As the current economic turmoil unfolds, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term implications. The crisis mind-set in the financial-services sector, in particular, is understandable. Some of the world’s leading banking and insurance institutions are falling by the wayside. It is estimated that more than 100,000 professionals will have lost their jobs by the end of this year. Most ordinary savers around the world have lost significant portions of their pension and retirement savings. Governments are being tested, and leaders are under great pressure to intervene. The “bailouts” and other responses developed so far, however beneficial, will divert treasury and taxpayer money that might otherwise have been used to build infrastructure and support economic growth. Today’s level of market volatility has not been seen since the 1987 stock market crash. The size of the U.S. financial sector, the interconnected nature of financial markets, and the lightning-fast communication of news and rumor around the world have exacerbated the speed and scale of the crisis’s impact.
And yet, this is still a financial crisis, not a broad, fundamental economic meltdown. There is no sign of substantial risk of sovereign default in any of the major strong economies around the world. Moreover, the effects of this crisis will not be uniform. To be sure, many healthy banks and financial institutions are being punished by association; they are suffering from the shortage of credit and of investor confidence. But these effects will subside. As governments and central banks cordon off the problem institutions, a level of relative calm and confidence will return to the markets.
Even now, a number of financial-services organizations are surviving the crisis without major turmoil. They have a historic opportunity to capitalize on the events of the past six months and emerge better positioned than they have ever been before. Their next stage will be to develop new business models and revamp management practices for lasting success in the post-crisis world. The current uncertainty provides a base for their future advantage.
Thus, for those in the financial-services industry, now is not a time for knee-jerk responses. These times call for business and government leaders to take a calm look at the realities — to put in place measures that address economic fundamentals and establish a platform for success in the new era.
Remember, this crisis was not driven by economic or geopolitical fundamentals. It is rooted in the risk management of particular financial-services institutions. In the U.S. and western European banking systems in particular, a combination of incentives and market signals — the rise of asset values, the tax deductibility of mortgage interest, the nonrecourse rules (which prevent lenders from having access to borrowers after foreclosure), and the strong sales commission incentives in real estate — had led to easy consumer credit and inflated purchasing power. Financial institutions, chasing market share in a rising market, had used securitization in ever more complex varieties to fund their lending. Insurers, rating agencies, and regulators had all played an enabling role. Authorities reacted slowly and, on occasion, acted without the information needed to be effective (for example, the German government in its response to the near-collapse of the Hypo Real Estate holding company). In some cases, structural factors had delayed effective response: U.S. Federal Reserve measures, such as the lowering of fund rates, had been weakened by the amount of money tied up in longer-term instruments, such as fixed-rate mortgages.
As the denouement unfolds, three sets of opportunities are appearing: one for financial institutions in developed economies, one for the banks and financial-services industries in emerging economies (the so-called BRIC markets), and one for government regulators.