The Role of Banks

How Banks Go Bankrupt

A bank that is bankrupt will have a negative net worth, meaning its assets will be worth less than its liabilities. How can this happen? Again, looking at the balance sheet helps to explain.

A well-run bank will assume that a small percentage of borrowers will not repay their loans on time, or at all, and factor these missing payments into its planning. Remember, the calculations of the banks' expenses every year include a factor for loans that borrowers do not repay, and the value of a bank’s loans on its balance sheet assumes a certain level of riskiness because some customers will not repay loans. Even if a bank expects a certain number of loan defaults, it will suffer if the number of loan defaults is much greater than expected, as can happen during a recession. For example, if the Safe and Secure Bank in Figure experienced a wave of unexpected defaults, so that its loans declined in value from $5 million to $3 million, then the assets of the Safe and Secure Bank would decline so that the bank had negative net worth.

What led to the 2008–2009 financial crisis?

Many banks make mortgage loans so that people can buy a home, but then do not keep the loans on their books as an asset. Instead, the bank sells the loan. These loans are “securitized,” which means that they are bundled together into a financial security that a financial institution sells to investors. Investors in these mortgage-backed securities receive a rate of return based on the level of payments that people make on all the mortgages that stand behind the security.

Securitization offers certain advantages. If a bank makes most of its loans in a local area, then the bank may be financially vulnerable if the local economy declines, so that many people are unable to make their payments. However, if a bank sells its local loans, and then buys a mortgage-backed security based on home loans in many parts of the country, it can avoid exposure to local financial risks. (In the simple example in the text, banks just own “bonds.” In reality, banks can own a number of financial instruments, as long as these financial investments are safe enough to satisfy the government bank regulators.) From the standpoint of a local homebuyer, securitization offers the benefit that a local bank does not need to have significant extra funds to make a loan, because the bank is only planning to hold that loan for a short time, before selling the loan so that it can pool it into a financial security.

However, securitization also offers one potentially large disadvantage. If a bank plans to hold a mortgage loan as an asset, the bank has an incentive to scrutinize the borrower carefully to ensure that the customer is likely to repay the loan. However, a bank that plans to sell the loan may be less careful in making the loan in the first place. The bank will be more willing to make what we call “subprime loans,” which are loans that have characteristics like low or zero down-payment, little scrutiny of whether the borrower has a reliable income, and sometimes low payments for the first year or two that will be followed by much higher payments. Economists dubbed some financial institutions that made subprime loans in the mid-2000s NINJA loans: loans that financial institutions made even though the borrower had demonstrated No Income, No Job, or Assets.

Financial institutions typically sold these subprime loans and turned them into financial securities—but with a twist. The idea was that if losses occurred on these mortgage-backed securities, certain investors would agree to take the first, say, 5% of such losses. Other investors would agree to take, say, the next 5% of losses. By this approach, still other investors would not need to take any losses unless these mortgage-backed financial securities lost 25% or 30% or more of their total value. These complex securities, along with other economic factors, encouraged a large expansion of subprime loans in the mid-2000s.

The economic stage was now set for a banking crisis. Banks thought they were buying only ultra-safe securities, because even though the securities were ultimately backed by risky subprime mortgages, the banks only invested in the part of those securities where they were protected from small or moderate levels of losses. However, as housing prices fell after 2007, and the deepening recession made it harder for many people to make their mortgage payments, many banks found that their mortgage-backed financial assets could be worth much less than they had expected—and so the banks were faced with staring bankruptcy. In the 2008–2011 period, 318 banks failed in the United States.

The risk of an unexpectedly high level of loan defaults can be especially difficult for banks because a bank’s liabilities, namely it customers' deposits. Customers can withdraw funds quickly but many of the bank’s assets like loans and bonds will only be repaid over years or even decades. This asset-liability time mismatch—the ability for customers to withdraw bank’s liabilities in the short term while customers repay its assets in the long term—can cause severe problems for a bank. For example, imagine a bank that has loaned a substantial amount of money at a certain interest rate, but then sees interest rates rise substantially. The bank can find itself in a precarious situation. If it does not raise the interest rate it pays to depositors, then deposits will flow to other institutions that offer the higher interest rates that are now prevailing. However, if the bank raises the interest rates that it pays to depositors, it may end up in a situation where it is paying a higher interest rate to depositors than it is collecting from those past loans that it at lower interest rates. Clearly, the bank cannot survive in the long term if it is paying out more in interest to depositors than it is receiving from borrowers.

How can banks protect themselves against an unexpectedly high rate of loan defaults and against the risk of an asset-liability time mismatch? One strategy is for a bank to diversify its loans, which means lending to a variety of customers. For example, suppose a bank specialized in lending to a niche market—say, making a high proportion of its loans to construction companies that build offices in one downtown area. If that one area suffers an unexpected economic downturn, the bank will suffer large losses. However, if a bank loans both to consumers who are buying homes and cars and also to a wide range of firms in many industries and geographic areas, the bank is less exposed to risk. When a bank diversifies its loans, those categories of borrowers who have an unexpectedly large number of defaults will tend to be balanced out, according to random chance, by other borrowers who have an unexpectedly low number of defaults. Thus, diversification of loans can help banks to keep a positive net worth. However, if a widespread recession occurs that touches many industries and geographic areas, diversification will not help.

Along with diversifying their loans, banks have several other strategies to reduce the risk of an unexpectedly large number of loan defaults. For example, banks can sell some of the loans they make in the secondary loan market, as we described earlier, and instead hold a greater share of assets in the form of government bonds or reserves. Nevertheless, in a lengthy recession, most banks will see their net worth decline because customers will not repay a higher share of loans in tough economic times.