Bail-in and its supplementary capital requirements have much touted potential. Beyond their promise to reign in financial institutions’ bail-out moral hazard, bail-in intends to stem systemic risk whilst maintaining ‘critical’ banking functions. It seeks to do this by allocating responsibility for recapitalisation of banks to their individual creditors, immediately upon resolution, and in a pre-defined manner, for each financial institution individually. Counterparties to banking capital are therefore intrinsic to the current regulatory framework.

In our recent paper, entitled ‘The Dark Side of Bank Resolution: Counterparty Risk through Bail-in’, we show, however, that bail-in legislation may have had counterproductive effects. Our key finding is that the introduction of bail-in has led to increased interconnectedness among banks, which involves more rather than less systemic risk. Worse still, increased interconnectedness between banks may jeopardise the effectiveness of the bail-in regime altogether since resolution authorities may be reluctant to exercise bail-in powers in the face of highly interconnected and contagious banks.

Using a difference-in-differences methodology, we provide evidence for this from the introduction of bail-in powers at the Eurozone level on 1 January 2016 when it entered into force under the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive, and the Single Resolution Mechanism (as part of the Banking Union) became effective. Using data from the ECB’s Securities Holdings Statistics, we demonstrate that beginning in early 2016, financial institutions’ investment in securities issued by other financial institutions has been following a markedly increasing rate. What is more, at the same time non-banks have continued to decrease their investments in the same issuances. Put differently, banks’ holdings of securities in each other increased following the introduction of bail-in legislation, while non-banks continued to divest their holdings of bank securities.

We interpret these findings as evidence of a relative cost advantage that financial institutions have in comparison with other investors when investing in banks’ securities. We know from prior literature that increased interconnectedness may stabilise the banking sector for small external shocks (Acemoglu et al. 2015). For large, systemic shocks, in contrast, bank interconnectedness may frustrate any bail-in decision due to the systemic risk it creates (Bernard, Capponi, and Stiglitz 2017).

We subsequently discuss the challenges in regulating this problem, noting that in addition to the incentive problems mentioned above, there are also extensive knowledge and incentive challenges. Those challenges are symptomatic of the same legal and economic difficulties expressed in the literature and evident in recent bail-in cases.

Whilst some aspects of the current regulatory framework, including the Basel III and the TLAC framework, and standardised information disclosure under IFRS 9, indirectly affect those knowledge and incentive issues, they insufficiently address the bail-in counterparty problem especially because those measures address pre-resolution systemic risk perceptions, and not post-resolution systemic risk. More crucially perhaps, they do not facilitate optimisation, or the who should hold corollary.

Finally, we explore some potential regulatory supplements to the current framework that may assist in reducing the challenge of knowing who should hold banking issuances, particularly ensuring that markets are better informed and able to allocate banking securities to optimal holders in accordance with principles of portfolio management, as opposed to attempting to prescribe ideal holders. More analysis and further holistic research are required to understand better what combination of regulatory instruments would be appropriate.

Wolf-Georg Ringe is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute of Law & Economics at the University of Hamburg as well as a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford.

Jatine Patel is Research Associate at the University of Hamburg, and a Junior Academic Visitor at the Faculty of Law in the University of Oxford.