A stable financial system, when hit by adverse events, or "shocks," continues to meet the demands of households and businesses for financial services, such as credit provision and payment services. In contrast, in an unstable system, these same shocks are likely to have much larger effects, disrupting the flow of credit and leading to declines in employment and economic activity.
Consistent with this view of financial stability, the Federal Reserve Board's monitoring framework distinguishes between shocks to and vulnerabilities of the financial system. Shocks, such as sudden changes to financial or economic conditions, are typically surprises and are inherently difficult to predict. Vulnerabilities tend to build up over time and are the aspects of the financial system that are most expected to cause widespread problems in times of stress. As a result, the framework focuses primarily on monitoring vulnerabilities and emphasizes four broad categories based on research.2
- Elevated valuation pressures are signaled by asset prices that are high relative to economic fundamentals or historical norms and are often driven by an increased willingness of investors to take on risk. As such, elevated valuation pressures imply a greater possibility of outsized drops in asset prices.
- Excessive borrowing by businesses and households leaves them vulnerable to distress if their incomes decline or the assets they own fall in value. In the event of such shocks, businesses and households with high debt burdens may need to cut back spending sharply, affecting the overall level of economic activity. Moreover, when businesses and households cannot make payments on their loans, financial institutions and investors incur losses.
- Excessive leverage within the financial sector increases the risk that financial institutions will not have the ability to absorb even modest losses when hit by adverse shocks. In those situations, institutions will be forced to cut back lending, sell their assets, or, in extreme cases, shut down. Such responses can substantially impair credit access for households and businesses.
- Funding risks expose the financial system to the possibility that investors will "run" by withdrawing their funds from a particular institution or sector. Many financial institutions raise funds from the public with a commitment to return their investors' money on short notice, but those institutions then invest much of the funds in illiquid assets that are hard to sell quickly or in assets that have a long maturity. This liquidity and maturity transformation can create an incentive for investors to withdraw funds quickly in adverse situations. Facing a run, financial institutions may need to sell assets quickly at "fire sale" prices, thereby incurring substantial losses and potentially even becoming insolvent. Historians and economists often refer to widespread investor runs as "financial panics."
These vulnerabilities often interact with each other. For example, elevated valuation pressures tend to be associated with excessive borrowing by businesses and households because both borrowers and lenders are more willing to accept higher degrees of risk and leverage when asset prices are appreciating rapidly. The associated debt and leverage, in turn, make the risk of outsized declines in asset prices more likely and more damaging. Similarly, the risk of a run on a financial institution and the consequent fire sales of assets are greatly amplified when significant leverage is involved.
It is important to note that liquidity and maturity transformation and lending to households, businesses, and financial firms are key aspects of how the financial system supports the economy. For example, banks provide safe, liquid assets to depositors and long-term loans to households and businesses; businesses rely on loans or bonds to fund investment projects; and households benefit from a well-functioning mortgage market when buying a home.
The Federal Reserve's monitoring framework also tracks domestic and international developments to identify near-term risks—that is, plausible adverse developments or shocks that could stress the U.S. financial system. The analysis of these risks focuses on assessing how such potential shocks may play out through the U.S. financial system, given our current assessment of the four areas of vulnerabilities.
While this framework provides a systematic way to assess financial stability, some potential risks do not fit neatly into it because they are novel or difficult to quantify. In addition, some vulnerabilities are difficult to measure with currently available data, and the set of vulnerabilities may evolve over time. Given these limitations, we continually rely on ongoing research by the Federal Reserve staff, academics, and other experts to improve our measurement of existing vulnerabilities and to keep pace with changes in the financial system that could create new forms of vulnerabilities or add to existing ones.
Federal Reserve actions to promote the resilience of the financial system
The assessment of financial vulnerabilities informs Federal Reserve actions to promote the resilience of the financial system. The Federal Reserve works with other domestic agencies directly and through the FSOC to monitor risks to financial stability and to undertake supervisory and regulatory efforts to mitigate the risks and consequences of financial instability.
Actions taken by the Federal Reserve to promote the resilience of the financial system include its supervision and regulation of financial institutions—in particular, large bank holding companies (BHCs), the U.S. operations of certain foreign banking organizations, and financial market utilities. Specifically, in the post-crisis period, for the largest, most systemically important BHCs, these actions have included requirements for more and higher-quality capital, an innovative stress-testing regime, new liquidity regulation, and improvements in the resolvability of such BHCs.
In addition, the Federal Reserve's assessment of financial vulnerabilities informs the design of stress-test scenarios and decisions regarding the CCyB. The stress scenarios incorporate some systematic elements to make the tests more stringent when financial imbalances are rising, and the assessment of vulnerabilities also helps identify salient risks that can be included in the scenarios. The CCyB is designed to increase the resilience of large banking organizations when there is an elevated risk of above-normal losses and to promote a more sustainable supply of credit over the economic cycle.
2. For a review of the research literature in this area and further discussion, see Tobias Adrian, Daniel Covitz, and Nellie Liang (2015), "Financial Stability Monitoring," Annual Review of Financial Economics, vol. 7 (December), pp. 357–95. Return to text