Why Do Banks Feel Discount Window Stigma?
Liberty Street Economics January 15, 2014
Even when banks face acute liquidity shortages, they often appear reluctant to borrow at the New York Fed’s discount window (DW) out of concern that such borrowing may be interpreted as a sign of financial weakness. This phenomenon is often called “DW stigma.” In this post, we explore possible reasons why banks may feel such stigma.
The problem of stigma has been a lingering issue throughout the history of the DW. Prior to 2003, banks in distress could borrow from the DW at a rate below the fed funds target rate. Because of the subsidized rate, the Fed was concerned about “opportunistic overborrowing” by banks. Accordingly, before accessing the DW, a bank had to satisfy the Fed that it had exhausted private sources of funding and that it had a genuine business need for the funds. Hence, if market participants learned that a bank had accessed the DW, then they could reasonably conclude that the bank had limited sources of funding. The old DW regime therefore created a legitimate perception of stigma.
To address such stigma concerns, the Fed fundamentally changed its DW policy in 2003. In Regulation A, as revised in 2003, the Fed classified DW loans into primary credit, secondary credit, and seasonal credit. Financially strong and well-capitalized banks can borrow under the primary credit program at a penalty rate above the target fed funds rate (rather than a subsidized rate, as in the past). Other banks can use the secondary credit program and pay a rate higher than the primary credit rate. Finally, seasonal credit is for relatively small banks with seasonal fluctuations in reserves. For banks eligible for primary credit, the new DW is a “no-questions-asked” facility. Namely, the Fed no longer establishes a bank’s possible sources and needs for funding to lend under the primary credit program. Instead, primary credit for overnight maturity is allocated with minimal administrative burden on the borrower. Hence, access to primary credit need not be motivated by pressing funding needs nor signal financial weakness. In other words, there’s no structural reason why stigma should be attached to the new DW.
Nevertheless, stigma concerns resurfaced in 2007 at the onset of the recent financial crisis. In fact, as adverse liquidity conditions in the interbank markets persisted at the end of 2007, the Fed had to put in place a temporary facility, the Term Auction Facility (TAF), which was specifically designed to eliminate any perception of stigma attached to borrowing from the DW. Further, as discussed in a previous post, there’s strong evidence that banks experienced DW stigma during the most recent financial crisis.
So why do banks still feel DW stigma? In a recent staff report, we explored different hypotheses related to factors that may exacerbate or attenuate DW stigma. To conduct our analysis, we compared the DW rate with the bids each bank submitted at the TAF between December 2007 and October 2008. As explained in our paper, it can be shown with a simple arbitrage argument that, absent DW stigma, a TAF bidder should never bid above the prevailing DW rate. We therefore interpreted a bank bidding above the DW rate as evidence of DW stigma. Then, we conducted an econometric analysis to identify a bank’s possible determinants of DW stigma. Among the various hypotheses we tested, we report here the most interesting.
- Banks outside the New York District: A necessary condition for DW stigma to exist is that banks must believe there’s a chance their identities will be made public soon after they borrow from the DW. Although central banks don’t immediately disclose the borrower’s identity, it’s been argued that DW borrowers may be identified from the Fed’s weekly public report, in which DW borrowings aggregated by Federal Reserve District are published. This identification channel may be especially relevant for banks in smaller Districts. Indeed, DW borrowing by an institution in a smaller District may be easier to detect. To test this hypothesis, our study focused on the Second Federal Reserve District (which covers the New York region) — the largest of the twelve Federal Reserve Districts in terms of the number of banks supervised. Consistent with the hypothesis, our results showed that banks in the New York District were 14 percent less likely to experience DW stigma than their counterparts in smaller Districts.
- Foreign banks: It’s also possible that foreign institutions with access to primary credit at the Fed are especially sensitive to DW stigma. Indeed, in contrast with their U.S. counterparts, foreign banks typically don’t have access to retail dollar deposits that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. As a result, foreign banks must often rely on wholesale debt investors (such as money market funds), which are highly sensitive to credit risk. In other words, because their investors may be sensitive to any negative information, foreign banks may be particularly concerned about the risk of being detected taking a loan at the DW. Again, we found strong evidence to support this hypothesis. Specifically, our results suggested that branches and agencies of foreign banks were 28 percent more likely to experience DW stigma than their U.S. counterparts with otherwise similar characteristics.
- Herding effect: Intuitively, DW stigma may be expected to reflect a coordination problem. If an institution is the only one borrowing at the DW, then it’s likely to be stigmatized. However, the stigma from accessing the DW should be lower if many other institutions do so at the same time. However, we found no support for this hypothesis. Specifically, our results suggested that the stigma attached to borrowing at the DW didn’t decline when more banks accessed it during the 2007-08 period. To explore this question in more detail, we also tested whether there’s a form of herding or contagion effect, whereby a bank’s DW stigma declines when more banks within its own peer group (as measured by asset size) go to the DW. Again, the results from our regressions provided no evidence of such a herding effect.
- Market conditions: In times of financial crises, there’s often intense speculation about the health of various financial institutions. In particular, public news that may be considered negative (such as a bank visit to the DW that becomes public) is likely to be amplified beyond its informational content. As a result, banks may go to greater expense to avoid borrowing at the DW. One may therefore expect DW stigma to increase when financial markets become more stressed. To test this hypothesis, our study considered three variables that capture aggregate funding conditions and volatility in financial markets: the Libor-OIS spread, a stress indicator for the interbank and money markets; the VIX level, a measure of the forward-looking volatility of the U.S. stock market as implied by options prices; and the CDX IG index of CDS prices, a measure of economy-wide default probability. Consistent with the hypothesis, we found that DW stigma was positively related to each of the three measures of stress in financial markets.
In summary, our study provided a better understanding of the reasons why banks may feel DW stigma. In particular, we found that the incidence of DW stigma was higher for foreign banks, banks that could be identified more easily, and banks outside the New York Federal Reserve District, as well as after financial markets became stressed. In contrast, we found no evidence that DW stigma may be due to a lack of coordination among banks when accessing the DW.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.
Olivier Armantier is an assistant vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.