Fear of fire sales and the credit freeze

BIS Working Papers No 305
March 2010

Accompanied by a note by RG Rajan on how to deal with financial institutions that are "too systemic to fail".


Is there any need to “clean” up a banking system in the midst of a crisis, by closing or recapitalizing weak banks and taking bad assets off bank balance sheets, or can one wait till the crisis is over? We argue that an “overhang” of impaired banks that may be forced to sell assets soon can reduce the current price of illiquid assets sufficiently that weak banks have no interest in selling them. Anticipating a potential future fire sale, cash rich buyers have high expected returns to holding cash, which also reduces their incentive to lock up money in term loans. The potential for a worse fire sale than necessary, as well as the associated decline in credit origination, could make the crisis worse, which is one reason it may make sense to clean up the system even in the midst of the crisis. We discuss alternative ways of cleaning up the system, and the associated costs and benefits.

JEL codes: G21, G01, G28

Keywords: Fire sales, illiquid securities, bank fragility, prudential policy