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How Government Could Take Control of the Banking System

The Economist | Apr 12, 2023

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Technology and regulation are making the government’s role in finance explicit. As happens after every banking panic, the safety-net is being remade. And so regulators must again confront a profound question: how far into finance should the hand of government reach?

  • Banks are inherently unstable. They offer deposits that are instantaneously redeemable while holding long-dated, illiquid assets such as mortgages and business loans. The mismatch means even well-managed institutions are vulnerable to a run that might be sparked by a misunderstanding. The fragility of banks is matched by severe consequences if they fail: runs tend to be contagious events that can cause credit crunches and recessions.

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  • Despite the danger banks pose, governments tolerate their existence. The transformation of liquidity and maturity is thought to enable a greater provision of credit and faster economic growth than would be possible under the alternative: a system of “narrow banks” in which deposits are fully backed by only the safest assets.
  • Government support props up the banking system but also creates opportunities for bankers to exploit taxpayers. [Support] is becoming more visible due to new technology, and collateral policy is increasingly important in the event of runs or emergency central-bank loans.
    • Deposit insurance can lead to complacency on the part of depositors and bankers, requiring regulators to monitor excessive risk-taking.
    • Similarly, central banks act as a lender of last resort during crises, but determining collateral eligibility can influence banks' asset holdings. While offering too much support can lead to moral hazard, central banks have become more generous. Regulators could redefine the highest-quality liquid assets as bonds issued by the most creditworthy sovereign borrowers to ensure safety, but this could lead to narrow banking.

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  • The increasing possibility of banks being effectively funded by the government should concern those who appreciate the private sector's responsibility in assessing risk. However, the line between deposit financing backed by various state layers and direct state funding is becoming blurred. It's possible that a more overt government role in the banking system could be the logical endpoint of the road down which regulators have been travelling for some time.

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