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This essay examines the assumption, that a large financial sector consistently benefits the real economy. It has been acknowledged that the financial sector, not to mention some of its components, may sometimes become too large. It can end up posing a threat to both economic and financial stability, so the essay develops our understanding of where the optimal threshold lies. The regulatory measures and addresses the problem best: namely, preventing the financial industry from becoming too large and taking excessive risks, leading to the emergence of bubbles, and to the production of complex and dense financial instruments. And we should avoid imposing restrictive measures that will prevent the financial sector from channelling resources towards productive opportunities. In doing so, we need to make sure that our measures target non-traditional financial markets as much as traditional banking, in order not to encourage regulatory arbitrage and a return to “business as usual” outside the auspices of regulators.
Financial innovation can impose a threat to both economic and financial stability, so we have to enhance our understanding of where the best possible threshold lies in determining the size of the financial systems. There is an emerging consent that while financial markets are generally conducive to economic growth, in the run-up to the recent crisis they were operating on an extreme scale. This essay will converse around four main points: firstly that efficient financial markets enhance growth, however, if they grow “too large,” then they may lead to a misallocation of resources and cause costly crises. Secondly, facts will be presented showing that in the build-up to the crisis, the size of the financial sector outgrew its trend. Thirdly, identification of some of the main reasons why this occurred and argued how to avoid that such imbalance again. To this end, regulation and supervision can play an important role. Lastly, while ensuring that the financial sector does not grow beyond its optimal size, the new regulatory framework should not reach the point of financial domination.
The knowledge from recent industrialised countries has relatively claim, that deeper financial markets improve economic efficiency, lead to a better allocation of productive capital, and increase long-term economic growth. However, the frequent financial shocks associated with dynamic financial industries, and in particular the recent economic crisis, also highlight the role large financial markets play in downside risk. This mutually shows that there is a trade-off between a highly vibrant financial sector and the overall stability of the financial system. (Ranciere, R., Tornell, A., and F. Westermann, 2008)
The first part of this essay will argue the aspects of the financial sector which can give us key insights into this trade-off is its size. When reasonably large, financial markets promote economic efficiency by recognising productive opportunities and transforming savings into the investment vitally to finance those opportunities. However, when they become “too large”, relative to what is implied by economic fundamentals, problems like financial complexity, poorly understood financial innovation, flock behaviour, and endogenous risk-taking – to name just a few – suddenly outweigh the benefits. The recent financial and economic crisis is a stark example of that. The pre-crisis period was characterised by the growing size, complexity and connectiveness of financial markets, with ensuing unfavourable effects on the global economy. In order to address the problem, regulatory measures are being taken to impose limits on the tendency of the financial sector to create downside risk. But a fine balance needs to be reached: these measures must be effective but not penalizing; they need to address the core of the problem without excessively limiting the ability of financial markets to sustain economic growth.
Before going on the second point, it is perhaps useful to explain why we still need a large and dynamic financial industry. In general, deep and efficient financial markets improve economic performance both by raising the level of growth and by allocating productive capital more efficiently, ultimately generating benefits for the society as a whole( Rajan, R., and L. Zingales, 1998) . The difference is particularly noticeable when it comes to the financing of innovative ideas, where the much larger US venture capital industry has been credited over the years with the emergence of whole new industries and such innovative corporate giants as Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Google.
All this leads us to the second point of the essay, which is how the size of the financial sector outgrew its trend. Most economists think the relationship between finance and growth as one in which “more is better”. However, the recent crisis has revealed that a financial sector which goes beyond a certain threshold (or breaking point) can harm the economy and society as a whole. In particular, an oversized financial industry tends to intensify information asymmetries, moral hazard problems, and the hunt for yield, leading to excessive risk-taking and over-leveraging of the system.
The events of 2007-2008 suggest that when financial sectors are “too large”, the allocation of resources may become inefficient. Numerous examples of misallocation were associated with the credit growth of the early 2000s as well, of which the expansion of the US sub-prime mortgage market is just the most obvious one. We can think of examples in Europe too – for instance, growth in Spain relied for years on an ever-expanding real estate sector fuelled by increasing borrowing.( Popov, A., and P. Roosenboom, 2009)
After discussing the negative penalties on financial stability and economic growth that a “too large” financial sector can generate, in this section I will analyse available evidence to show that the financial industry as a whole has grown to a sub-optimal size. It is important to note that this is not due to rising compensation in “traditional” financial sectors like credit and insurance, but due to the large increase in compensation in non-traditional financial activities like investment banks, hedge funds and the like (Figure 1) below.
This is another reason why any changes to the regulatory environment aimed at preventing systemic crises in the future will have to deal not just with the traditional banking sector, but with the so-called “shadow” banking sector as well.
Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the crisis has imposed discipline on the financial sector. In theory, one would have expected the crisis to have resulted in, for instance, a new bonus structure with smaller rewards for short-term behaviour, less proprietary trading and more trading on own resources, greater aversion to the accumulation of debt, etc.
To find possible remedies to the excessive size of the financial sector, it is important to understand the factors that have allowed it to grow too big, which leads us to the third part of the essay. As mentioned before, one obvious reason is excessive profits. Not only did rapid financial innovation enable Wall Street to encourage risk-taking through record pay, but this process also diverted human resources away from more traditional productive occupations towards the shadow banking system.
Of course, an equally important reason for the increase in the size of the financial sector is the global accumulation of savings over time. It has been argued that the pre-crisis boom in US real estate and securitisation markets reflected high foreign demand for safe US assets resulting from “excess world savings” in the context of persistent global imbalances.( Caballero, R., and A. Krishnamurthy, 2009) According to this interpretation, foreign asset demand not only pushed down the risk-free interest rate in the US but also compressed the risk premier on risky assets. The low cost of financing, in turn, fostered an increase in the level of leverage of the domestic financial sector which exacerbated systemic risk
While the recent increase in the profits of the industry was certainly due to improved financial innovation and technology, it can also be attributed to the higher risks that the financial sector undertook.(Biais, B., Heider, F. and M. Hoerova, 2010)By limiting these risks, it will be possible to reduce the size of the financial sector as well. For instance, suppose that risks decrease because of limits to leverage. This may imply that profits will go down as well. As a consequence, the financial sector will attract fewer resources, private capital will flow to more profitable industries, and its size will decrease.
A natural question is how the new regulatory framework will affect economic growth. This question will answer the final part of the essay. It is necessary to ensure financial stability and restrain excessive credit, at the same time this process should not go too far and impair economic growth. There is substantial macro level evidence that the depth of the credit markets – measured alternately as liquid liabilities and commercial bank credit to the private sector – is associated with higher economic growth. (King, R., and R. Levine, 1993.) Changes in the supply of credit, both in terms of volumes and credit standards, have been shown to have a significant effect on real economic activity through business lending; the evidence is stronger for the euro area than the US. Studies that have gone into the mechanisms of this effect have generally concluded that the positive effect of credit markets on growth comes from reallocation of investment from dying to booming sectors, from higher rates of new business entry, and from higher growth of industries consisting mainly of small firms.
As I mentioned above, the expansion of sub-prime lending clearly imposed a negative externality on the whole economy, and so in hindsight regulatory measures that would have prevented such credit expansion could in fact have been beneficial.
To summarise, capital requirements, and leverage ratios serve well to illustrate the trade-off between stability and growth as mentioned at the beginning. The examples provided earlier show that the costs incurred when an “oversized” financial system unwinds are very large and outweigh any pre-crisis gains. Therefore, practical regulatory actions are to restore the balance between stability and growth is perfectly justified.
Financial markets are central players in a dynamic modern economy, channelling resources from savers to borrowers and allocating them to productive investment opportunities. At the same time, our experience in the past decade has highlighted the dangers of allowing financial sectors to become too large. In doing so, negative developments like the hunt for rents, the propensity to herd and create bubbles, the misalignment of incentives, and the production of complex innovative financial instruments may outweigh the benefits of finance.
Given the obvious negative impact of an excessively large financial industry, we keep asking ourselves whether limits should be imposed on the size of the financial sector itself. It must be clear from the evidence that has been presented that the answer to this question is yes. However, it is also essential to make sure that we do not repress financial markets to the point of jeopardising their contribution to growth. Therefore, the measures outlined are aimed at making the industry safer rather than weaker, and should not be considered “punitive.” Their goal is to “re-direct” the financial sector so that it avoids embarking on unsustainable patterns. These actions are aimed at commercial banks as well as at non-traditional financial players to make sure that excessive risk-taking is not taking place outside the auspices of regulators. Ensuring that the financial sector is large enough to strengthen the economy while not being “too large” is a task that we take very seriously. There is a clear trade-off between economic growth and financial stability, and it is a difficult but critical task to strike a good balance, ensuring that we end up neither with too little growth nor with too little stability.
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