With the European crisis continuing to dominate the news, many people now realise that today’s global economy faces an unusually uncertain outlook. Indeed, Europe’s turmoil is but one of the multiple global re-alignments in play today. What may be less well recognised is the extent to which specific sectors are already changing in a consequential and permanent manner.
This is particularly true for global finance where volatility has increased, liquidity is evaporating, and the role of government is pronounced but inconsistent. This is a sector where the functioning of markets is changing, along with the outlook for institutions. The implications are relevant for both economic growth and jobs.
The recent volatility in financial markets – be it the dizzying swings in equities around the world or the fragmentation of European sovereign bonds – far exceeds what is warranted by the ongoing global re-alignments. We are also seeing the impact of a consequential shift in underlying liquidity conditions – or the oil that lubricates the flow of the credit and the related ability of savers and borrowers to find each other and interact efficiently.
Facing a range of internal and external pressures, banks seem to be limiting the amount of capital that they devote to market making. Combine this with the natural inclination of many market participants to retreat to the sidelines when volatility and uncertainty increase, and what you get is a disruptive combination of higher transaction costs, reduced trading volumes, and abrupt moves in valuations.
We are also witnessing a loss of trust in instruments that many market participants – from corporations to individual investors and institutional ones – use to manage their balance sheet risks. The reduced ability to hedge current and future exposures is even forcing some to transition from using markets to manage their “net” exposures to simply reducing gross footings.
Meanwhile western banks, whether they like it or not (and most do not), are now embarked on a journey – away from what some have called “casino banking” to what others label as the “utility model.” Whether in America or in Europe, banks are under enormous pressure from both the private and public sectors to become less complex, less levered, less risky and more boring.
By withholding new credit, private creditors are forcing certain banks to de-lever – a process that is amplified by the sharp decline in bank stocks and the accompanying erosion in capital cushions. At the same time, the banks’ traditional global dominance is under growing competitive pressures from rivals headquartered in healthy emerging economies.
The result of all this is a further, across-the-board shrinkage in the balance sheet of the western banking system. This is led by Europe where some institutions (e.g., in Greece) are also experiencing meaningful deposit outflows.
After the 2008-09 debacle of the global financial crisis, governments also want their banks to be better capitalised and more disciplined. And while implementation has been both far from consistent and less than fully effective, the intention is clear: Much tighter guardrails and better enforcement to preclude any repeat of the wild west experience of over-leverage, bad lending practices, and inappropriate compensation approaches.
The influence of central banks and governments are also being felt in other ways that impact the functioning and efficiency of markets. Some of the implications are visible and largely knowable while others, by their very nature, are unprecedented and therefore less predictable.
For three years now, central banks have been pursuing a range of “unconventional policies,” particularly in America and Europe. The goal has been to reduce the probability of prolonged recessions and severe financial dislocations.
In doing so, central banks have gone well beyond their prudential supervisory and regulatory roles. They have become important direct participants in markets – essentially using their printing presses to buy selective securities, and doing so not on the basis of the usual commercial criteria that anchor the normal functioning of markets.
Market predictability is also being impacted by the erosion in the standing of sovereign risk in the western world. The cause is the twin problem of way too little economic growth and way too much debt. The effect is a less stable global financial system now that there are fewer genuine “AAA” anchoring its core.
All this will translate into a very different financial landscape. The change will be most pronounced for banks.
Look for western banks to be less complex, less global, somewhat less inter-connected and, therefore, less systemic. With some banks teetering on the edge, certain European governments (e.g., Greece) will have no choice but to nationalize part of their financial system.
Also, with the western banking system shrinking in scope and scale, look for new credit pipes to be built around those that are now clogged. With the aim of supporting growth and jobs, particularly in longer-term investments such as infrastructure, some of these pipes will be directed or enabled by governments.
Have no doubt, the financial landscape is rapidly evolving. Some of the changes are deliberately designed and implemented. Others are being imposed by the quickly changing reality on the ground.
The ultimate destination is a smaller and safer financial services sector. When we get there, a better balance will be struck between private gains and the common good. Banks will be in a better position to serve the real economy without exposing it to catastrophic risk and harmful abuses.
The next few months will shed light on the extent to which governments and, to a lesser extent, business leaders are able to properly orchestrate the process. The more they fall short, the less growth and fewer jobs there will be.
Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Reuters Columnist.