A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part II

by Joseph Joyce

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part II

(Part I of this Guide appears here.)

2. Crisis and Response

The global crisis revealed that the pre-crisis financial universe was more fragile than realized at the time. Before the crisis, this fragility was masked by low interest rates, which were due in part to the buildup of foreign reserves in the form of U.S. securities by emerging market economies. The high ratings that mortgage backed securities (MBS) in the U.S. received from the rating agencies depended on these low interest rates and rising housing prices. Once interest rates increased, however, and housing values declined, mortgage borrowers—particularly those considered “subprime”—abandoned their properties. The value of the MBS fell, and financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe sought to remove them from their balance sheets, which reinforced the downward spiral in their values.

The global crisis was followed by a debt crisis in Europe. The governments of Ireland and Spain bolstered their financial institutions which had also lent extensively to the domestic housing sectors, but their support led to a deterioration in their own finances. Similarly, the safety of Greek government bonds was called into question as the scope of Greek deficit expenditures became clear, and there were concerns about Portugal’s finances.

Different systems of response and support emerged during the crises. In the case of the advanced economies, their central banks coordinated their domestic policy responses. In addition, the Federal Reserve organized currency swap networks with its counterparts in countries where domestic banks had participated in the MBS markets, as well as several emerging market economies (Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Singapore) where dollars were also in demand. The central banks were then able to provide dollar liquidity to their banks. The European Central Bank provided similar currency arrangements for countries in that region, as did the Swiss National Bank and the corresponding Scandinavian institutions.


The emerging market countries that were not included in such arrangements had to rely on their own foreign exchange reserves to meet the demand for dollars as well as respond to exchange rate pressures. Subsequently, fourteen Asian economies formed the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, which allows them to draw upon swap arrangements. China has also signed currency swap agreements with fourteen other countries.

In addition, emerging market economies and developing economies received assistance from the International Monetary Fund, which organized arrangements with 17 countries from the outbreak of the crisis through the following summer. The Fund had been severely criticized for its policies during the Asian crisis of 1997-98, but its response to this crisis was very different. Credit was disbursed more quickly and in larger amounts than had occurred in past crises, and there were fewer conditions attached to the programs. Countries in Asia and Latin America with credible records of macroeconomic policies were able to boost domestic spending while drawing upon their reserve holdings to stabilize their exchange rates. The IMF’s actions contributed to the recovery of these countries from the external shock.

The IMF played a very different role in the European debt crisis. It joined the European Commission, which represented European governments, and the European Central Bank to form the “Troika.” These institutions made loans to Ireland in 2010 and Portugal in 2011 in return for deficit-reduction policies, while Spain received assistance in 2012 from the other Eurozone governments. In 2013 a banking crisis in Cyprus also required assistance from the Troika.These countries eventually recovered and exited the lending programs.

Greece’s crisis, however, has been more protracted and the provisions of its program are controversial. The IMF and the European governments have been criticized for delaying debt reduction while insisting on harsh budget austerity measures. The IMF also came under attack for suborning its independence by joining the Troika, and its own Independent Evaluation Officesubsequently published a report that raised questions about its institutional autonomy and accountability.

In the aftermath of the crisis, new regulations—called “macroprudential policies”—have been implemented to reduce systemic risk within the financial system. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, for example, has instituted higher bank capital and liquidity requirements. Other rules include restrictions on loan-to-value ratios. These measures are designed both to prevent the occurrence of credit bubbles and to make financial institutions more resilient. A European Banking Authority has been established to set uniform regulations on European banks and to assess risks. In the U.S., a Financial Stability Oversight Council was given the task of identifying threats to financial stability.

The crisis also caused a reassessment of capital account restrictions. The IMF, which had urged the deregulation of capital accounts before the Asian crisis of 1997-98, published in 2012 a new set of guidelines, named the “institutional view.” The Fund acknowledged that rapid capital flows surges or outflows could be disruptive, and that under some circumstances capital flow management measures could be useful. Capital account liberalization is appropriate only when countries reach threshold levels of institutional and financial development.

One legacy of the response to the crisis is the expansion of central bank balance sheets. The assets of the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Federal Reserve rose to $15 trillion as the central banks engaged in large-scale purchases of assets, called “quantitative easing”. The Federal Reserve ceased purchasing securities in 2014, and the ECB is expected to cut back its purchases later this year.  But the unwinding of these holdings is expected to take place gradually over many years, and monetary policymakers have signaled that their balance sheets are unlikely to return to their pre-crisis sizes.