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September/October 2009, Part 1, 
Vol. 91, No. 5
Posted 2009-09-01

Systemic Risk and the Financial Crisis: A Primer

by James Bullard, Christopher J. Neely, and David C. Wheelock

How did problems in a relatively small portion of the home mortgage market trigger the most severe financial crisis in the United States since the Great Depression? Several developments played a role, including the proliferation of complex mortgage-backed securities and derivatives with highly opaque structures, high leverage, and inadequate risk management. These, in turn, created systemic riskā€”that is, the risk that a triggering event, such as the failure of a large financial firm, will seriously impair financial markets and harm the broader economy. This article examines the role of systemic risk in the recent financial crisis. Systemic concerns prompted the Federal Reserve and U.S. Department of the Treasury to act to prevent the bankruptcy of several large financial firms in 2008. The authors explain why the failures of financial firms are more likely to pose systemic risks than the failures of nonfinancial firms and discuss possible remedies for such risks. They conclude that the economy could benefit from reforms that reduce systemic risks, such as the creation of an improved regime for resolving failures of large financial firms.