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The anatomy of a financial crisis

In this blog, we present the anatomy of a financial crisis. A characteristic feature of a banking crisis is that it tends to follow, more-or-less, the same path regardless of the ‘shock’ or ‘trigger’ that initiates it.

The next phase of the crisis is likely to be a global financial crisis, as we have been anticipating for quite some time (see, e.g., Q-Review 4/2017). However, few understand what a financial crisis is, though it is probably among the most feared economic phenomena of mankind.

So, let’s dive in.

The initiation

If a banking system is sound and robust, it can usually withstand financial and economic shocks.

But a banking system may be fragile. Usually this is due to high leverage levels, where banks have either lent aggressively or carry risky financial investments on their balance sheets—usually both. Banks can also have a weak financial position, with chronically low profitability and insufficient reserves. As we have explained earlier, this is exactly the state the European banking sector finds itself in.

The onset of a financial crisis requires a trigger. The most common is a recession or the expectation of recession among consumers and investors.

Recession leads to diminished income and defaults by both corporations and households. This increases the share of non-performing loans in bank loan portfolios, reducing the value of loan collateral and increasing bank risks and capital needs. As write-downs and losses increase, mistrust among other banks and depositors and investors does as well. The bank’s share price will usually start to reflect this.

A ‘bank run’

If suspicion spreads, banks will be apprehensive about counterparty risk and will be unwilling to lend to one another even on an overnight basis.  If allowed to continue, this will have a calamitous impact on liquidity in money markets.

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