Failure is the only sure path to a safer financial system

There is a truly egregious error — that reflects the modern anti-capitalist view of financial markets — in an otherwise informative article on the shadow banking system by Kelly Evans of the WSJ.  She writes:

There are two basic ways to make a financial system safer: insurance and regulation.

There is undoubtedly a third way to make the financial system safer:  regular failure of financial institutions.  This is the only proven way to make a financial system safe, since its the one that existed from the 13th century and was the foundation on which the modern financial system was built over more than half a millenium.

Minsky is regularly discussed, but his ideas don’t seem to have actually penetrated the discourse:  stability is destabilizing.  The most stable financial system it is possible to achieve is one with regular bank failures.  The analogy is to the management of forest fires which when allowed to occur regularly have the beneficial effect of clearing the undergrowth, revitalizing the forest, and reducing the likelihood of a truly destructive conflagration.

The problem in our financial system is not an insufficient supply of safe assets, but the concept that there is such a thing as a safe asset.  Keynes’ clear explanation of the ephemeral nature of liquidity debunked this view generations ago. (See Ch 12 of the General Theory, well discussed here).

Regular failures of financial institutions are the best way to ensure that the risks inherent in every financial asset are constantly being taken into account.  It is far more likely to be successful than insurance, which given the political muscle of the financial industry is guaranteed to be underpriced (see the experience of the FDIC, from 1996 to 2006 most banks paid nothing in FDIC premia) or regulation, as the regulators are unlikely to ever have a deep enough understanding of the current structure of the industry (which is always morphing in light of new regulations) to keep banks from making short-term profits while putting the losses to the taxpayer.

The only long-term solution to this problem is financial institution failure, regular, repeated and built into the very structure of the market.

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4 thoughts on “Failure is the only sure path to a safer financial system”

  1. Read your old post via Macromania, while reviewing the new directive for bank failures from the EU. Could not agree more, but in practice we have probably come to a point where failing one of these big banks in an orderly fashion is not possible. I.e. breaking up the TBTF banks would be the only logical solution, as Simon Johnson have pointed out for a long time.

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