Banking on Bonds, Part 2

This is the second of two excerpts from a recent paper on the role of “repurchase agreements” (or “repos”) in the eurozone crisis, co-authored Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban. Gabor is an associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Western England-Bristol. Ban is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Co-Director of the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University.

This part describes the behavior of the European Central Bank in the repo market—for example, tightening the standards for use of repos as borrowing collateral by embattled private banks—which had a perverse (pro-cyclical) impact in the eurozone crisis. Part 1, explaining repos are and their growing importance, is available here. The full text is available on the GEGI website.

Collateral Damage in the European Sovereign Debt Crisis

Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban

The financial crisis which erupted in 2007 has fragmented the GC repo market in Eurozone government bonds … There is consequently a German GC market, a French GC market and so on, but there is no longer a eurozone GC market, except for oneday repos, where credit risk is minimal. (European Repo Council, 2013)

While US scholars and policy-makers have dedicated close attention to the run on US repo markets following Lehman Brothers’ collapse (Gorton and Metrick, 2012; Krishnamurthy et al., 2014) and the FSB (2012) put repo markets on its shadow banking agenda, scholarship on the systemic fragilities in European repo markets is in its infancy. Although the crisis reversed the Europeanization of sovereign collateral, as suggested in the quote above, the few studies dealing with European repo markets (Mancini et al., 2013; Boissel et al., 2014) do not engage with the impact on collateral markets.

The paucity of research on this topic is striking considering that by 2012, Portugal, Greece and Ireland provided 0.1 per cent of total repo collateral, sharply down from the 3.5 per cent share in 2008 (see Figure 2), and that Eurex (a large CCP) eliminated GIP government bonds from its GC Pooling basket (Mancini et al., 2013). Repo participants also reduced the use of German government bonds, for the opposite reason: in times of uncertainty, investors become reluctant to part with highly liquid assets.

Thus, the insight from the US-based literature on repo markets that government bonds preserve their high-quality collateral status in crisis, when repo lenders stop accepting privately issued securities, does not apply to Europe (Pozsar, 2014). The eurozone crisis shows that governments are also vulnerable to repo market tensions because the private rules that govern collateral and the incentives of systemic repo market participants are inherently destabilizing.

In the eurozone crisis, Member States faced not only destabilizing repo market dynamics, but also a central bank whose collateral policies were pro-cyclical at critical junctures. This clashes with the conventional description of the ECB’s crisis interventions, which emphasizes that its measures helped stabilize repo and collateral markets (ECB, 2010; Drudi et al., 2012; BIS, 2011). The narrative goes like this: throughout 2008 and 2009, the ECB acted counter-cyclically by extending the pool of eligible collateral (lowering the credit rating threshold from A! to BBB!), a measure meant to help leveraged European banks facing severe funding problems (ECB, 2015a). This allowed banks to take ‘bad’ collateral to the ECB’s long-term lending facilities and use high-quality collateral in private repos. Policy action contained potential runs in periphery collateral markets, restoring confidence in the collateral qualities of GIIPs government debt. The several long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) enabled banks to fund government debt portfolios, increasing demand and therefore liquidity in those markets. The OMT finally dealt with unfounded fears of a eurozone break-up in 2012.

A repo lens complicates this account. When examined through collateral practices, the ECB’s crisis interventions were often pro-cyclical. At critical moments, the central bank made margin calls, raised haircuts and tightened collateral standards. Indeed, in those moments the ECB behaved just like a private repo market participant – a ‘shadow bank’ – that disregards the systemic implications of its collateral practices.

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The Financial Sector is Too Big

Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer

Has the financial sector become too large, absorbing too many resources, and enhancing instabilities? A look at the recent evidence on the relationship between the size of the financial sector and growth.

There has been a long history of the idea that a developing financial sector (emphasis on banks and stock markets) fosters economic growth. Going back to the work of authors such as Schumpeter, Robinson, and more recently, McKinnon, etc., there have been debates on financial liberalisation and the related issue of whether what was relevant to financial liberalisation, namely financial development, “caused” economic development, or whether economic development led to a greater demand for financial services and thereby financial development.

The general thrust of the empirical evidence collected over a number of decades suggested that there was indeed a positive relationship between the size and scale of the financial sector (often measured by the size of the banking system as reflected in ratio of bank deposits to GDP, and the size of the stock market capitalisation) and the pace of economic growth. Indeed, there have been discussion on whether the banking sector or the stock market capitalisation is a more influential factor on economic growth. The empirical evidence drew on time series, cross section, and panel econometric investigations. To even briefly summarise the empirical evidence on all these aspects is not possible here. In addition, the question of the direction of causation still remains an unresolved issue.

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Clinton Proposals Don’t Go Far Enough to Combat “Short-Termism”

Gerald Epstein

In a recent interview on The Real News Network, regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, addresses recent discussion of corporate “short-termism” in the U.S. presidential campaign. Why do corporate executives act to boost short-term stock prices at the expense of long-term productive investment, and what policies would be effective in combating these practices?

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From “Boring” Banking to “Roaring” Banking, Part 2

Gerald Epstein

This is the second part of a three part interview with regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, of the Political Economic Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This part focuses on the performance of the financial sector, against the key claims that are made by mainstream economists about its socially constructive role, during the era of “roaring” banking. Part 1 is available here.

Dollars & Sense: How does the performance of the financial sector measure up, during this most recent era of deregulated finance?

Gerald Epstein: If you look at the textbook description of the positive roles that finance plays, basically it comes down to six things: channel savings to productive investment, provide mechanisms for households to save for retirement, help businesses and households reduce risk, provide stable and flexible liquidity, provide an efficient payments mechanism, and come up with new financial innovations, that will make it cheaper, simpler, and better to do all these other five things. If you go through the way finance operated in the period of “roaring” banking, one can raise questions about the productive role of banking in all of these dimensions.

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Is Financial Fraud Too Complex to Prosecute?

William K. Black, Guest Blogger

This interview with William K. Black (University of Missouri-Kansas City) appeared originally at The Real News Network. Prof. Black describes why the U.S. Department of Justice has failed to prosecute executives at financial institutions that helped to detonate the recent crisis. It is not, Black argues, that the bankers were engaged in “rocket science” too complex to prosecute, but that the lack of prosecutions is “a matter of will and a matter of ideology.” His writings on this and other subjects can be read at New Economic Perspectives.

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More Finance, More Growth? More Finance, More Crises?

By Simon Sturn and Gerald Epstein

A large body of cross-country time-series literature shows that financial development—predominantly measured by private credit as a percent of GDP—fuels growth. But, in light of the many recent episodes of finance driven crisis, these results seem curious. Haven’t we seen that periods of rapid credit expansion are also often periods of economic crisis?

The answer to this puzzle might have to do with the time horizon under consideration. A broad theoretical literature argues that credit demand and supply are correlated with growth in the short-run. Credit demand is “pro-cyclical”—firms are reluctant to borrow and invest during business-cycle slumps, periods of low demand and high uncertainty, while the opposite is true for business-cycle booms. Credit supply is also pro-cyclical, as banks are less willing to lend during recessions, when banks have less capital and borrowers have lower net worth, than during upturns.

Finance and growth, then, are correlated in the short run, but this does not imply that finance also causes long-run growth. Therefore, it is crucial to address the short-run pro-cyclical fluctuations of credit in empirical studies on the impact of finance on growth. Otherwise, the true long-run growth effect of financial development will be overstated.

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Confronting Financialization on Steroids

Costas Lapavitsas, Guest Blogger

The interview below is from a series on The Real News Network’s Reality Asserts Itself, with Paul Jay. Jay interviews Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at the School of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of London, and author of the book Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Verso). Lapavitsas recently did an interview with Triple Crisis blog and Dollars & Sense magazine, serialized here (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

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The Era of Financialization, Part 3

This is the third part of a four-part interview with Costas Lapavitsas, author of Financialised Capitalism: Expansion and Crisis (Maia Ediciones, 2009) and Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Verso, 2014). This part considers financialization in relation, first, with industrial and commercial enterprise and, second, with the household. It then turns to the main consequences of financialization, in terms of economic stability, development, and inequality. (See the earlier parts of the interview here and here.)

Costas Lapavitsas, Guest Blogger

Part 3

Dollars & Sense: A striking aspect of your analysis of industrial and commercial enterprises is that, rather than simply becoming more reliant on bank finance, they have taken their own retained profits and begun to behave like financial companies. Rather than plow profits back into investment in their core businesses, they are instead placing bets on lots of different kinds of businesses. What accounts for that change in corporate behavior?

CL: In some ways, again, this is the deepest and most difficult issue with regard to financialization. Let me make one point clear: to capture financialization and to define it, we don’t really have to go into what determines the behavior of firms in this way. Financialization is middle-range theory. If I recognize the changed behavior of the corporation, that’s enough for understanding financialization. It’s good enough for middle-range theory. Now obviously you’re justifiedto ask this question: why are corporations changing their behavior in this way? And, there, I would go back at some point to technologies, labor, and so on—the forces and relations of production.

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Raising Big Banks’ Leverage Ratio Good, But Not Nearly Enough

Gerald Epstein

Sharmini Peries of the Real News Network interviews Triple Crisis blogger Gerald Epstein about new U.S. federal government regulations raising the required capital banks must hold. Epstein explains why the regulations will be more stringent, allowing fewer loopholes, than previously, why they will reduce systemic risk somewhat in the banking system, but why they’re “probably not enough.”

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Raising Big Banks' Leverage Ratio Good, But Not Nearly Enough

Gerald Epstein

Sharmini Peries of the Real News Network interviews Triple Crisis blogger Gerald Epstein about new U.S. federal government regulations raising the required capital banks must hold. Epstein explains why the regulations will be more stringent, allowing fewer loopholes, than previously, why they will reduce systemic risk somewhat in the banking system, but why they’re “probably not enough.”

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