Contagion and Systemic Risk in Financial Networks

Amal Moussa

Contagion and Systemic Risk in Financial Networks
Moussa, Amal
Thesis Advisor(s):
Cont, Rama
Permanent URL:
Ph.D., Columbia University.
The 2007-2009 financial crisis has shed light on the importance of contagion and systemic risk, and revealed the lack of adequate indicators for measuring and monitoring them. This dissertation addresses these issues and leads to several recommendations for the design of an improved assessment of systemic importance, improved rating methods for structured finance securities, and their use by investors and risk managers. Using a complete data set of all mutual exposures and capital levels of financial institutions in Brazil in 2007 and 2008, we explore in chapter 2 the structure and dynamics of the Brazilian financial system. We show that the Brazilian financial system exhibits a complex network structure characterized by a strong degree of heterogeneity in connectivity and exposure sizes across institutions, which is qualitatively and quantitatively similar to the statistical features observed in other financial systems. We find that the Brazilian financial network is well represented by a directed scale-free network, rather than a small world network. Based on these observations, we propose a stochastic model for the structure of banking networks, representing them as a directed weighted scale free network with power law distributions for in-degree and out-degree of nodes, Pareto distribution for exposures. This model may then be used for simulation studies of contagion and systemic risk in networks. We propose in chapter 3 a quantitative methodology for assessing contagion and systemic risk in a network of interlinked institutions. We introduce the Contagion Index as a metric of the systemic importance of a single institution or a set of institutions, that combines the effects of both common market shocks to portfolios and contagion through counterparty exposures. Using a directed scale-free graph simulation of the financial system, we study the sensitivity of contagion to a change in aggregate network parameters: connectivity, concentration of exposures, heterogeneity in degree distribution and network size. More concentrated and more heterogeneous networks are found to be more resilient to contagion. The impact of connectivity is more controversial: in well-capitalized networks, increasing connectivity improves the resilience to contagion when the initial level of connectivity is high, but increases contagion when the initial level of connectivity is low. In undercapitalized networks, increasing connectivity tends to increase the severity of contagion. We also study the sensitivity of contagion to local measures of connectivity and concentration across counterparties --the counterparty susceptibility and local network frailty-- that are found to have a monotonically increasing relationship with the systemic risk of an institution. Requiring a minimum (aggregate) capital ratio is shown to reduce the systemic impact of defaults of large institutions; we show that the same effect may be achieved with less capital by imposing such capital requirements only on systemically important institutions and those exposed to them. In chapter 4, we apply this methodology to the study of the Brazilian financial system. Using the Contagion Index, we study the potential for default contagion and systemic risk in the Brazilian system and analyze the contribution of balance sheet size and network structure to systemic risk. Our study reveals that, aside from balance sheet size, the network-based local measures of connectivity and concentration of exposures across counterparties introduced in chapter 3, the counterparty susceptibility and local network frailty, contribute significantly to the systemic importance of an institution in the Brazilian network. Thus, imposing an upper bound on these variables could help reducing contagion. We examine the impact of various capital requirements on the extent of contagion in the Brazilian financial system, and show that targeted capital requirements achieve the same reduction in systemic risk with lower requirements in capital for financial institutions. The methodology we proposed in chapter 3 for estimating contagion and systemic risk requires visibility on the entire network structure. Reconstructing bilateral exposures from balance sheets data is then a question of interest in a financial system where bilateral exposures are not disclosed. We propose in chapter 5 two methods to derive a distribution of bilateral exposures matrices. The first method attempts to recover the balance sheet assets and liabilities "sample by sample". Each sample of the bilateral exposures matrix is solution of a relative entropy minimization problem subject to the balance sheet constraints. However, a solution to this problem does not always exist when dealing with sparse sample matrices. Thus, we propose a second method that attempts to recover the assets and liabilities "in the mean". This approach is the analogue of the Weighted Monte Carlo method introduced by Avellaneda et al. (2001). We first simulate independent samples of the bilateral exposures matrix from a relevant prior distribution on the network structure, then we compute posterior probabilities by maximizing the entropy under the constraints that the balance sheet assets and liabilities are recovered in the mean. We discuss the pros and cons of each approach and explain how it could be used to detect systemically important institutions in the financial system. The recent crisis has also raised many questions regarding the meaning of structured finance credit ratings issued by rating agencies and the methodology behind them. Chapter 6 aims at clarifying some misconceptions related to structured finance ratings and how they are commonly interpreted: we discuss the comparability of structured finance ratings with bond ratings, the interaction between the rating procedure and the tranching procedure and its consequences for the stability of structured finance ratings in time. These insights are illustrated in a factor model by simulating rating transitions for CDO tranches using a nested Monte Carlo method. In particular, we show that the downgrade risk of a CDO tranche can be quite different from a bond with same initial rating. Structured finance ratings follow path-dependent dynamics that cannot be adequately described, as usually done, by a matrix of transition probabilities. Therefore, a simple labeling via default probability or expected loss does not discriminate sufficiently their downgrade risk. We propose to supplement ratings with indicators of downgrade risk. To overcome some of the drawbacks of existing rating methods, we suggest a risk-based rating procedure for structured products. Finally, we formulate a series of recommendations regarding the use of credit ratings for CDOs and other structured credit instruments.
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