Gauging crisis risks, 10 years post-GFC

Key points

  • We see a repeat of the global financial crisis as unlikely, yet new risks and some old ones deserve investors’ attention.
  • The prospect of fresh China-U.S. trade talks eased nerves in markets. Turkey’s central bank raised rates, triggering a rally in the lira.
  • This week’s European Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data are in focus as markets look for signs of stabilization in the region’s economy.

The global economy appears to be humming along 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a pivotal moment in the global financial crisis (GFC). Are we better prepared for a crisis today? We see the odds of a repeat of a similar crisis as low, as many problems exposed then have been addressed. Yet we believe new risks and some old ones deserve investors’ attention.


U.S. debt and broker-dealer leverage, 2007 and 2018


We illustrate the dynamic by showing leverage in different parts of the U.S. economy in the chart above. Debt levels in the household and financial sectors have both declined from pre-crisis peaks. Recall that high leverage in those two sectors was at the center of the global crisis. But new risks have emerged. Sovereign debt is on the rise. Government debt has jumped to nearly 94% of U.S. GDP from 52% in 2007 – and is headed higher. Rising sovereign and non-financial corporate leverage is a global phenomenon. Debt levels of non-financial corporates have risen above the pre-crisis levels after a period of decline. And smaller financial sector balance sheets have reduced liquidity in credit markets. The silver lining: Lower interest rates make the cost of servicing this debt much cheaper than a decade ago, and maturities have been lengthened, providing resilience to rising rates.

Proceeding with caution

We have come a long way since 2008. Banks have larger liquidity buffers, are better capitalized and under greater supervisory scrutiny, though European banks have made less progress than their U.S. peers. The global financial system in general is on a firmer footing thanks to post-crisis regulation that has bolstered the ability of financial institutions to absorb shocks. The lack of extremes in markets, such as very high valuations and very low risk premia, is even more encouraging. We do not see excessive investor crowding in risky assets. The last financial crisis amplified an aversion to taking risk, resulting in higher precautionary savings.

The caveats to this rosier picture? The Federal Reserve and European Union (EU) authorities now face legal limits in their ability to rescue troubled banks. Monetary policy has less room to maneuver with global interest rates still at historically low levels and some major central banks yet to start winding down their post-crisis asset purchase programs. Sovereign debt loads have ballooned, curtailing the scope for fiscal stimulus. There has been greater concentration of assets in the largest banks, and those with cross-border operations would be no easier to resolve in a doomsday scenario. Central counterparty clearing houses have helped boost transparency in derivatives trades – the lack thereof was blamed as a trigger of the last crisis – yet their ability to weather a crisis is untested. Reduced market liquidity creates the risk of spillovers if investors are forced to sell the more liquid parts of portfolios. High corporate sector debt and opaque lending in China are potential sources of financial vulnerability. And the concerted global efforts required to contain the last crisis may be harder to come by for the next one amid a global wave of populist and nationalist sentiment.

Bottom line: The vulnerabilities that plagued the global financial system a decade ago have been reduced – but have not disappeared. Coupled with rising macro uncertainty, we believe this warrants a heightened focus on portfolio resilience. Yet overall we retain a pro-risk bias – and believe investors are being compensated for the equity risk they take in today’s environment of steady growth and strong corporate earnings.

By Richard Turnill, BlackRock, September 17, 2018

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