June 2nd, 2021

Risks and Crises

Market makers and risk managers after 2008

In the 1945 film It’s a Wonderful Life, banker protagonist George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) struggles to exchange his well-functioning loans for cash. He lacks convertibility—known as liquidity risk in modern finance—and so cannot pay impatient depositors. Like any traditional financial intermediary, Bailey seeks to transform short-term debts (deposits) into long-term assets (loans). In the eyes of traditional macroeconomics, a run on the bank could be prevented if Bailey had borrowed money from the Fed, and used the bank’s assets as collateral. In the late-nineteenth-century, British journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the Fed acts as a “lender of last resort,” injecting liquidity into the banking system. As long as a bank was perceived solvent, then, its access to the Fed’s credit facilities would be almost guaranteed. In an economy like the one in It's A Wonderful Life, the primary question was whether people could get their money out in the case of a crisis. And for a long time, Bagehot’s rule, “lend freely, against good collateral, but at a high rate,” maintained the Fed’s control over the money market and helped end banking panics and systemic banking crises.

This control evaporated on September 15, 2008, with Lehman Brothers’ collapse. On that day, an enormous spike in interbank lending rates was caused not by a run on a bank, but by the failure of an illiquid securities dealer.

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