Instability at the core of the modern financial system is a hot topic, particularly given the electoral shocks in France and Greece these days. Whatever the color of the new Greek government, the people of Greece have spoken: the sovereign bond deal is dead as a doornail.
This will almost certainly lead to a more extensive default than the one negotiated in March, sending shockwaves through global markets.
But that’s not the only source of instability in the global financial system according to Andrew Haldane, executive director of stability at the Bank of England.
Andrew likened the present world of banking to the Arms Race between the US and Soviets. The desire to increase individual security created greater systemic insecurity. He goes on to give three similar ‘arms races’ in banking and financial markets.
The race for returns was a key reason for the financial crisis. There were two aspects to the race on returns, one the return on equity for banks (ROE) and returns for bank CEO’s. Both of which were unprecedented in any historical context in the run up to the crisis.
Return on equity (in UK banks) was at historic highs in 2007, the only parallel is the 1920’s. The behaviors that drove that were similar to an arms race. It was not so much keeping up the Jones, but keeping up the Goldmans. If Goldman posted a ROE of 20%, all the rest had to meet or beat that figure.
The way this was achieved was taking on additional leverage; which pushed the banks and shadow banks into higher risk positions, creating a higher risk industry ‘equilibrium’ that destabilized the system.
Trade execution times:
20 years ago (minutes), 10 years ago (seconds), 5 years ago (milliseconds), Today its microseconds (million’s of a second)
Tomorrow it will be nanoseconds (billion’s of a second); it could well be picoseconds (trillion’ of a second) in short order.
‘High Frequency Trading’ now dominates mainstream financial markets, accounting for somewhere between 50% and 75% of trades by volume today. The average share on the NYSE is held for 11 seconds.
One reason they dominate markets is that they submit HUGE volumes of quotes the vast majority of which are never exercised. The firms cancel the majority of them before their exercised. Today for every order exercised, 60 are cancelled.
What’s going ON here; fake liquidity. Although it looks like they’re lots of quotes in the market, lots of liquidity – there is actually a mirage of liquidity. Quote ‘stuffing’ is a means of gaming the market. Why, because bandwidth is limited; quote stuffing loads the system slowing down everyone else. Slower traders simply can’t access the board.
The final race is the flip side of the first race; the race for risk aversion is particularly acute in that investors (in banks and other financial institutions) want the safety of collateral. In other words investors in banks are more unwilling to invest in banks on unsecured terms than in the past.
Everyone wants to be senior, everyone wants to be first in line – to have first claim on the assets of the bank. For instance the refinancing of Euro zone banks a few years ago was 60% unsecured, now the unsecured portion is less than 5%.
This race also comes with a price; it leads to bank balance sheets become more encumbered, banks assigning away their assets to investors which can not go on forever. The way it impacts the market is thus: ‘If I’m an unsecured creditor, why would I refinance, why should I let everyone else be ahead of me on the pecking order.
The result is a drying up of the pool of bank capital; a new higher risk equilibrium and destabilized system.
All these ‘races’ are populated with individually rational decisions, the outcome of which is systemically irrational and worse – creating the opposite – systemic instability.