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Can Systemic Financial Risk Be Contained? 

January 7, 2016

Joseph P. Joyce, Ecnomonitor

Risk aversion is a basic human characteristic, and in response to it we seek to safeguard the world live in. We mandate airbags and safety belts for automobile driving, set standards for the handling and shipment of food, build levees and dams to control floods, and regulate financial transactions and institutions to avoid financial collapses. But Greg Ip in Foolproof shows that our best attempts at avoiding catastrophes can fail, and even bring about worse disasters than those that motivate our attempts to avoid them. Drivers who feel safer with antilock brakes drive more quickly and leave less space between cars, while government flood insurance encourages building houses on plains that are regularly flooded.

Is the financial sector different? The traditional measures implemented to avoid financial failures are based on attaining macroeconomic stability. Monetary policy was used to control inflation, and when necessary, respond to shocks that destabilized the economy. When a crisis did emerge, the primary responsibility of a central bank was to act as a lender of last resort, providing funds to institutions that were solvent but illiquid. There was a vigorous debate before the global crisis of 2008-09 over whether central banks should attempt to deflate asset bubbles, but most central bankers did not believe that this was an appropriate task.

Fiscal policy was seen as more limited in its ability to combat business downturns because of lags in its design, implementation and effect. A policy that established a balanced budget over the business cycle, thus limiting the buildup of public debt, was often considered the best that could be expected. Read more

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