Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Round-up on evolving role of central banks

Central banks may have once been quite remote in their workings to the average person, relegated to seemingly academic and technical tasks of interest rate management and currency market machinations. Perhaps many people had only ever heard of the Federal Reserve and had no perspective on the worldwide system of international and supranational central banking.

The 2008 global financial crisis, however, thrust central banks worldwide into the spotlight. Economic news since that time garnered a lot of attention in the media as countries attempted to recover from the economic crisis and re-defined their financial systems to be more resilient and guided by a more effective controls framework. This effort has been one that started with a focus on free-wheeling rescue and stimulus and subsequently has morphed to still include those objectives, with somewhat more restraint when possible, but now also to visibly impact many other areas of the financial system and markets.

In this process, central banks around the world have found themselves in a bit of an existential quest to determine what their engagement level and scope will be. Technological advancements and changes in post-crisis regulatory and legislative priorities have pressured central banks to decide whether they will contribute to certain markets and identify the extent of their own autonomy within their national systems.

  • Bank of Russia is facing a possible national banking crisis, as two major banks have needed rescue due to liquidity problems in just a month’s time. In August, there was a run on deposits at Bank Otkritie FC. In September, B&N Bank asked for a bailout to increase liquidity. The current problem could stem from the central bank’s efforts to rejuvenate Russia’s banking industry in 2014 on the heels of financial troubles in the industry from falling oil prices and international sanctions. At that time, Bank of Russia offered inexpensive loans to major banks to encourage them to take over smaller ones that were not doing well.   This consolidation caused the large banks to take on the troubled assets of the small banks, which are now creating the current liquidity pressure. Otkritie even has alleged that the assets it acquired were fraudulently represented in the purchases. This suggests issues with Bank of Russia’s supervision of those entities. If these early bailouts cannot contain the problems then a privatization trend could take hold:  Russia to Bail Out Second Major Bank in Month as Troubles Spread
  • The Swiss National Bank is publicly listed on the Swiss stock exchange, with 48 percent of its shares privately owned. Some other countries do have central banks with private shareholders, but this year, the share price of the Swiss National Bank has almost doubled. This trading activity is an interesting anomaly, as shareholders do not stand to benefit from the Swiss National Bank’s interventions in the foreign currency markets to keep the value of franc down. It’s possible that some investors are speculating on this thinly-traded stock in order to profit from price volatility that is not hard to generate with fairly moderate-sized transactions. Other motivations could be shareholders hoping for a public-to-private buyout by the bank or a flight to quality:  The mysterious rise in shares of the Swiss National Bank 
  • South Africa’s central bank Reserve Bank claims its independence is under attack as the South African government has been encouraging lawmakers to redefine the mission of the bank from inflation management to promoting socioeconomic benefits for South Africans. The Reserve Bank has been targeted by the Public Protector who is charged with investigating a bailout by the central bank from 1992. Far from a neutral process, this investigation has been controversial and politically-charged, and it has been seen as seeking to undermine the independence and reputability of the central bank. This very public reputational dispute begs the question of how central banks worldwide may be blamed disproportionately for their country’s economic problems or pressured politically to adopt agendas contrary to their essential purpose:  South Africa Central Bank Says Anti-Graft Head Met Zuma Team
  • The hot market this year has definitely been in cryptocurrencies, and questions have abounded about how national supervisors would react to a proliferation of trading exchanges and market offerings in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others. The People’s Bank of China (PBoC), China’s central bank, has issued probably the strongest regulatory challenge to the market for cryptocurrencies so far. The PBoC first banned initial coin offerings (ICOs), the IPOs of the cryptocurrencies market, and then ordered all trading exchanges in Beijing to cease trading cryptocurrencies and quit allowing new users to register. China’s relevant industry regulator, the National Internet Finance Association of China, fell in step with the PBoC to condemn cryptocurrencies as illegal, linked to illicit activities, and too risky for market stability and investor protection interests:  China Is Shutting Down All of Beijing’s Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Exchanges
  • However, not all central banks have had such an allergic reaction to bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Taking in stride the possible risks and undesirable associations, others are contemplating whether the way to manage speculative trading in their own currency markets might be to join in issuing cryptocurrencies as well. This “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach has been suggested by the Bank for International Settlements, a consortium of national central banks based in Switzerland. Some central banks, including the Bank of England and the Bank of Canada, are already experimenting with blockchain technology for interbank payment systems. The Reserve Bank of India is also looking into blockchain and even considering issuing its own cryptocurrency, as is the Estonian Ministry of Finance (to the disapproval of the European Central Bank). The overall verdict is that central banks need to take more time to consider their own interests before becoming enthusiastic cryptocurrency offerors, but the enticement of participating in the market in hopes of stemming potential risks to the financial system and their own monetary policy may prove too much to resist:  The Bitcoin Bandwagon: Central Banks Consider Their Own Cryptocurrencies

As the global economy continues to deepen in complexity and interconnectedness, inevitably bouncing between financial recovery and relapse, the role of central banks in this worldwide system will also keep evolving. Systemic changes in the market and transformative advancements in technology both represent threats to, but also opportunities for, the traditional central banking system.

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