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Financial Systems and Economic Growth: An Evaluation Framework for Policy - WP 04/17

2  The role of financial systems in the economy

This section discusses the main functions of financial intermediaries and financial markets, and their comparative roles. Financial systems, i.e. financial intermediaries and financial markets, channel funds from those who have savings to those who have more productive uses for them. They perform two main types of financial service that reduce the costs of moving funds between borrowers and lenders, leading to a more efficient allocation of resources and faster economic growth. These are the provision of liquidity and the transformation of the risk characteristics of assets.[2]

2.1  Provision of liquidity

The link between liquidity and economic performance arises because many high return investment projects require long-term commitments of capital, but risk adverse lenders (savers) are generally unwilling to delegate control over their savings to borrowers (investors) for long periods. Financial systems mobilise savings by agglomerating and pooling funds from disparate sources and creating small denomination instruments. These instruments provide opportunities for individuals to hold diversified portfolios. Without pooling individuals and households would have to buy and sell entire firms (Levine 1997).

Diamond and Dybvig (1983) show how financial intermediaries can enhance risk sharing, which can be a precondition of liquidity, and can thus improve welfare. In their model, without an intermediary (such as a bank), all investors are locked into illiquid long-term investments that yield high payoffs only to those who consume at the end of the investment. Those who must consume early receive low payoffs because early consumption requires premature liquidation of long-term investments. When agents need to consume at different (random) times, an intermediary can improve risk sharing – by promising investors a higher payoff for early consumption and a lower payoff for late consumption relative to the non-intermediated case.

Financial markets can also transform illiquid assets (long-term capital investments in illiquid production processes) into liquid liabilities (financial instrument). With liquid financial markets savers/lenders can hold assets like equity or bonds, which can be quickly and easily converted into purchasing power, if they need to access their savings.

For lenders, the services performed by financial markets and intermediaries are substitutable around the desired risk, return and liquidity provided by particular investments. Financial intermediaries and markets make longer-term investments more attractive and facilitate investment in higher return, longer gestation investment and technologies. They provide different forms of finance to borrowers. Financial markets provide arms length debt or equity finance (to those firms able to access markets), often at a lower cost than finance from financial intermediaries.

2.2  Transformation of the risk characteristics of assets

The second main service financial intermediaries and markets provide is the transformation of the risk characteristics of assets. Financial systems perform this function in at least two ways. First, they can enhance risk diversification and second, they resolve an information asymmetry problem that may otherwise prevent the exchange of goods and services, in this case the provision of capital (Akerlof 1970).

Financial systems facilitate risk-sharing by reducing information and transactions costs. If there are costs associated with the channelling of funds between borrowers and lenders, financial systems can reduce the costs of holding a diversified portfolio of assets. Intermediaries perform this role by taking advantage of economies of scale, markets do so by facilitating the broad offer and trade of assets comprising investors’ portfolios.

Financial systems can reduce information and transaction costs that arise from an information asymmetry between borrowers and lenders.[3] In credit markets an information asymmetry arises because borrowers generally know more about their investment projects than lenders. A borrower may have an entrepreneurial “gut feeling” that can not be communicated to lenders, or more simply, may have information about a looming financial risk to their firm that they may not wish to share with past or potential lenders. An information asymmetry can occur ex ante or ex post. An ex ante information asymmetry arises when lenders can not differentiate between borrowers with different credit risks before providing a loan and leads to an adverse selection problem. Adverse selection problems arise when lenders are more likely to make a loan to high-risk borrowers, because those who are willing to pay high interest rates will, on average, be worse risks. The information asymmetry problem occurs ex post when only borrowers, but not lenders, can observe actual returns after project completion. This leads to a moral hazard problem. Moral hazard problems arise when borrowers engage in activities that reduce the likelihood of their loan being repaid. They also arise when borrowers take excessive risk because the costs may fall more on lenders compared to the benefits, which can be captured by borrowers.

The problem with imperfect information is that information is a “public good”. If costly privately-produced information can subsequently be used at less cost by other agents, there will be inadequate motivation to invest in the publicly optimal quantity of information (Hirshleifer and Riley 1979). The implication for financial intermediaries is as follows. Once financial intermediaries obtain information they must be able to obtain a market return on that information before any signalling of that information advantage results in it being bid away. If they can not prevent information from being revealed prior to obtaining that return, they will not commit the resources necessary to obtain it. One reason financial intermediaries can obtain information at a lower cost than individual lenders is that financial intermediation avoids duplication of the production of information faced by multiple individual lenders. Moreover, financial intermediaries develop special skills in evaluating prospective borrowers and investment projects. They can also exploit cross- customer information and re-use information over time. Financial intermediaries thus improve the screening of potential borrowers and investment projects before finance is committed and enforce monitoring and corporate control after investment projects have been funded. Financial intermediation thus leads to a more efficient allocation of capital. The information acquisition cost may be lowered further as financial intermediaries and borrowers develop long-run relationships (Petersen and Rajan 1994 and Faulkender and Petersen 2003).[4]

Financial markets create their own incentives to acquire and process information for listed firms. The larger and more liquid financial markets become the more incentive market participants have to collect information about these firms. However, because information is quickly revealed in financial markets through posted prices, there may be less of an incentive to use private resources to acquire information. In financial markets information is aggregated and disseminated through published prices, which means that agents who do not undertake the costly process of ex ante screening and ex post monitoring, can freely observe the information obtained by other investors as reflected in financial prices. Rules and regulation, such as continuous disclosure requirements, can help encourage the production of information.

Financial intermediaries and financial markets resolve ex post information asymmetries and the resulting moral hazard problem by improving the ability of investors to directly evaluate the returns to projects by monitoring, by increasing the ability of investors to influence management decisions and by facilitating the takeover of poorly managed firms. When these issues are not well managed, investors will not be willing to delegate control of their savings to borrowers. Diamond (1984), for example, develops a model in which the returns from firms’ investment projects are not known ex post to external investors, unless information is gathered to assess the outcome, i.e. there is “costly state verification” (Townsend 1979). This leads to a moral hazard problem. Moral hazard arises when a borrower engages in activities that reduce the likelihood of a loan being repaid. For example, when firms’ owners “siphon off” funds (legally or illegally) to themselves or their associates through loss-making contracts signed with associated firms.


  • [2]The financial system also plays a role in ensuring that payments can be exchanged and settled.  This role is largely ignored in this paper.
  • [3]When markets do not operate costlessly, firms arise if they can reduce market transaction costs by organising resources more cheaply within the firm (Coase 1937).
  • [4]However, the cost of developing long-run relationships may be to discourage competition from switching intermediaries.
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