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Narrow Banking: A Proposal to Avoid the Next Taxpayer Bailout of the Financial System

di - 12 ottobre 2009
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Mentre sembra iniziare la ripresa delle economie dalla grave fase di crisi, i policymakers devono chiedersi quali riforme del sistema finanziario siano da intraprendere per cercare di prevenire la ricorrenza di simili crisi nel futuro. Ciò che dai legislatori ci si può ora attendere è l’approvazione di misure dirette ad aumentare la regolamentazione e la vigilanza sul sistema. Scopo di questo articolo è quello di spiegare e valutare una proposta di riforma alternativa che aiuterebbe a mitigare le contraddizioni risultanti dal conflitto tra obiettivi di breve e di lungo termine. Questa proposta, conosciuta come “narrow banking” (banca a operatività limitata) prevede che la narrow bank detenga i propri depositi in riserva presso la banca centrale o li investa in titoli di Stato a breve, mentre la funzione creditizia sarebbe svolta da istituti separatamente capitalizzati. La proposta mira dunque a regolare e a controllare separatamente le diverse funzioni delle istituzioni bancarie: quella di fornire un sicuro e stabile sistema di pagamenti, e quella di creare credito per l’economia. Il nucleo della proposta consiste nel rendere i depositi bancari a vista (checkable deposits) un mezzo di pagamento altrettanto sicuro come le banconote in circolazione emesse dalla banca centrale, ma senza la necessità di quella elaborata e intrusiva struttura di regolazione e vigilanza, che è necessaria quando la protezione del sistema bancario è data da forme di pubblica garanzia dei depositi e dall’accesso al credito d’ultima istanza della banca centrale.

As recovery from the present economic crisis begins, policymakers must address what reforms will be made in financial system in order to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar crisis in the future. In formulating these reforms, policymakers will also have to address the heightened moral hazard and broadened “too big to fail” associated with the bailouts of financial firms. A debate is underway in several countries about reform of regulation and oversight. Will these reforms invite regulatory avoidance behavior by financial institutions or will financial innovation be stifled? These are the important questions that must be answered by any proposal for reform. The purpose of this article is to evaluate an alternative proposal that would help mitigate the policy conundrum that often results from conflicting short-run and long-run policies. This proposal, known as “narrow banking,” would separately regulate and supervise the role of banks in providing a safe and stable means of payment from the system of credit creation by financial institutions. The heart of the proposal is to make checkable (demand) deposits as safe a means of payment as currency issued by the central bank, but without the need for the elaborate supervisory and regulatory structure required when the public deposit insurance and the discount window are part of the financial safety net. The proposal is intended to provide a safe payments system and reduce the economic need, and therefore the political pressure, to bailout large financial holding companies.

What caused the present crisis?
The financial system has become characterized by both a blurring between credit (loans) and securities and the less perceptible differences between bank and non-bank financial intermediaries. Banks remain crucial as deposit-takers with access to the central bank’s liquidity, but their involvement in the process of credit creation, as a transaction-oriented activity, has notably changed. More and more, the traditional distinction between commercial banking and investment banking has given way to another distinction, between retail banks and banks as corporate finance providers, where any activity of business financing (loans, securities, derivatives) is carried-out in a kind of universal banking scheme that may differ from country to country but is essentially the same. On the liabilities side, deposits, which in previous decades were the almost exclusive source of funds, have had a diminishing role in bank funding. Banks, therefore, appear to be exposed to unexpected changes in conditions in the volatile wholesale market, increasing the possibility of bank runs by depositors. International connections on the wholesale market only enhance the fragility of this business model. The gap between bank lending funded by deposits and total lending by banks has increasingly been funded in the wholesale market.
In the current turmoil, what seems to be emerging is that the system cannot avoid bank runs without a substantial expansion of the government guarantee and a huge potential cost to the taxpayer; and that even non-bank institutions can be too-big, or too-interconnected to fail. The wholesale market, in a global financial system, has assumed a paramount importance for maintaining stability.

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