Office of Financial Research Reports on Potential Threats to Financial Stability

The U.S. Office of Financial Research (“OFR”) reported that the U.S. financial system showed improved resilience over the past year but that it faces several threats stemming from global disruptions and “financial system evolution.” The findings were published in the 2016 Annual Report to Congress and in the 2016 Financial Stability Report.

OFR Director Richard Berner highlighted the key vulnerabilities uncovered by the reports:

“. . . Those created by global economic and financial disruptions, by continued risk-taking amid still-low long-term interest rates, by risks facing U.S. financial institutions, and by challenges in improving financial data.”

Both reports cited the following factors and developments as specific threats:

  • potential spillovers from Europe stemming from the long-term uncertainty posed by the Brexit vote;
  • credit risks in U.S. nonfinancial corporations posed by the rapid growth of high debt levels;
  • cybersecurity incidents stemming from electronic transactions;
  • the concentration of risk in central counterparties (“CCPs”) caused by clearing from CCPs;
  • pressure on U.S. life insurance companies;
  • systemic footprints of the largest U.S. banks and the substantial risks inherent in large bank failures; and
  • deficiencies in data and data management.

In the reports, the OFR also discussed the role of shadow banking in the financial system.

Lofchie Comment: A number of the systemic threats in the reports are due in large part to government intervention in the markets; e.g., the high debt levels that result from extremely low interest rates, and the increase in size of very large banks, which arguably is exacerbated by the costs of regulation that weigh most heavily on smaller firms.

The most notable threat acknowledged by the OFR is that which is created by central counterparties: “We are concerned that, although clearing swaps transactions through central counterparties reduces the risk from the other party defaulting in two-way swap transactions, it also concentrates risk in the CCP itself.”

“No kidding,” one is tempted to say. The government’s acknowledgment of this risk, which resulted from Dodd-Frank’s supposed magic bullet, is beneficial if remarkably belated. (Kudos to University of Houston Finance Professor Craig Pirrong, who predicted the threat many years earlier in posts on the Streetwise Professor blog.)

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