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Credit turmoil ‘has hallmarks of bank run'

Financial Times | September 2, 2007
Krishna Guha

The current turmoil in the financial markets has all the characteristics of a classic banking crisis, but one that is taking place outside the traditional banking sector, Axel Weber, president of the Bundesbank, said at the weekend.

“What we are seeing is basically what we see underlying all banking crises,” said Mr Weber, one of the most influential members of the governing council of the European Central Bank.

The comments mark the first time that a top central banker has endorsed the notion that the non-bank financial system is seeing an old-style bank run.

Some Federal Reserve policymakers also privately see comparisons between the current distress in credit markets and the bank runs of the 19th century, in which savers lost confidence in banks and demanded their money back, creating a spiralling liquidity crisis for institutions that had invested this money in longer-term assets.

That scenario ultimately led to the creation of the US Federal Reserve and other central banks as lenders of last resort for the banking system.

The Bundesbank president said that the market had completely over-reacted to the credit losses in the US subprime mortgage sector.

“What we are seeing at the moment is a total overreaction,” he said. “There is no overall problem in terms of solvency – it is one of liquidity.” He said the challenge for central banks – which cannot supply liquidity directly to the non-bank sector – was to help banks absorb the influx of assets onto their balance sheets.

However, the tools that modern central banks possess to address liquidity problems can only directly address such runs inside the traditional banking sector, and do not directly touch the non-bank financial sector, which has been hardest hit by the current credit crisis.

Mr Weber's analysis highlights the dilemma facing central banks, which cannot channel funds directly to the non-bank financial sector, and may therefore have to resort to easing monetary policy instead. The ECB is due to set its key interest rate on Thursday and the Federal Reserve on September 18.

Mr Weber told fellow central bankers and economists at the Federal Reserve's Jackson Hole symposium that the only difference between a classic banking crisis and the turmoil under way in the markets is that the institutions most affected at the moment are conduits and investment vehicles raising funds in the commercial bond market, rather than regulated banks.

These entities were inherently vulnerable to a sudden loss of confidence on the part of their funders because “there is a maturity mismatch” on the part of financial institutions that have invested in long term mortgage-backed or asset-backed securities using short-term finance.

“Most of the conduits are owned by the banks,” he said. In many cases, sponsoring banks are being forced to take risky assets back onto their balance sheets, in turn causing banks to keep hold of their own cash, putting pressure on short-term money markets, he argued.

His comments came as Frederic Mishkin, a Fed governor, argued for a rapid and aggressive monetary policy response to any fall in house prices.

His diagnosis of the financial crisis was echoed by other experts.

James Hamilton, a professor at the University of California, warned that – as in old-fashioned bank runs – sudden demand for liquidity can lead to a firesale of assets that depresses their price, making otherwise solvent institutions insolvent.

Paul McCulley, managing director of Pimco, said there was a “run on the shadow banking system”. He said the shadow banking system held $1,300bn of assets that now had to be put back onto the balance sheets of the banks.

The issue, he said, is “how it is done and at what price”.

 

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