Written by Matt Phillips
New and untested players, some backed by Wall Street, have helped borrowers pile up billions in loans. What could go wrong?
A decade after reckless home lending nearly destroyed the financial system, the business of making risky loans is back.
This time the money is bypassing the traditional, and heavily regulated, banking system and flowing through a growing network of businesses that stepped in to provide loans to parts of the economy that banks abandoned after 2008.
It’s called shadow banking, and it is a key source of the credit that drives the American economy. With almost $15 trillion in assets, the shadow-banking sector in the United States is roughly the same size as the entire banking system of Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy.
In certain areas — including mortgages, auto lending and some business loans — shadow banks have eclipsed traditional banks, which have spent much of the last decade pulling back on lending in the face of stricter regulatory standards aimed at keeping them out of trouble.
But new problems arise when the industry depends on lenders that compete aggressively, operate with less of a cushion against losses and have fewer regulations to keep them from taking on too much risk. Recently, a chorus of industry officials and policymakers — including the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, last month — have started to signal that they’re watching the growth of riskier lending by these non-banks.
“We decided to regulate the banks, hoping for a more stable financial system, which doesn’t take as many risks,” said Amit Seru, a professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Where the banks retreated, shadow banks stepped in.”
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