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By Elinor Greenwood

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Sample text

The better notion is captured in the term used in recent legislation, systemically important. This term pulls off the feat of being ambiguous in a way that only bureaucratic terms can be, and at the same time usefully capturing the concepts that make a firm a potential threat to the financial system. Many firms are important to the system but are not big. Stock exchanges, the clearing houses that administer and settle the trades, the rating agencies, and firms that are small but hold an important segment of an important market (such as AIG and its dominance in credit default swaps) are examples.

The market for this kind of short-term financing—the ‘‘repo market’’-is usually very liquid, meaning that there is plenty of money available and it is relatively cheap to borrow. This is because there is much less chance of a firm reneging on its obligation to pay a loan in the space of one day; it is a relatively low-risk way to get a little bit of interest on funds that would otherwise be earning nothing. This all works well, and has done so for decades, as long as overnight lending is considered low risk.

Even when the decision is made by a group of individuals, responsibility will lie with one person (or a small number of people) who can be held personally responsible. This implies that regulatory policy should not be driven by notions of moral hazard that punish or reward the firm, but rather should focus on the individual. If the government wishes to discourage excessive risk taking, it should provide specific sanctions against the individuals responsible for making the risktaking decisions.

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