William Dudley's keynote address at a recent CEPS symposium on the financial system is worth reading in full. What I found especially interesting were the following remarks on structural sources of instability:
The risks of liquidity crises are also exacerbated by some structural sources of instability in the financial system. Some of these sources are endemic to the nature of the financial intermediation process and banking. Others are more specific to the idiosyncratic features of our particular system. Both types deserve attention because they tend to amplify the pressures that lead to liquidity runs.
Turning first to the more inherent sources of instability, there are at least two that are worthy of mention. The first instability stems from the fact that most financial firms engage in maturity transformation — the maturity of their assets is longer than the maturity of their liabilities. The need for maturity transformation arises from the fact that the preferred habitat of borrowers tends toward longer-term maturities used to finance long-lived assets such as a house or a manufacturing plant, compared with the preferred habitat of investors, who generally have a preference to be able to access their funds quickly. Financial intermediaries act to span these preferences, earning profits by engaging in maturity transformation — borrowing shorter-term in order to finance longer-term lending.
If a firm engages in maturity transformation so that its assets mature more slowly than its liabilities, it does not have the option of simply allowing its assets to mature when funding dries up. If the liabilities cannot be rolled over, liquidity buffers will soon be weakened. Maturity transformation means that if funding is not forthcoming, the firm will have to sell assets. Although this is easy if the assets are high-quality and liquid, it is hard if the assets are lower quality. In that case, the forced asset sales are likely to lead to losses, which deplete capital and raise concerns about insolvency.
The second inherent source of instability stems from the fact that firms are typically worth much more as going concerns than in liquidation. This loss of value in liquidation helps to explain why liquidity crises can happen so suddenly. Initially, no one is worried about liquidation. The firm is well understood to be solvent... But once counterparties start to worry about liquidation, the probability distribution can shift very quickly toward the insolvency line... because the liquidation value is lower than the firm’s value as a going concern...
These sources of instability create the risk of a cascade... Once the firm’s viability is in question and it is does not have access to an insured deposit funding base, the next stop is often a full-scale liquidity crisis that often cannot be stopped without massive government intervention.
As Dudley notes, maturity transformation is "endemic to the nature of the financial intermediation process and banking." But non-financial firms (and the United States Treasury) can also engage in maturity transformation by borrowing short relative to their expected revenue streams. This is what Hyman Minsky called speculative (as opposed to hedge) financing. One of Minsky's key insights was that over a period of stable growth with relatively tranquil financial markets, there is a progressive shift away from hedge and towards speculative financing:
The natural starting place for analyzing the relation between debt and income is to take an economy with a cyclical past that is now doing well. The inherited debt reflects the history of the economy, which includes a period in the not too distant past in which the economy did not do well. Acceptable liability structures are based upon some margin of safety, so that expected cash flows, even in periods when the economy is not doing well, will cover contractual debt payments. As the period over which the economy does well lengthens, two things become evident in board rooms. Existing debts are easily validated and units that were heavily in debt prospered; it paid to lever. After the event it becomes apparent that the margins of safety built into debt structures were too great. As a result, over a period in which the economy does well, views about acceptable debt structure change. In the deal making that goes on between banks, investment bankers, and businessmen, the acceptable amount of debt to use in financing various types of activity and positions increases. (Minsky 1982, p.65)
Short-term financing of long-lived capital assets is lucrative as long as debts can be rolled over easily at relatively stable interest rates. But this induces more firms to engage in speculative rather than hedge financing, making the demand for refinancing increasingly inelastic. The eventual result is a crisis of liquidity and a shift back towards hedge financing.
Many economists (myself included) have tried to construct formal models of the process described by Minsky, but with limited success to date. This may be a good time to give it another shot.