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As noted above, loans are banks’ bread and butter. No matter how good bankers are at asset, liability, and capital adequacy management, they will be failures if they cannot manage credit risk. Keeping defaults to a minimum requires bankers to be keen students of asymmetric information (adverse selection and moral hazard) and techniques for reducing them.
Bankers and insurers, like computer folks, know about GIGO—garbage in, garbage out. If they lend to or insure risky people and companies, they are going to suffer. So they carefully screen applicants for loans and insurance. In other words, to reduce asymmetric information, financial intermediaries create information about them. One way they do so is to ask applicants a wide variety of questions.
Financial intermediaries use the application only as a starting point. Because risky applicants might stretch the truth or even outright lie on the application, intermediaries typically do two things: (1) make the application a binding part of the financial contract, and (2) verify the information with disinterested third parties. The first allows them to void contracts if applications are fraudulent. If someone applied for life insurance but did not disclose that he or she was suffering from a terminal disease, the life insurance company would not pay, though it might return any premiums. (That may sound cruel to you, but it isn’t. In the process of protecting its profits, the insurance company is also protecting its policyholders.) In other situations, the intermediary might not catch a falsehood in an application until it is too late, so it also verifies important information by calling employers (Is John Doe really the Supreme Commander of XYZ Corporation?), conducting medical examinations (Is Jane Smith really in perfect health despite being 3' 6'' tall and weighing 567 pounds?), hiring appraisers (Is a one-bedroom, half-bath house on the wrong side of the tracks really worth $1.2 million?), and so forth. Financial intermediaries can also buy credit reports from third-party report providers like Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union. Similarly, insurance companies regularly share information with each other so that risky applicants can’t take advantage of them easily.
To help improve their screening acumen, many financial intermediaries specialize. By making loans to only one or a few types of borrowers, by insuring automobiles in a handful of states, by insuring farms but not factories, intermediaries get very good at discerning risky applicants from the rest. Specialization also helps to keep monitoring costs to a minimum. Remember that, to reduce moral hazard (postcontractual asymmetric information), intermediaries have to pay attention to what borrowers and people who are insured do. By specializing, intermediaries know what sort of restrictive covenants (aka loan covenants) to build into their contracts. Loan covenants include the frequency of providing financial reports, the types of information to be provided in said reports, working capital requirements, permission for onsite inspections, limitations on account withdrawals, and call options if business performance deteriorates as measured by specific business ratios. Insurance companies also build covenants into their contracts. You can’t turn your home into a brothel, it turns out, and retain your insurance coverage. To reduce moral hazard further, insurers also investigate claims that seem fishy. If you wrap your car around a tree the day after insuring it or increasing your coverage, the insurer’s claims adjuster is probably going to take a very close look at the alleged accident. Like everything else in life, however, specialization has its costs. Some companies overspecialize, hurting their asset management by making too many loans or issuing too many policies in one place or to one group. While credit risks decrease due to specialization, systemic risk to assets increases, requiring bankers to make difficult decisions regarding how much to specialize.
Forging long-term relationships with customers can also help financial intermediaries to manage their credit risks. Bankers, for instance, can lend with better assurance if they can study the checking and savings accounts of applicants over a period of years or decades. Repayment records of applicants who had previously obtained loans can be checked easily and cheaply. Moreover, the expectation (there’s that word again) of a long-term relationship changes the borrower’s calculations. The game, if you will, is to play nice so that loans will be forthcoming in the future.
One way that lenders create long-term relationships with businesses is by providing loan commitments, promises to lend $x at y interest (or y plus some market rate) for z years. Such arrangements are so beneficial for both lenders and borrowers that most commercial loans are in fact loan commitments. Such commitments are sometimes called lines of credit, particularly when extended to consumers. Because lines of credit can be revoked under specific circumstances, they act to reduce risky behavior on the part of borrowers.
Bankers also often insist on collateral—assets pledged by the borrower for repayment of a loan. When those assets are cash left in the bank, the collateral is called compensating or compensatory balances. Another powerful tool to combat asymmetric information is credit rationing, refusing to make a loan at any interest rate (to reduce adverse selection) or lending less than the sum requested (to reduce moral hazard). Insurers also engage in both types of rationing, and for the same reasons: people willing to pay high rates or premiums must be risky, and the more that is lent or insured (ceteris paribus) the higher the likelihood that the customer will abscond, cheat, or set aflame, as the case may be.
As the world learned to its chagrin in 2007–2008, banks and other lenders are not perfect screeners. Sometimes, under competitive pressure, they lend to borrowers they should not have. Sometimes, individual bankers profit handsomely by lending to very risky borrowers, even though their actions endanger their banks’ very existence. Other times, external political or societal pressures induce bankers to make loans they normally wouldn’t. Such excesses are always reversed eventually because the lenders suffer from high levels of nonperforming loansA loan that is in default, where the borrower is not making stipulated payments of interest or principal..
In the first quarter of 2007, banks and other intermediaries specializing in originating home mortgages (called mortgage companies) experienced a major setback in the so-called subprime market, the segment of the market that caters to high-risk borrowers, because default rates soared much higher than expected. Losses were so extensive that many people feared, correctly as it turned out, that they could trigger a financial crisis. To stave off such a potentially dangerous outcome, why didn’t the government immediately intervene by guaranteeing the subprime mortgages?
The government must be careful to try to support the financial system without giving succor to those who have screwed up. Directly bailing out the subprime lenders by guaranteeing mortgage payments would cause moral hazard to skyrocket, it realized. Borrowers might be more likely to default by rationalizing that the crime is a victimless one (though, in fact, all taxpayers would suffer—recall that there is no such thing as a free lunch in economics). Lenders would learn that they can make crazy loans to anyone because good ol’ Uncle Sam will cushion, or even prevent, their fall.