As banking has evolved over the last three decades, banks have become increasingly interconnected. This Article draws attention to an effect of this development that has important policy ramifications yet remains largely unexamined—a dramatic rise in interbank discipline. The Article demonstrates that today’s large, complex banks have financial incentives to monitor risk taking at other banks. They also have the infrastructure, competence, and information required to be fairly effective monitors and mechanisms through which they can respond when a bank changes its risk profile. Interbank discipline thus affects bank risk taking, discouraging banks from taking some types of risk while potentially encouraging the assumption of others. Given its influence, ignoring the phenomenon can lead to inefficiencies and gaps in bank regulation.
The rise of interbank discipline has positive and negative ramifications from a social welfare perspective. The good news is that self-interested banks may be expected to penalize a bank when it takes excessive risks, thereby deterring such risk taking. The bad news is that the interests of banks and society are not always so well aligned. Other banks, for example, may be expected to reward a bank when it changes its risk profile in a way that increases the probability that the government would bail the bank out rather than allowing it to fail. This is because a bailout protects a bank’s counterparties and other creditors, even though socially costly. Interbank discipline may thus encourage banks to alter their activities in ways that increase systemic fragility.
In drawing attention to the powerful yet mixed effects of interbank discipline on bank activity, this Article contributes to a new generation of scholarship on market discipline. Its aim is not to question whether we need regulation, but to address the pressing issue of how we should allocate inherently finite regulatory resources. By reducing the regulatory resources devoted to activities that other banks are performing relatively well, increasing the resources devoted to activities that regulators are uniquely situated or incented to address, and seeking to counteract the adverse effects of interbank discipline, bank oversight could be redesigned to more effectively promote the stability of the financial system.