applied to exposures (Tucker is more concerned with the extent to which capital requirements get weakened over time in response to industry lobbying)
  • Why is this not captured in stress testing?
  • The way in which cyclical buffers could (and arguably should) be used to offset this inherent cyclical risk in the financial system.

But his bigger point sounds intuitively right, all other things being equal, low interest rates mean that central banks will have much less scope to stimulate the economy via monetary policy. It follows that the financial system is systemically riskier at this point in time than historical experience with economic downturns might suggest.

How should we respond (in principle)?

One response is common equity and lots of it. That is what is advocated by some academic commentators , influential former central bankers such as Adair Turner and Mervyn King, and most recently by the RBNZ (with respect to the quantum and the form of capital.

Tucker argues that the increased equity requirements agreed under Basel III are necessary, but not sufficient. His point here is broader than the need to allow for changes in monetary policy discussed above. His concern is what does it take to achieve the desired level of resilience in a financial system that has fractional reserve banking at its core.

”Maintaining a resilient system cannot sanely rely on crushing the probability of distress via prophylactic regulation and supervision: a strategy that confronts the Gods in its technocratic arrogance. Instead, low barriers to entry, credible resolution regimes and crisis-management tools must combine to ensure that the system can keep going through distress. That is different from arguing that equity requirements (E) can be relaxed if resolution plans become sufficiently credible. Rather, it amounts to saying that E would need to be much higher than now if resolution is not credible.”

“Is the Financial system sufficiently resilient: a research programme and policy agenda” BIS WP 790, p 23

That is Tucker’s personal view expressed in the conclusion to the paper but he also advocates that unelected technicians need to frame the question [of target resilience] in a digestible way for politicians and public debate“. It is especially important that the non-technical people understand the extent to which there may be trade-offs in the choice of how resilient the financial system should be. Is there, for example, a trade-off between resilience and the dynamism of the financial system that drives its capacity to support innovation, competition and growth? Do the resource misallocations associated with credit and property price booms damage the long run growth of the economy? And so on …

Turner offers a first pass at how this problem might be presented to a non-technical audience:

Staying with crisp oversimplification, I think the problem can be put as follows:

• Economists and policymakers do not know much about this. Models and empirics are needed.

• Plausibly, as BIS research suggests, credit and property price booms lead resource misallocation booms? Does that damage long-run growth?

• Even if it does, might those effects be offset by net benefits from greater entrepreneurship during booms?

• Would tough resilience policies constrain capital markets in ways that impede the allocation of resources to risky projects and so growth?

If there is a long-run trade off, then where people are averse to boom-bust ‘cycles’, resilience will be higher and growth lower. By contrast, jurisdictions that care more about growth and dynamism will err on the side of setting the resilience standard too low.

BIS WP790, Page 5

He acknowledges there are no easy answers but asking the right questions is obviously a good place to start.

A “Money-Credit Constitution”

In addition to helping frame the broader parameters of the problem for public debate, central bankers also need to decide what their roles and responsibilities in the financial system should be. Enter the idea of a Money-Credit Constitution (MCC). I have to confess that this was a new bit of jargon for me and I had to do a bit of research to be sure that I knew what Tucker means by it. The concept digs down into the technical aspects of central banking but it also highlights the extent to which unelected technocrats have been delegated a great deal of power by the electorate. I interpret Tucker’s use of the term “constitution”as an allusion to the need for the terms on which this power is exercised to be defined and more broadly understood.

A Money-Credit Constitution defined:

“By that I mean rules of the game for both banking and central banking designed to ensure broad monetary stability, understood as having two components: stability in the value of central bank money in terms of goods and services, and also stability of private-banking-system deposit money in terms of central bank money.”

Chapter 1: How can central banks deliver credible commitment and be “Emergency Institutions”? by John Tucker in “Central Bank Governance and Oversight Reform, edited by Cochrane and Taylor (2016)

The jargon initially obscured the idea (for me at least) but some practical examples helped clarify what he was getting at. Tucker defines the 19th and early 20th century MCC as comprising; the Gold Standard, reserve requirements for private banks and the Lender of Last Resort (LOLR) function provided by the central bank. The rules of the game (or MCC) have of course evolved over time. In the two to three decades preceding the 2008 GFC, the rules of the game incorporated central bank independence, inflation targeting and a belief in market efficiency/discipline. Key elements of that consensus were found to be woefully inadequate and we are in the process of building a new set of rules.

Tucker proposes that a MCC that is fit for the purpose of achieving an efficient and resilient financial system should have five key components:

– a target for inflation (or some other nominal magnitude);

– a requirement for banking intermediaries to hold reserves (or assets readily exchanged for reserves) that increases with a firm’s leverage and/or the degree of liquidity mismatch between its assets and liabilities;

– a liquidity-reinsurance regime for fundamentally solvent banking intermediaries;

– a resolution regime for bankrupt banks and other financial firms; and

– constraints on how far the central bank is free to pursue its mandate and structure its balance sheet, given that a monetary authority by definition has latent fiscal capabilities.

BIS WP, Page 9

In one sense, the chosen resilience strategy for the financial system is simply determined by the combination of the capital and liquidity requirements imposed on private banks. We are using the term capital here in its broadest sense to incorporate not just common equity but also the various forms of hybrid equity and subordinated debt that can be converted into equity without disrupting the financial system.

But Tucker argues that there is a bigger question of strategy that must be addressed; that is

“whether to place the regime’s weight on regulatory requirements that impose intrinsic resilience on bank balance sheets or on credible crisis management that delivers safety ex post. It is a choice with very different implications for transparency.”

BIS WP 790; Page 11

Two alternative strategies for achieving a target state of financial system resilience

Strategy 1: Crisis prevention (or mitigation at least)

The first strategy is essentially an extension of what we have already been doing for some time; a combination of capital and liquidity requirements that limits the risk of financial crisis to some pre-determined acceptable level.

“… authorities set a regulatory minimum they think will be adequate in most circumstances and supervise intermediaries to check whether they are exposed to outsized risks.

BIS WP 790, Page 11

Capital and liquidity requirements were increased under Basel III but there was nothing fundamentally new in this part of the Basel III package. Tucker argues that the standard of resilience adopted should be explicit rather than implicit but he still doubts that this strategy is robust. His primary concern seems to be the risk that the standard of resilience is gradually diluted by a series of small concessions that only the technocrats understand.

How did we know that firms are really satisfying the standard: is it enough that they say so? And how do we know that the authorities themselves have not quietly diluted or abandoned the standard?”

BIS WP 790; Page 11

Tucker has ideas for how this risk of regulatory capture might be controlled:

  each year central bank staff (not policymakers) should publish a complete statement of all relaxations and tightenings of regulatory and supervisory policy (including in stress testing models, rules, idiosyncratic requirements, and so on)

  the integrity of such assessments should be subject to external audit of some kind (possibly by the central auditor for the state).

BIS WP 790, Page 12

but this is still a second best approach in his assessment; he argues that we can do better and the idea of making certain assets “informationally insensitive” is the organising principle driving the alternative strategies he lays out.

Strategy 2: Making assets informationally insensitive via crisis-management regimes

Tucker identifies two approaches to crisis management both based around the objective of ensuring that the value of certain agreed liabilities, issued by a defined and pre-determined set of financial intermediaries, is insensitive to information about the financial condition of these intermediaries:

Strategy 2a: Integrate LOLR with liquidity policy.

Central bankers, as the suppliers of emergency liquidity assistance, could make short term liabilities informationally insensitive by requiring banks to hold reserves or eligible collateral against all runnable liabilities. Banks would be required to cover “x”% of short term liabilities with reserves and/or eligible collateral. The key policy choices then become

  • The definition of which short term liabilities drive the liquidity requirement;
  • The instruments that would be eligible collateral for liquidity assistance; and
  • The level of haircuts set by central banks against eligible collateral

What Tucker is outlining here is a variation on a proposal that Mervyn King set out in his book “The End of Alchemy” which I covered in a previous post. These haircuts operate broadly analogously to the existing risk-weighted equity requirements. Given the focus on emergency requirements, they would be based on stress testing and incorporate systemic risk surcharges.

Tucker is not however completely convinced by this approach:

“… a policy of completely covering short-term labilities with central bank-eligible assets would leave uninsured short-term liabilities safe only when a bank was sound. They would not be safe when a bank was fundamentally unsound.

That is because central banks should not (and in many jurisdictions cannot legally) lend to banks that have negative net assets (since LOLR assistance would allow some short-term creditors to escape whole at the expense of equally ranked longer-term creditors). This is the MCC’s financial-stability counterpart to the “no monetary financing” precept for price stability.

Since only insured-deposit liabilities, not covered but uninsured liabilities, are then safe ex post, uninsured liability holders have incentives to run before the shutters come down, making their claims information sensitive after all.

More generally, the lower E, the more frequently banks will fail when the central bank is, perforce, on the sidelines. This would appear to take us back, then, to the regulation and supervision of capital adequacy, but in a way that helps to keep our minds on delivering safety ex post and so information insensitivity ex ante.”

BIS WP 790, Page 14

Strategy 2b: Resolution policy – Making operational liabilities informationally insensitive via structure

Tucker argues that the objective of resolution policy can be interpreted as making the operational liabilities of banks, dealers and other intermediaries “informationally insensitive”. He defines “operational liabilities” as “… those liabilities that are intrinsically bound to the provision of a service (eg large deposit balances, derivative transactions) or the receipt of a service (eg trade creditors) rather than liabilities that reflect a purely risk-based financial investment by the creditor and a source of funding/leverage for the bank or dealer”

Tucker proposes that this separation of operational liabilities from purely financial liabilities can be “… made feasible through a combination of bail-in powers for the authorities and, crucially, restructuring large and complex financial groups to have pure holding companies that issue the bonds to be bailed-in” (emphasis added).

Tucker sets out his argument for structural subordination as follows.

“…provided that the ailing operating companies (opcos) can be recapitalised through a conversion of debt issued to holdco …., the opcos never default and so do not go into a bankruptcy or resolution process. While there might be run once the cause of the distress is revealed, the central bank can lend to the recapitalised opco …

This turns on creditors and counterparties of opcos caring only about the sufficiency of the bonds issued to the holdco; they do not especially care about any subsequent resolution of the holding company. That is not achieved, however, where the bonds to be bailed in … are not structurally subordinated. In that respect, some major jurisdictions seem to have fallen short:

  Many European countries have opted not to adopt structural subordination, but instead have gone for statutory subordination (eg Germany) or contractual subordination (eg France).

  In consequence, a failing opco will go into resolution

  This entails uncertainty for opco liability holders given the risk of legal challenge etc

  Therefore, opco liabilities under those regimes will not be as informationally insensitive as would have been possible.

BIS WP 790, Page 15

While structural subordination is Tucker’s preferred approach, his main point is that the solution adopted should render operational liabilities informationally insensitive:

“….the choice between structural, statutory and contractual subordination should be seen not narrowly in terms of simply being able to write down and/or convert deeply subordinated debt into equity, but rather more broadly in terms of rendering the liabilities of operating intermediaries informationally insensitive. The information that investors and creditors need is not the minutiae of the banking business but the corporate finance structure that enables resolution without opcos formally defaulting or going into a resolution process themselves

BIS WP 790 , Pages 15-16

If jurisdictions choose to stick with contractual or statutory subordination, Tucker proposes that they need to pay close attention to the creditor hierarchy, especially where the resolution process is constrained by the requirement that no creditor should be worse off than would have been the case in bankruptcy. Any areas of ambiguity should be clarified ex ante and, if necessary, the granularity of the creditor hierarchy expanded to ensure that the treatment of creditors in resolution is what is fair, expected and intended.

Tucker sums up the policy implications of this part of his paper as follows ...

“The policy conclusion of this part of the discussion, then, is that in order to deliver information insensitivity for some of the liabilities of operating banks and dealers, policymakers should:

a) move towards requiring that all short-term liabilities be covered by assets eligible at the central bank; and, given that that alone cannot banish bankruptcy,

b) be more prescriptive about corporate structures and creditor hierarchies since they matter hugely in bankruptcy and resolution.”

BIS WP 790, Page 16

Summing up …

  • Tucker positions his paper as “… a plea to policymakers to work with researchers to re-examine whether enough has been done to make the financial system resilient“.
  • His position is that “… the financial system is much more resilient than before the crisis but … less resilient than claimed by policymakers”
  • Tucker’s assessment “… is partly due to shifts in the macroeconomic environment” which reduce the capacity of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus but also an in principle view that “maintaining a resilient system cannot sanely rely on crushing the probability of distress via prophylactic regulation and supervision: a strategy that confronts the Gods in its technocratic arrogance“.
  • Tucker argues that the desired degree of resilience is more likely to be found in a combination of “… low barriers to entry, credible resolution regimes and crisis management tools …[that] … ensure the system can keep going through distress”.
  • Tucker also advocates putting the central insights of some theoretical work on “informational insensitivity” to practical use in the following way:
    • move towards requiring all banking-type intermediaries to cover all short-term liabilities with assets eligible for discount at the Window
    • insist upon structural subordination of bailinable bonds so that the liabilities of operating subsidiaries are more nearly informationally insensitive
    • be more prescriptive about the permitted creditor hierarchy of operating intermediaries
    • establish frameworks for overseeing and regulating collateralised money market, with more active use made of setting minimum haircut requirements to ensure that widely used money market instruments are safe in nearly all circumstancesarticulating restrictive principles for market-maker of last resort operations
  • Given the massive costs (economic, social, cultural) associated with financial crises, err on the side of maintaining resilience
  • To the extent that financial resilience continues to rely on the regulation and supervision of capital adequacy, ensure transparency regarding the target level of resilience and the extent to which discretionary policy actions impact that level of resilience

I am deeply touched if you actually read this far. The topic of crisis management and resolution capability is irredeemably technical but also important to get right.

Tony

A BCBS review of the costs and benefits of higher bank capital requirements

The economic rational for higher bank capital requirements that have been implemented under Basel III is built to a large extent on an analytical model developed by the BCBS that was published in a study released in 2010. The BCBS has just (June 2019) released a paper by one of its working groups which reviews the original analysis in the light of subsequent studies into the optimal capital question. The 2019 Review concludes that the higher capital requirements recommended by the original study have been supported by these subsequent studies and, if anything, the optimal level of capital may be higher than that identified in the original analysis.

Consistent with the Basel Committee’s original assessment, this paper finds that the net macroeconomic benefits of capital requirements are positive over a wide range of capital levels. Under certain assumptions, the literature finds that the net benefits of higher capital requirements may have been understated in the original Committee assessment. Put differently, the range of estimates for the theoretically-optimal level of capital requirements … is likely either similar or higher than was originally estimated by the Basel Committee.

The costs and benefits of bank capital – a review of the literature; BCBS Working Paper (June 2019)

For anyone who is interested in really understanding this question as opposed to simply looking for evidence to support a preconceived bias or vested interest, it is worth digging a bit deeper into what the paper says. A good place to start is Table 1 from the 2019 Review (copied below) which compares the assumptions, estimates and conclusions of these studies:

Pay attention to the fine print

All of these studies share a common analytical model which measures Net benefits as a function of:

Reduced Crisis Probability x Crisis Cost – Output Drag (loan spreads).

So the extent of any net benefit depends on the extent to which:

  • More capital actually reduces the probability of a crisis and/or its economic impact,
  • The economic impact of a financial crisis is a permanent or temporary adjustment to the long term growth trajectory of the economy – a permanent effect supports the case for higher capital, and
  • The cost of bank debt declines in response to higher capital – in technical terms the extent of the Modigliani Miller (MM) offset, with a larger offset supporting the case for higher capital.

The authors of the 2019 Review also acknowledge that interpretation of the results of the studies is complicated by the fact that different studies use different measures of capital adequacy. Some of the studies provide optimal capital estimates in risk weighted ratios, others in leverage ratios. The authors of the 2019 Review have attempted to convert the leverage ratios to a risk weighted equivalent but that process will inevitably be an imperfect science. The definition of capital also differs (TCE, Tier 1 & CET1).

The authors acknowledge that full standardisation of capital ratios is very complex and lies beyond the scope of their review and nominate this as an area where further research would be beneficial. In the interim (and at the risk of stating the obvious) the results and conclusions of this 2019 Review and the individual studies it references should be used with care. The studies dating from 2017, for example, seem to support a higher value for the optimal capital range compared to the 2010 benchmark. The problem is that it is not clear how these higher nominal ratio results should be interpreted in the light of increases in capital deductions and average risk weights such as we have seen play out in Australia.

The remainder of this post will attempt to dig a bit deeper into some of the components of the net benefit model employed in these types of studies.

Stability benefits – reduced probability of a crisis

The original 2010 BCBS study concluded that increasing Tangible Common Equity from 7% to 10% would reduce the probability of a financial crisis by 1.6 percentage points.

The general principle is that a financial crisis is a special class of economic downturn in which the severity and duration is exacerbated by a collapse in confidence in the banking system due to widespread doubts about the solvency of one or more banks which results in a contraction in the supply of credit.

It follows that higher capital reduces the odds that any given level of loss can threaten the actual or perceived solvency of the banking system. So far so good, but I think it is helpful at this point to distinguish the core losses that flow from the underlying problem (e.g. poor credit origination or risk management) versus the added losses that arise when credit supply freezes in response to concerns about the solvency or liquidity of the banking system.

Higher capital (and liquidity) requirements can help to mitigate the risk of those second round losses but they do not in any way reduce the economic costs of the initial poor lending or risk management. The studies however seem to use the total losses experienced in historical financial crises to calculate the net benefit rather than specific output losses that can be attributed to credit shortages and any related drop in employment and/or the confidence of business and consumers. That poses the risk that the studies may be over estimating the potential benefits of higher capital.

This is not saying that higher capital requirements are a waste of time but the modelling of optimal capital requirements must still understand the limitations of what capital can and cannot change. There is, for example, evidence that macro prudential policy tools may be more effective tools for managing the risk of systemic failures of credit risk management as opposed to relying on the market discipline of equity investors being required to commit more “skin in the game“.

Cost of a banking crisis

The 2019 Review notes that

“recent refinements associated with identifying crises is promising. Such refinements have the potential to affect estimates of the short- and long-run costs of crises as well as our understanding of how pre-crisis financial conditions affect these costs. Moreover, the identification of crises is important for estimating the relationship between banking system capitalisation and the probability of a crisis, which is likely to depend on real drivers (eg changes in employment) as well as financial drivers (eg bank capital).

We considered above the possibility that there may be fundamental limitations on the extent to which capital alone can impact the probability, severity and duration of a financial crisis. The 2019 Review also acknowledges that there is an ongoing debate, far from settled, regarding the extent to which a financial crisis has a permanent or temporary effect on the long run growth trajectory of an economy. This seemingly technical point has a very significant impact on the point at which these studies conclude that the costs of higher capital outweigh the benefits.

The high range estimates of the optimal capital requirement in these studies typically assume that the impacts are permanent. This is big topic in itself but Michael Redell’s blog did a post that goes into this question in some detail and is worth reading.

Banking funding costs – the MM offset

The original BCBS study assumed zero offset (i.e. no decline in lending rates in response to deleveraging). This assumption increase the modelled impact of higher capital and, all other things equal, reduces the optimal capital level. The later studies noted in the BCBS 2019 Review have tended to assume higher levels of MM offset and the 2019 Review concludes that the “… assumption of a zero offset likely overstated the costs of higher capital nonbank loan rates”. For the time being the 2019 Review proposes that “a fair reading of the literature would suggest the middle of the 0 and 100% extremes” and calls for more research to “… help ground the Modigliani-Miller offset used in estimating optimal bank capital ratios”.

Employing a higher MM offset supports a higher optimal capital ratio but I am not convinced that even the 50% “split the difference” compromise is the right call. I am not disputing the general principle that risk and leverage are related. My concern is that the application of this general principle does not recognise the way in which some distinguishing features of bank balance sheets impact bank financing costs and the risk reward equations faced by different groups of bank stakeholders. I have done a few posts previously (here and here) that explore this question in more depth.

Bottom line – the BCBS itself is well aware of most of the issues with optimal capital studies discussed in this post – so be wary of anyone making definitive statements about what these studies tell us.

The above conclusion is however subject to a number of important considerations. First, estimates of optimal capital are sensitive to a number of assumptions and design choices. For example, the literature differs in judgments made about the permanence of crisis effects as well as assumptions about the efficacy of post crisis reforms – such as liquidity regulations and bank resolution regimes – in reducing the probability and costs of future banking crisis. In some cases, these judgements can offset the upward tendency in the range of optimal capital.

Second, differences in (net) benefit estimates can reflect different conditioning assumptions such as starting levels of capital or default thresholds (the capital ratio at which firms are assumed to fail) when estimating the impact of capital in reducing crisis probabilities.2

Finally, the estimates are based on capital ratios that are measured in different units. For example, some studies provide optimal capital estimates in risk-weighted ratios, others in leverage ratios. And, across the risk-weighted ratio estimates, the definition of capital and risk-weighted assets (RWAs) can also differ (eg tangible common equity (TCE) or Tier 1 or common equity tier 1 (CET1) capital; Basel II RWAs vs Basel III measures of RWAs). A full standardisation of the different estimates across studies to allow for all of these considerations is not possible on the basis of the information available and lies beyond the scope of this paper.

This paper also suggests a set of issues which warrant further monitoring and research. This includes the link between capital and the cost and probability of crises, accounting for the effects of liquidity regulations, resolution regimes and counter-cyclical capital buffers, and the impact of regulation on loan quantities.

The costs and benefits of bank capital – a review of the literature; BCBS Working Paper (June 2019)

Summing up

I would recommend this 2019 Literature Review to anyone interested in the question of how to determine the optimal capital requirements for banks. The topic is complex and important and also one where I am acutely aware that I may be missing something. I repeat the warning above about anyone (including me) making definitive statements based on these types of studies.

That said, the Review does appear to offer support for the steps the BCBS has taken thus far to increase capital and liquidity requirements. There are also elements of the paper that might be used to support the argument that bank capital requirements should be higher again. This is the area where I think the fine print offers a more nuanced perspective.

Tony

“On money, debt, trust and central banking”

Is the title of an interesting paper by Claudio Borio (Head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the BIS). This link will take you to the paper but my post offers a short summary of what I took away from it.

Overview of the paper

Borio’s examination of the properties of a well functioning monetary system:

  • stresses the importance of the role trust plays in this system and of the institutions needed to secure that trust.
  • explores in detail the ways in which these institutions help to ensure the price and financial stability that is critical to nurturing and maintaining that trust.
  • focuses not just on money but also the transfer mechanisms to execute payments (i.e. the “monetary system”)

“My focus will be the on the monetary system, defined technically as money plus the transfer mechanisms to execute payments. Logically, it makes little sense to talk about one without the other. But payments have too often been taken for granted in the academic literature, old and new. In the process, we have lost some valuable insights.”

Borio: Page 1

In the process, he addresses several related questions, such as

  • the relationship between money and debt,
  • the viability of cryptocurrencies as money,
  • money neutrality, and
  • the nexus between monetary and financial stability.

Borio highlights three key points he wants you to take away from his paper

First, is the fundamental way in which the monetary system relies on trust and equally importantly the role that institutions, the central bank in particular, play in ensuring there is trust in the system. At the technical level, people need to trust that the object functioning as money will be generally accepted and that payments will be executed but it also requires trust that the system will deliver price and financial stability in the long run.

Second, he draws attention to the “elasticity of credit” (i.e. the extent to which the system allows credit to expand) as a key concept for understanding how the monetary system works. Elasticity of credit, he argues, is essential for the day to day operations of the payment system but allowing too much credit expansion can cause serious economic damage in the long run.

Third, the need to understand the ways in price and financial stability are different but inexorably linked. As concepts, they are joined at the hip: both embody the trust that sustains the monetary system. But the underlying processes required to achieve these outcomes differ, so that there can be material tensions in the short run.

These are not necessarily new insights to anyone who has being paying attention to the questions Borio poses above, but the paper does offer a good, relatively short, overview of the issues. I particularly liked the way Borio

  • presented the role elasticity of credit plays in both the short and long term functioning of the economy and how the tension between the short and long term is managed,
  • covered the relationship between money, debt and trust (“we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”), and
  • outlined how and why the monetary system should be seen, not as an “outer facade” but rather as a “cornerstone of an economy”

The rest of this post contains more detailed notes on some, but not all, of the issues covered in the paper.

Elements of a well functioning monetary system

The standard definition of money is based on its functions as
1) Unit of account
2) Means of payment
3) Store of value

Borio expands the focus to encompass the “monetary system”as a whole, introducing two additional elements. Firstly the need to consider the mechanisms the system uses to transfer the means of payment and settle transactions. Secondly, the ways in which the integrity of the chosen form of money as a store of value is protected.

” In addition, compared with the traditional focus on money as an object, the definition crucially extends the analysis to the payment mechanisms. In the literature, there has been a tendency to abstract from them and assume they operate smoothly in the background. I believe this is one reason why money is often said to be a convention …. But money is much more than a convention; it is a social institution (eg Giannini (2011)). It is far from self-sustaining. Society needs an institutional infrastructure to ensure that money is widely accepted, transactions take place, contracts are fulfilled and, above all, agents can count on that happening”

Borio: Page 3

The day to day operation of the monetary system

Borio highlights two aspects of the day to day operations of the monetary system.

  1. The need for an elastic supply of the means of payment
  2. The need for an elastic supply of bank money more generally

In highlighting the importance of the elasticity of credit, he also draws attention to “the risk of overestimating the distinction between credit (debt) and money”.

The central banks’ elastic supply of the means of payment is essential to ensure that (i) transactions are settled in the interbank market and (ii) the interest rate is controlled.

“To smooth out interbank settlement, the provision of central bank credit is key. The need for an elastic supply to settle transactions is most visible in the huge amounts of intraday credit central banks supply to support real-time gross settlement systems – a key way of managing risks in those systems (Borio (1995)).”

Borio: Page 5
“…we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”

Put differently, we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt. In the case of bank deposits, trust is supported by central bank liquidity, including as lender of last resort, by the regulatory and supervisory framework and varieties of deposit insurance; in that of central bank reserves and cash, by the sovereign’s power to tax; and in both cases, by legal arrangements, way beyond legal tender laws, and enshrined in market practice.

Borio: Page 9

Once you understand the extent to which our system of money depends on credit relationship you understand the extent to which trust is a core feature which should not be taken for granted. The users of the monetary system are relying on some implied promises that underpin their trust in it.

“Price and financial instability amount to broken promises.”

Borio: Page 11

While the elasticity of money creation oils the wheels of the payment system on a day to day basis, it can be problematic over long run scenarios where too much elasticity can lead to financial instability. Some degree of elasticity is important to keep the wheels of the economy turning but too much can be a problem because the marginal credit growth starts to be used for less productive or outright speculative investment.

The relationship between price and financial stability

While, as concepts, price and financial stability are joined at the hip, the processes behind the two differ. Let’s look at this issue more closely


The process underpinning financial instability hinges on how “elastic” the monetary system is over longer horizons, way beyond its day-to-day operation. Inside credit creation is critical. At the heart of the process is the nexus between credit creation, risk-taking and asset prices, which interact in a self-reinforcing fashion generating possibly disruptive financial cycles (eg Borio (2014)). The challenge is to ensure that the system is not excessively elastic drawing on two monetary system anchors. One operates on prices – the interest rate and the central bank’s reaction function … The other operates on quantities: bank regulatory requirements, such as those on capital or liquidity, and the supervisory apparatus that enforces them.

Borio: Page 12

Given that the processes underlying price and financial stability differ, it is not surprising that there may be material tensions between the two objectives, at least in the near term. Indeed, since the early 1980s changes in the monetary system have arguably exacerbated such tensions by increasing the monetary system’s elasticity (eg Borio (2014)). This is so despite the undoubted benefits of these changes for the world economy. On the one hand, absent a sufficiently strong regulatory and supervisory apparatus – one of the two anchors – financial liberalisation, notably for banks, has provided more scope for outsize financial cycles. On the other hand, the establishment of successful monetary policy frameworks focused on near-term inflation control has meant that there was little reason to raise interest rates – the second anchor – since financial booms took hold as long as inflation remained subdued. And in the background, with the globalisation of the real side of the economy putting persistent downward pressure on inflation while at the same time raising growth expectations, there was fertile ground for financial imbalances to take root in.

Borio: Page 16

Borio concludes that the monetary system we have is far from perfect but it is better than the alternatives

Borio concludes that the status quo, while far from perfect, is worth persisting with. He rejects the cryptocurrency path but does not explicitly discuss other radical options such as the one proposed by Mervyn King, in his book “The End of Alchemy”. The fact that he believes “… the distinction between money and debt is often overplayed” could be interpreted as an indirect rejection of the variations on the Chicago Plan that have recently reentered public debate. It would have been interesting to see him address these alternative monetary system models more directly.

In Borio’s own words ….

 The monetary system is the cornerstone of an economy. Not an outer facade, but its very foundation. The system hinges on trust. It cannot survive without it, just as we cannot survive without the oxygen we breathe. Building trust to ensure the system functions well is a daunting challenge. It requires sound and robust institutions. Lasting price and financial stability are the ultimate prize. The two concepts are inextricably linked, but because the underlying processes differ, in practice price and financial stability have often been more like uncomfortable bedfellows than perfect partners. The history of our monetary system is the history of the quest for that elusive prize. It is a journey with an uncertain destination. It takes time to gain trust, but a mere instant to lose it. The present system has central banks and a regulatory/supervisory apparatus at its core. It is by no means perfect. It can and must be improved.55  But cryptocurrencies, with their promise of fully decentralised trust, are not the answer. 

Paraphrasing Churchill’s famous line about democracy, “the current monetary system is the worst, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time”. 


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The topic is not for everyone, but I found the paper well worth reading.

Tony