This note explores the costs and benefits of different policy options to reduce the risks associated with credit booms, drawing upon several country experiences and the findings from econometric analysis.


This note explores the costs and benefits of different policy options to reduce the risks associated with credit booms, drawing upon several country experiences and the findings from econometric analysis.

I. Introduction

“Credit booms” – episodes of rapid credit growth – pose a policy dilemma. More credit means increased access to finance and greater support for investment and economic growth (Levine, 2005). But when expansion is too fast, such booms may lead to vulnerabilities through looser lending standards, excessive leverage, and asset price bubbles. Indeed, credit booms have been associated with financial crises (Reinhart and Rogoff, 2009). Historically, only a minority of booms has ended in crashes, but some of these crashes have been spectacular, contributing to the notion that credit booms are at best dangerous and at worst a recipe for disaster (Gourinchas, Valdes, and Landerretche, 2001; Borio and Lowe, 2002; Enoch and Ötker-Robe, 2007).

These dangers notwithstanding, until the recent global financial crisis the policy debate paid limited attention to credit booms, especially in advanced economies.2 This might have reflected two issues. First, with the diffusion of inflation targeting, monetary policy had increasingly focused on interest rates and had come largely to disregard monetary aggregates.3 And regulatory policy, with its focus on individual institutions, was ill-equipped to deal with aggregate credit dynamics.4 Second, as for asset price bubbles, there was the long-standing view that it was better to deal with the bust than to try to prevent the boom, because unhealthy booms were difficult to separate from healthy ones, and in any event, policy was well equipped to contain the effects of a bust.

The crisis, preceded by booms in many of the harder-hit countries, has challenged that view. In its aftermath, calls for more effective tools to monitor and control credit dynamics have come from several quarters (see, for instance, FSA, 2009). And the regulatory framework has already started to respond. For instance, Basel III introduced a capital buffer range that is adjusted “when there are signs that credit has grown to excessive levels” (Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, 2010).

Yet, while a consensus is emerging that credit booms are too dangerous to be left alone, there is little agreement on what the appropriate policy response should be. First, there is the issue of whether and when to intervene. After all, not all booms end up in crises, and the macro costs of curtailing credit can be substantial. Second, should intervention be deemed necessary, there are questions about what form such intervention should take. Is this a natural job for monetary policy, or are there concerns that favor other options? This paper addresses both of these issues by exploring several questions about past credit booms and busts: What triggers credit booms? When do credit booms end up in busts, and when do they not? Can we tell in advance those that will end up badly? What is the role of different policies in curbing credit growth and/or mitigating the associated risks?

This discussion note proceeds as follows. Section II presents some stylized facts on the characteristics of credit booms. Section III discusses the triggers of credit booms. Section IV analyzes the characteristics of booms that end up in busts or crises. Section V discusses the policy options and their effectiveness in dealing with credit booms. Section VI concludes.

II. Credit Booms: Definition and Characteristics

Two caveats before we start. First, in this paper, we limit our attention to bank credit. Obviously, there are other sources of credit in the economy (bond markets, nonbank financial intermediaries, trade credit, informal finance, and so on). But data availability makes a cross-country analysis of these alternative sources difficult, and with a few exceptions (notably the United States), bank credit accounts for an overwhelming share of total credit. Hence, we are confident that we are capturing the vast majority of macro-relevant episodes. Second, for similar reasons, we confine our attention to countries with credit-to-GDP ratios above 10 percent. Unfortunately, this automatically excludes the vast majority of low-income countries. However, given these countries’ different institutional and structural characteristics, an analysis of their credit dynamics is better conducted in a separate paper.

We are interested in episodes that can be characterized as “extraordinary” positive deviations in the relationship between credit and economic activity. Admittedly, what constitutes an extraordinary deviation and how the “normal” level of credit growth should be computed are both open to interpretation (Gourinchas, Valdes, and Landerretche, 2001; Mendoza and Terrones, 2008; Barajas, Dell’Ariccia, and Levchenko, 2008; Jordà, Schularick, and Taylor, 2011; Claessens, Kose, and Terrones, 2012; Mitra and others, 2011). Most methodologies in the literature compare a country’s credit-to-GDP ratio to its nonlinear trend (some focus on absolute growth thresholds). But the methodologies differ in several respects, such as whether the trend and the thresholds identifying the booms should be country-specific, whether information unavailable at the time of the boom should be used for its identification, and whether the credit and GDP series should be filtered separately or directly as a ratio. Luckily, the set of booms identified using different methods is rather robust.

Our aim in this paper is to provide a definition that can be applied using the standard information that is available and therefore can be used as a guide in policymaking. For that reason, we opt for feasibility first and accept the cost of ignoring information that exists today but was not available to policymakers in real time. This contrasts with methodologies that use the entire time series to detect deviations from trend (for example, Mendoza and Terrones, 2008). We also apply a mix of country-specific, path-dependent thresholds and absolute numerical thresholds. This is because thresholds for the credit-to-GDP gap are often hard to determine or interpret (and have been shown to miss many of the episodes associated with financial crises; Mitra and others, 2011). In contrast, absolute thresholds for credit growth are easier to interpret, but abstract from country- and time-specific characteristics. Overall, our methodology allows us to account for differences across countries as well as changes over time within the same country, and it avoids the risk of missing episodes due to an over-fitting trend. (More details on our approach, its pros and cons, and comparison to other methodologies are in Annex 1.)

Specifically, we identify boom episodes by comparing the credit-to-GDP ratio in each year t and country i to a backward-looking, rolling, country-specific, cubic trend estimated over the period between years t-10 and t. We classify an episode as a boom if either of the following two conditions is satisfied: (i) the deviation from trend is greater than 1.5 times its standard deviation and the annual growth rate of the credit-to-GDP ratio exceeds 10 percent; or (ii) the annual growth rate of the credit-to-GDP ratio exceeds 20 percent. We introduce the second condition to capture episodes in which aggregate credit accelerates very gradually but credit growth reaches levels that are well above those previously observed in the country. Similar thresholds identify the beginning and end of each episode. Since only information on GDP and bank credit to the private sector available at time t is used, this definition can, in principle, be made operational.

We apply this definition to a sample of 170 countries with data starting as far back as the 1960s and extending to 2010. We identify 175 credit boom episodes.5 This translates into a 14 percent probability of a country experiencing a credit boom in a given year.6 Based on this sample, the stylized facts that characterize credit booms are as follows:

  • The median boom lasts three years, with the credit-to-GDP ratio growing at about 13 percent per year, or about five times its median growth in non-boom years (Figure 1).

  • Credit booms are not a recent phenomenon. But the fraction of countries experiencing a credit boom in any given year has seen an upward trend since the financial liberalization and deregulation of the 1980s. It reached an all-time high (30 percent in 2006; see Figure 2) in the run-up to the global financial crisis when a combination of factors – such as the financial reform associated with EU accession in Europe and the expansion of securitization in the United States – provided further support for credit growth.

  • Most booms happen in middle-income countries. This is consistent with the view that, at least in part, credit booms are associated with catching-up effects. Yet high-income countries are not immune to booms, suggesting that other factors are also at play.

  • More booms happen in relatively undeveloped financial systems. The median credit-to-GDP ratio at the start of a boom is 19 percent, compared to a median credit-to-GDP ratio of about 30 percent for the entire dataset. This supports the notion that booms can play a role in financial deepening.

  • Geographically, booms are more likely to be observed in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. This partially reflects these regions’ country composition and historically volatile macroeconomic dynamics. Eastern Europe stands out in the later period, reflecting the expansion of the EU and the associated integration and catching up that fueled booms in many of the new or prospective member states. Of course, this summarizes past experience, and inferences on the probability of future booms should be drawn with caution.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

A Typical Credit Boom

(Growth rate of credit-to-GDP ratio around boom episodes)

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.
Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Concurrence of Credit Booms, 1978–2008

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.

A. Macroeconomic Performance around Credit Booms

Real economic activity and aggregate credit fluctuations are closely linked through wealth effects and the financial accelerator mechanism (see, among others, Bernanke and Gertler, 1989; Kiyotaki and Moore, 1997; Gilchrist and Zakrajsek, 2008). In an upturn, better growth prospects improve borrower creditworthiness and collateral values. Lenders respond with an increased supply of credit and, sometimes, looser lending standards. More abundant credit allows for greater investment and consumption and further increases collateral values. In a downturn, the process is reversed.

Not surprisingly, economic activity is significantly higher during booms compared to non-boom years (Table 1). Real GDP growth during booms exceeds the rate observed in non-boom years by roughly 2 percentage points, on average.7 Private consumption expands faster during booms. But it is private investment that picks up markedly, with the average growth rate more than doubling compared to non-boom years. This is in line with the important role played by banks in financing real-estate and corporate investment in many countries, but it also reflects, at least in part, the role played by capital inflows in the form of foreign direct investment.8

Table 1.

Economic Performance

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Notes: Average across all credit boom episodes.Average annual changes expressed in percent.

The increase in consumption and investment associated with credit booms is often more pronounced in the nontradables sector. Consistently, booms are typically associated with real exchange rate appreciations (Terrones, 2004). Interestingly, inflation remains subdued (more on this later). Taken together, these findings suggest that domestic imbalances that may be building up vent through the external sector. Indeed, during a boom the current account deteriorates, on average, by slightly more than 1 percentage point of GDP per year. Most of the associated increase in net foreign liabilities comes from the “other flows” category, which includes banks’ funding by foreign sources.

Since asset price cycles tend to co-move with business and credit cycles (Claessens, Kose, and Terrones, 2012; and Igan and others, 2011), the comparison between non-boom years and booms carries over to these indicators. Both stock and real estate prices surge during credit booms and lose traction at the end of a boom. The difference from non-boom years is more striking than in the case of GDP components: equity prices rise at almost quadruple the rate in real terms. House prices, on average, grow at an annual rate of around 2 percent in non-boom years but accelerate sharply during booms to a growth rate of 10 percent. This synchronization with asset price booms may create balance sheet vulnerabilities for the financial and nonfinancial sectors, with repercussions for the broader economy.

B. Long-Run Consequences of Credit Booms

Credit booms can also be linked to macroeconomic performance over the long run. After all, financial development—typically measured by the credit-to-GDP ratio, the same variable used to detect credit booms—has a positive effect on growth (King and Levine, 1993; Rajan and Zingales, 1998; Levine, Loayza, and Beck, 1999; Favara, 2003).9 Moreover, the economic magnitude of this effect is substantial: increasing financial depth (measured by M2-to-GDP ratio) from 20 percent to 60 percent would increase output growth by 1 percent a year (Terrones, 2004).

Obviously, whether episodes that sharply increase the credit-to-GDP ratio have long-term beneficial effects depends on two factors. The first is the extent to which credit booms contribute to permanent financial deepening. The second is the extent to which financial deepening acquired through a sharp increase in credit resembles, in “quality,” deepening achieved through gradual growth.

As for the first question, booms are sometimes followed by financial crises (see next section) that are typically associated with sharp drops in the credit-to-GDP ratio. However, in about 40 percent of the episodes, the credit-to-GDP ratio seems to shift permanently to a new, higher “equilibrium” level. In fact, there is a positive correlation between long-term financial deepening (measured as the change in the credit-to-GDP ratio over the period 1970-2010) and the cumulated credit growth that occurred during boom episodes (Figure 3).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Credit Booms and Financial Deepening, 1970-2010

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.

The second question can be answered only indirectly, by looking at the relationship between credit booms and long-term growth. This task is complicated, because growth benefits gained from increased financial deepening due to a boom are likely to take time to be fully realized, making it hard to measure them at a given point in time. That said, some evidence does point to such benefits. There is a positive correlation between the number of years a country has undergone a credit boom and the cumulative real GDP per capita growth achieved since 1970 (Table 2). However, this relationship seems to flatten when credit booms become too frequent, and since countries with more credit booms also experienced more crises (on average), there seems to be a trade-off between macroeconomic performance and stability (Rancière, Tornell, and Westermann, 2008).

Table 2.

Long-Term Growth and Credit Booms

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C. Credit Booms and Financial Crises

Balancing the benefits described earlier is the notion that credit booms are dangerous because they lead to financial crises. This is not just an underserved bad reputation due to a small fraction of episodes that were particularly bad. Credit growth can be a powerful predictor of financial crises (Borio and Lowe, 2002; Mendoza and Terrones, 2008; Schularick and Taylor, 2009; Mitra and others, 2011). In our sample, about one in three booms is followed by a banking crisis (as defined in Laeven and Valencia, 2010; and Caprio and others, 2005) within three years of its end (Table 3).10

Table 3.

Credit Booms Gone Wrong

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Notes: Number and proportion of credit boom episodes are shown. A boom is followed by a financial crisis if a banking crisis happened within the three-year period after the end of the boom and is followed by economic underperformance if real GDP growth was below its trend, calculated by applying a moving-average filter, within the six-year period after the end of the boom.

The recent global financial crisis has reinforced this notion. After all, the crisis had its roots in a rapid increase of mortgage loans in the United States. And it was exactly the regions that had experienced greater booms during the expansion that suffered greater increases in credit delinquency during the crisis (Figure 4; also see Dell’Ariccia, Igan, and Laeven, 2008). In addition, across countries, many of the hardest-hit economies, such as Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Spain, and Ukraine, had their own home-grown credit booms (Claessens and others, 2010).

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Leverage: Linking Booms to Defaults

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: Federal Housing Finance Agency, Mortgage Bankers Association, Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Census Bureau.Note: Each data point corresponds to a U.S. state, indicated by the two-letter abbreviations.

Credit booms had also preceded many of the largest banking crises of the past 30 years: Chile (1982), Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden (1990/91), Mexico (1994), and Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand (1997/98) (Figure 5). And going further back, the Great Depression was also cast as a credit boom gone wrong (Eichengreen and Mitchener, 2003).11

Figure 5.
Figure 5.

Credit Booms and Financial Crises: Examples of Bad Booms

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: Laeven and Valencia (2010), IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.

The fact that several credit booms that did not end in full-blown crises were followed by extended periods of subpar economic performance adds further concern. In our sample, three out of five booms were characterized by below-trend growth during the six-year period following their end. During these below-trend periods, annual economic growth was on average 2.2 percentage points lower than in “normal” times (excluding crises). Notably, the two types of events--financial crisis and suppressed economic activity--often coincide but do not perfectly overlap. Overall, in the aftermath of credit booms something “goes wrong” about two times out of three (121 out of 175 cases). In line with this, in the recent global financial crisis, countries that had previously experienced bigger changes in their credit-to-GDP ratio were also the ones that had deeper recessions (Figure 6).12 This is consistent with the view that credit booms leave large sectors of the economy overleveraged, leading to impaired financial intermediation in their aftermath, even when a full-blown crisis is avoided. Indeed, credit booms are a good predictor of “creditless recoveries,” that is, economic recoveries that happen in the absence of credit growth (typically in the aftermath of a crisis). Such recoveries are inferior, with average growth about a third lower than during normal recoveries (Abiad, Dell’Ariccia, and Li, 2011). Industries that are dependent on external finance and financing-sensitive activities (for example, investment) appear to suffer more during creditless recoveries, potentially indicating that resources may be allocated inefficiently across industries and activities.

Figure 6.
Figure 6.

Credit Growth and Depth of Recession

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.Note: Each data point corresponds to a country, indicated by the three-letter abbreviations.

III. What Triggers Credit Booms?

So far, we have summarized how credit booms are linked to short- and long-term economic performance and how often they coincide with financial crises. But macroeconomic and financial factors, including policies, may themselves contribute to the occurrence of credit booms. Hence, we next look at the other side of the coin: the triggers of credit booms. Identifying these triggers could help gauge a country’s susceptibility to credit booms and devise policies to reduce this susceptibility.

Three often concurrently observed factors are frequently associated with the onset of credit booms (see, for instance, Mendoza and Terrones, 2008; Decressin and Terrones, 2011; and Magud, Reinhart, and Vesperoni, 2012):

  • The first factor is financial reforms. These usually aim to foster financial deepening and are linked to sharp increases in credit aggregates. Roughly a third of booms follow or coincide with financial liberalizations. In contrast, only 2 percent follow or coincide with a reversal of such policies. Given that our sample contains more liberalization episodes than reversals, these percentages are less divergent when expressed in relative terms, but still point in the same direction: 18 percent of liberalizations are linked to credit booms, compared with 7 percent of reversals.

  • The second factor is surges in capital inflows, often in the aftermath of capital account liberalizations. These generally lead to a significant increase in the funds available to banks, potentially relaxing credit constraints. In our sample, net capital inflows intensify during the three-year period prior to the start of a credit boom, increasing from 2.3 percent of GDP to 3.1 percent of GDP, on average.

  • Third, credit booms generally start during or after buoyant economic growth.13 More formally, lagged GDP growth is positively associated with the probability of a credit boom: in the three-year period preceding a boom, the average real GDP growth rate reaches 5.1 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in an average tranquil three-year period.

These triggers may occur across countries simultaneously. Financial liberalization happens in waves, affecting multiple countries more or less at the same time. In emerging markets, surges in capital flows often relate to changes in global liquidity conditions (as proxied by the U.S. federal funds rate14; see Figure 2) and, thus, are correlated across countries. The transmission of technological advances across borders synchronizes economic activity.

Of course, domestic factors may also matter. The differential incidence of booms across countries suggests that local structural and institutional characteristics and policies are important. In particular, credit booms seem to occur more often in countries with fixed exchange rate regimes, expansionary macroeconomic policies, and low quality of banking supervision (Table 4). In economies with fixed exchange rate regimes, monetary policy is directed toward maintaining a fixed exchange rate and is therefore unable to respond effectively to the buildup of a credit boom. In such regimes, a lower global interest rate may translate into a lower domestic interest rate, spurring domestic credit growth. By stimulating aggregate demand, expansionary macroeconomic policies risk building up asset price booms. Loose monetary policy, in particular, reduces the cost of borrowing and boosts asset price valuations, which in turn can trigger credit booms (however, see evidence in Section V.A). Finally, the quality of banking supervision has a bearing on the enforcement of bank regulation and the effectiveness with which supervisory discretion is applied to deal with early signs of credit booms. For example, supervisors can use their discretion to take measures (such as higher capital requirements) to lower the pace of credit growth.

Table 4.

Economic and Financial Policy Frameworks and Credit Booms, 1970-2009

(frequency distribution, in percent)

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Notes: Exchange rate regime categories are based on Reinhart and Rogoff (2004). Monetary policy is tight when the policy rate exceeds the predicted level based on a simple regression of policy rates on inflation and real GDP growth by more than 25 percent (the top quartile). Fiscal policy is tight when the change in the deficit/surplus exceeds its predicted level based on a simple regression of the deficit/surplus on real GDP growth by more than 1.7 percent of GDP (the top quartile). Banking supervision quality measure is from Abiad, Detragiache, and Tressel (2008).

That said, it is difficult to predict credit booms. Regression analysis suggests that the triggers and macroeconomic conditions described above have some bearing on assessing the susceptibility of a country to a credit boom. But the residual variability is substantial and identifying causality is problematic (see Annex 4).

IV. Can We Tell Bad from Good Credit Booms?

The analysis in the previous sections implies that policymaking may face a trade-off between standing in the way of financial deepening (and thus in the way of present and perhaps future macroeconomic performance) and allowing dangerous imbalances to jeopardize financial stability. The question then arises, whether we can improve on this trade-off by distinguishing, ahead of time, bad booms from good ones.

Here we address this question by exploring whether a boom’s characteristics, such as duration, size, and macroeconomic conditions, can help predict whether it will turn into a crisis and/or a prolonged period of subpar economic performance. Formally, we classify a boom as “bad” if it is (i) followed by a banking crisis within three years of its end date, or (ii) associated with a recession or an inferior (below-trend) medium-term growth performance.15

First, we compare the summary statistics on the characteristics of bad booms to those for good booms. Second, we conduct a regression analysis. As in other similar exercises, there are limitations associated with cross-country regressions (see, for example, Levine and Renelt, 1992). In particular, there is a trade-off between sample size and the homogeneity of the countries covered. We mitigate this problem by controlling for various country characteristics.

Given that a boom is in place, the probability of its turning bad is modeled as:


where X is a vector of macroeconomic indicators and structural variables and P is a vector of measures of the policy stance during the boom. In summary, we find that:

  • “Bad” credit booms tend to be larger and last longer (Figure 7), and

  • Booms that start at a higher level of financial depth (measured as the level of credit-to-GDP ratio) are more likely to end badly.

Figure 7.
Figure 7.

Bad versus Good Booms

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics; staff calculations.Notes: Relative frequency is the frequency of a given attribute in bad booms divided by the frequency in good booms. Credit booms are identified as episodes during which the growth rate of credit-to-GDP ratio exceeds the growth rate implied by this ratio’s backward-looking, country-specific trend by a certain threshold. Bad booms are those that are followed by a banking crisis within three years of their end.

These findings are more or less in line with those reported elsewhere. For instance, the magnitude of a boom (manifested as a larger rise in the credit-to-GDP ratio from start to end or duration) has been identified as a predictor of whether the boom ends up in a banking crisis (Gourinchas, Valdes, and Landerretche, 2001; Barajas, Dell’Ariccia, and Levchenko, 2008). Other macro variables, like larger current account deficits, higher inflation, lower-quality bank supervision, and faster growing asset prices, are sometimes associated with bad booms. But their coefficients are rarely significant and they are unstable across subsamples and model specifications. In addition, while there is a general tendency to think that credit booms in emerging markets are more likely than booms elsewhere to end up in a crisis, we do not observe such regularity in our sample.16

In general, the lack of statistically significant differences in key macroeconomic variables in bad versus good booms has been noted elsewhere (see, for instance, Gourinchas, Valdes, and Landerretche, 2001). Notably, indicators that have been identified as predictors of financial crises, such as sharp asset price increases, a sustained worsening of the trade balance, and a marked increase in bank leverage (Mitra and others, 2011) lose significance once we condition for the presence of a credit boom (as measured in this note). Indeed, in our sample, while asset prices grow much faster during booms than in tranquil times (for example, for equity prices about 11 percent versus 4 percent a year), they grow at about the same pace during both bad and good booms (again, for equity prices, about 11 percent a year for both).

While statistical evidence to pin down ahead of time whether a boom is a good or bad one is underwhelming, the results suggest that policy intervention to curb credit growth become increasingly justified as booms become larger and more persistent. In particular, we find that close to half or more of the booms that either lasted longer than six years (4 out of 9), exceeded 25 percent of average annual growth (8 out of 18), or started at an initial credit-to-GDP ratio higher than 60 percent (15 out of 26) ended up in crises. These regularities (see also Mitra and others, 2011; and Borio, McCauley, and McGuire, 2011) can guide policymakers in weighing the benefits and costs of an ongoing boom and in setting thresholds that would trigger policy action.

V. Policy Options

The evidence presented so far shows that credit booms can stimulate economic activity and even promote long-term growth, but also that they are associated with disruptive financial crises. Indeed, about one boom in three ends with a bust. More often, booms end without a full-blown crisis, but their associated leverage build-ups have a long-lasting impact on corporate and household behavior, leading to below-trend economic growth.

Theory has identified several channels through which financial frictions can lead to excessive risk taking during episodes of rapid credit growth. Contributing to looser lending standards and greater credit cyclicality may be managerial reputational concerns (Rajan, 1994), improved borrowers’ income prospects (Ruckes, 2004), loss of institutional memory of previous crises (Berger and Udell, 2004), expectations of government bailouts (Rancière, Tornell, and Westermann, 2008), and a decline in adverse selection costs due to improved information symmetry across banks (Dell’Ariccia and Marquez, 2006). In addition, externalities driven by strategic complementarities (such as cycles in collateral values) may lead banks to take excessive or correlated risks during the upswing of a financial cycle (De Nicolò, Favara, and Ratnovski, 2012). Such financial frictions can explain why, as the old banking maxim goes, “the worst loans are made at the best of times” and justify intervention to prevent excessive risk taking during the boom.

Some of these frictions and their associated risks were well known before the global financial crisis, yet policies paid limited attention to the problem (with notable exceptions in emerging markets). This limited attention reflected several factors.

First, with the adoption of inflation targeting regimes, monetary policy in most advanced economies and several emerging markets had increasingly focused on the policy rate and paid little attention to monetary aggregates. There were a few exceptions. Australia and Sweden adjusted their monetary policy in response to asset price and credit developments and communicated the reason explicitly in central bank statements. Other policies, such as the European Central Bank’s (ECB’s) “two-pillar” policy, were regarded as vestiges from the past and played a debatable role in actual policy setting).17

Second, bank regulation focused on individual institutions. It largely ignored the macroeconomic cycle and was ill-equipped to respond to aggregate credit dynamics. As for asset price bubbles, by and large a notion of benign neglect prevailed, namely that it was better to deal with the bust than try to prevent the boom. Again, there were exceptions. Spain introduced “dynamic provisioning.” Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay adopted similar measures (Terrier and others, 2011). Other emerging markets experimented with applying prudential rules to counteract credit and asset-price cycles (Annex 2, Annex Table A3). Annex 3 reviews in detail the recent credit boom-bust cycle and policy response in Central and Eastern Europe (see also Lim and others, 2011, who, based on survey data, argue that macroprudential instruments proved to be effective in reducing the procyclicality of credit and leverage). But these exceptions formed a minority. Moreover, the measures taken were often small in scale and therefore did not always have their desired effect.

Third, financial liberalization and increased cross-border banking activities limited the effectiveness of policy action. In countries with de jure or de facto fixed-exchange-rate regimes, capital flows hindered the impact of monetary policy on credit aggregates. And prudential measures were subject to regulatory arbitrage, especially in countries with developed financial markets and a widespread presence of foreign banks.

In what follows, we discuss the major policy options (monetary, fiscal, and macroprudential tools) to deal with credit booms, with particular attention to their pros and cons, summarized in Annex 2 (Annex Table A4), in the light of the experiences of various countries and econometric analysis. We examine what policies, if any, have been successful in stopping or curbing episodes of fast credit growth. But we also investigate whether certain policies have been effective in reducing the dangers associated with booms, even if they did not succeed in stopping them. In that regard, we look at the coefficients of the policy variables obtained in the econometric analysis specification described in the previous section.

A. Monetary Policy

When it comes to containing credit growth, monetary policy seems the natural place to start. After all, M2, a common measure of the money supply, is highly correlated with aggregate credit. In principle, a tighter monetary policy stance increases the cost of borrowing throughout the economy, and lowers credit demand. Higher interest rates also reduce the ability to borrow through their impact on asset prices, and thus on collateral values, via the credit channel (Bernanke and Gertler, 1995). Finally, higher interest rates tend to reduce the growth of market-based financial intermediaries’ balance sheets (Adrian and Shin, 2009) as well as leverage and bank risk taking (Borio and Zhu, 2008; De Nicolò and others, 2010).

However, several factors may limit the effectiveness of monetary policy in preventing or stopping credit booms, or in ensuring good booms do not turn into bad ones. First, there may be a conflict of objectives. True, credit booms can be associated with general macro overheating. In that case, higher policy rates are the obvious answer. But they can also occur under seemingly tranquil macroeconomic conditions, as was the case in several countries in the run-up to the financial crisis (Figure 8). Under those conditions, the monetary stance necessary to contain the boom may differ substantially from that consistent with the inflation target (such conflicts are likely to be even stronger when the boom is concentrated in a single or a few sectors, for example, real estate loans). In addition, since tightening will buy lower (unobservable) risk at the cost of a higher (observable) unemployment rate, it will likely run into strong social and political opposition, making the decision to raise policy rates harder.

Figure 8.
Figure 8.

Credit Growth and Monetary Policy

(Selected countries that had a boom in the run-up and a crisis in 2007-08)

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF International Financial Statistics, World Economic Outlook; staff calculations.Notes: Credit is indexed with a base value of 100 five years prior to the crisis.

A second tension may arise if crucial elements of the private sector (banks, corporates, and households) have weakened balance sheets. An increase in interest rates to tame credit growth with the objective of safeguarding future financial stability would have the side effect of increasing the present debt burden and lowering asset prices. If the debt-service obligations are already at or near capacity, this would threaten balance sheet stability (similar to the threat discussed in the debate on whether central banks should be in charge of bank supervision).

Third, complications can arise when capital accounts are open and “the impossible trinity” comes into play. Countries with a fixed exchange rate regime simply do not have the option to use monetary policy. Others that float are seriously concerned about large exchange rate swings associated with carry trade when monetary policy is tightened. In addition, unless intervention can be fully sterilized, capital inflows attracted as a result of higher interest rates can undo the effects of a tighter stance. Moreover, credit funded by capital inflows brings additional dangers, including an increased vulnerability to a sudden stop.

Fourth, monetary tightening may fail to stop a boom and instead contribute to the risks associated with credit expansion. For instance, higher cost for loans denominated in domestic currency may encourage borrowers and lenders to substitute them with foreign-currency loans. Alternatively, to make loans more affordable, shorter-term rates, teaser contracts, and interest-only loans may come to dominate new loan originations. This is especially relevant when there are explicit or implicit government guarantees that protect the banking system, or when there are widespread expectations of public bailouts should the currency depreciate sharply (Rancière, Tornell, and Westermann, 2008).

In line with these concerns, the empirical evidence that tighter monetary policy conditions (measured as deviations from a simple Taylor-rule-like equation) are linked to a lower frequency of credit booms is mixed at best.18 The coefficient on monetary tightening is unstable and rarely significant, suggesting that on average monetary policy is not very effective in dealing with booms, either by reducing their incidence (Annex Table A7) or by reducing the probability that a boom already in place would end up badly (Annex Table A8). A tighter stance may help slow down a boom, that is, it may be negatively linked to the speed of the boom, measured as the average annual rate of growth in the credit-to-GDP ratio (regression results available upon request). But it does not seem to slow the boom enough to contain the associated risks.19 Partly in contrast, a growing literature suggests that easy monetary policy conditions are conducive to lower lending standards, which in turn could lead to credit booms (see Maddaloni and Peydró, 2011, and references therein).

These regressions may underestimate the effectiveness of monetary policy due to an endogeneity problem. Should central banks tighten the policy rate in reaction to credit booms, on average higher rates would coincide with faster credit growth. Put differently, positive deviations from conditions consistent with a Taylor rule would stem from the credit booms themselves. This would tend to reduce the size and significance of the regression coefficients, that is, it would bias the results against monetary policy effectiveness.

Country cases lend very limited support to the notion that monetary policy can effectively deal with a credit boom. During the last decade, many central and eastern European countries tightened monetary policy to contain inflation pressures, but these had little tangible effect on credit growth. In some cases, this reflected high euroization and ineffective monetary transmission channels. In others, increased capital inflows reversed the intended effects. Where the tightening seemed to have some short-lived impact on containing the boom (for example, Hungary and Poland), shifts to foreign-currency-denominated lending were observed (Brzoza-Brzezina, Chmielewski, and Niedźwiedzińska, 2010; also see Annex 3). That said, countries that allowed their exchange rates to appreciate more freely (for example, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia) did experience smaller credit booms. And in many advanced countries, the mortgage credit and house price booms recorded prior to the global financial crisis can be linked to lax monetary conditions (for example, Crowe and others, 2011, and references therein). However, there is an emerging consensus that the degree of tightening that would have been necessary to have a meaningful impact on credit growth would have been substantial and would have entailed significant costs for GDP growth.

Summarizing, monetary policy is in principle the natural framework for intervention to contain a credit boom. In practice, however, there are constraints that limit its action. From the evidence above, we expect monetary policy to be more effective in larger and more closed economies, where capital inflows and currency substitution are less of a concern. The benefits of monetary tightening will be more evident and its costs lower when credit booms occur in the context of general macro overheating. In contrast, the increase in interest rates necessary to stem booms associated with sectoral bubbles (such as those in real estate) may entail substantial costs—especially since, during these episodes, expected returns vastly overwhelm the effect of marginal changes in the policy rate.

Against this background, macroprudential measures and international policy coordination can improve the effectiveness of monetary policy. For instance, macroprudential policies targeted at net open foreign exchange positions may contain currency substitution, and cooperation with home supervisors of foreign banks may help reduce cross-border lending.

B. Fiscal Policy

Both cyclical and structural elements of the fiscal policy framework may play a role in curbing credit market developments. Most importantly, engaging in a prudent stance and conducting fiscal policy in a countercyclical fashion may help reduce overheating pressures associated with a credit boom. On the structural side, removing provisions in the tax code that create incentives for borrowing may reduce long-term leverage.

More critically, fiscal consolidation during the boom years can help create room for intervention to support the financial sector or stimulate the economy if and when the bust arrives. Based on the average gross fiscal cost of banking crises, estimates suggest that a buffer of 5 percent of GDP over the life of the boom would be actuarially fair (the number would drop to about 3 percent of GDP if based on net costs).20

From a practical point of view, however, traditional fiscal tools are unlikely to be effective in taming booms. As in the case of macroeconomic cycle management, their significant time lags prevent a timely response. Political economy factors may also play an important role, with election cycles introducing additional oscillations. And in the long run, the removal of incentives for borrowing in the tax code is unlikely to have a cyclical effect on credit growth.

Empirical evidence supports these considerations. Fiscal tightening is not associated with a reduced incidence of credit booms (Annex Table A7), nor a lower probability of a boom ending badly (Annex Table A8).21 A review of country experiences attests to the one-off effect from the removal of tax incentives to take on debt (for example, the 2002 introduction of limits on mortgage interest deductibility in Estonia). And, recent experience in Central and Eastern Europe suggests that fiscal policy contributed to credit growth (Annex 3).

New fiscal tools have been proposed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. These could take the form of levies imposed on financial activities – measured by the sum of profits and remuneration (Claessens, Keen, and Pazarbasioglu, 2010) – or a countercyclical tax on debt aiming to reduce leverage and mitigate the credit cycle (Jeanne and Korinek, 2010). These would go directly to the heart of the problem: the externalities associated with leverage and risk taking. Such “financial activities taxes” or “taxes linked to credit growth” could put downward pressure on the speed of individual financial institutions’ expanding, preventing them from becoming “too systemically important to fail.” The revenues could be used to create a public buffer rather than private buffers for individual institutions (as capital requirements do). Moreover, unlike prudential regulation that applies only to banks, the proposed tools could contain credit expansion by nonbank financial institutions as well.

However, there are practical difficulties with the newly proposed fiscal tools as well. Incentives to evade the new levies may lead to an increase in the resources devoted to “tax planning.” These incentives may actually strengthen when systemic risk is elevated because, as the possibility of having to use the buffers increases, financial institutions may attempt to avoid “transfers” to others through the public buffer. A further complication may arise if there are provisions to protect access to finance by certain borrowers or access to certain types of loans: circumvention through piggy-back loans or by splitting liabilities among related entities may generate a worse situation for resolution if the bust comes. In addition, in order for these new measures to be effective, they would have to take into account how banks will react to their imposition. This would likely mean a diversified treatment for different categories of banks (which opens up the risk of regulatory arbitrage) and progressive rates based on information similar to what is used for risk-weighted capital requirements (see Keen and de Mooij, 2012).

In summary, while fiscal policy is important to tame the overheating in the economy and create room to provide stimulus and financial support if and when the bust comes, its effectiveness in directly dealing with credit booms may be limited. The newer proposals advocating “financial taxation” make sense on paper, but remain to be tested.

C. Macroprudential Regulation

So far, the empirical analysis and the case studies seem to suggest that the effectiveness of macroeconomic policies in curbing credit booms is questionable. One reason for this discouraging message could be the high potential costs imposed on economic activity by these far-reaching and relatively blunt policies. A more targeted approach can, in principle, be more effective and reduce the costs associated with policy intervention, although this obviously is not true if one espouses the view that monetary aggregates (and therefore credit) are the major determinant of inflation pressures. Macroprudential policies offer such a targeted approach. Moreover, the externalities that exist between financial institutions and that contribute to the accumulation of vulnerabilities during the boom or amplify the negative shocks during the bust provide a rationale for macroprudential regulation.

Macroprudential policies are policies aimed at limiting systemwide risks in the financial system. In a strict sense, they include prudential tools and regulation to address externalities in the financial system (BIS, 2011; and IMF, 2011a). In a broader sense, however, the objective of macroprudential policies is to smooth financial and credit cycles in order to prevent systemic crises and provide cushion against their adverse effects. For our purposes, the broader interpretation is relevant. From this perspective, the most commonly used macroprudential tools can be grouped into the following three categories22:

  • Capital and liquidity requirements: These measures affect the cost and/or composition of the liabilities of financial institutions by increasing their capital and liquidity buffers. For instance, countercyclical capital requirements increase the cost of bank capital, and thus lending, in good times. Dynamic loan-loss provisioning rules, which build up capital buffers in the form of reserves in good times to absorb losses during bad times, also fall into this category. Capital and liquidity requirements can be countercyclical to smooth the credit cycle and/or include surcharges for systemically important financial institutions to limit the build-up of systemic risk.

  • Asset concentration and credit growth limits: These measures alter the composition of the assets of financial institutions by imposing limits on the pace of credit growth or on their asset concentration. Examples include speed limits on credit expansion, limits on foreign currency exposure or foreign-currency-denominated lending, and limits on sectoral concentration of loan portfolios. The aim of these measures is to reduce the exposure of bank portfolios to sectoral shocks and, to the extent that slower credit growth improves average loan quality, to aggregate shocks.

  • Loan eligibility criteria: These measures limit the pool of borrowers that have access to finance to improve the average quality of borrowers. Examples include loan-to-value (LTV) and debt-to-income (DTI) limits. These limits seek to leave the “marginal” borrowers out of the pool. LTVs also safeguard lenders by increasing loan collateral. Eligibility criteria can be tailored to fit a loan portfolio’s risk profile. For example, LTV limits can be linked to local house price dynamics or be differentiated based on whether loans are made in foreign currency to unhedged households or not.

Several obstacles make the econometric analysis of the impact of macroprudential policy on credit booms difficult. First, there are serious data availability and measurement issues. Macroprudential policy frameworks have not been around for a long time, and a mere handful of countries have used them regularly. Second, macroprudential policy is often implemented in combination with changes in the macroeconomic stance and involves multiple instruments in the same package. Therefore, attributing specific outcomes to specific instruments is a difficult task. Third, in most cases, policies are implemented in reaction to credit market developments. Hence, endogeneity is a major problem, and we must underline that our analysis does not attempt to establish causality. That said, endogeneity would result in positive coefficients: more credit growth leads to macroprudential tightening. Thus, a significant negative correlation between the use of macroprudential tools and credit booms would suggest that these policies are effective in alleviating the boom.

We construct an aggregate measure of macroprudential policy that includes the sum of the following six measures: differential treatment of deposit accounts, reserve requirements, liquidity requirements, interest rate controls, credit controls, and open foreign exchange position limits.23 We compile information on these measures from various issues of the IMF’s Annual Report on Exchange Arrangements and Exchange Restrictions and complement this with information from IMF Article IV reports and responses of country authorities to an IMF questionnaire (see IMF, 2011b).24 The identified measures have been used more intensely over time since the mid-90s (Figure 9). Reserve and liquidity requirements, followed by limits on open foreign exchange positions, have been used most frequently.

Figure 9.
Figure 9.

Macroprudential Index and its Components

Citation: Staff Discussion Notes 2012, 006; 10.5089/9781475504743.006.A001

Sources: IMF Annual Report on Exchange Arrangements and Exchange Restrictions, Article IV reports, surveys with country teams and country authorities (IMF, 2011b).Notes: Deposit accounts, I-Controls, C-Controls, and MaPP stand for differential treatment of deposit accounts, interest rate controls, credit controls, and macroprudential policy (the composite measure), respectively. Each component, shown on the left-hand-side axis, is indicated by the proportion of countries adopting it in a given year. MaPP, shown on the right-hand-side axis, is constructed as the within-year average of the within-country sum of component dummies.

This exercise brings some promising results, suggesting that macroprudential tools can reduce the incidence of credit booms and decrease the probability that booms end up badly (Annex Tables A7 and A8).25 Consistent with the focus of macroprudential tools on financial sector vulnerabilities, the reduction in the probability of a bad boom is found primarily for booms that end up in a financial crisis, although the effect on the probability of economic underperformance is not very different. This suggests that macroprudential policy can reduce the risk of a bust while simultaneously reducing the vulnerability of the rest of the economy to troubles in the financial system.26 These findings are in line with those in Lim and others (2011), who suggest that macroprudential tools, such as LTV and DTI caps, ceilings on credit growth, reserve requirements, and dynamic provisioning rules, can mitigate the “procyclicality” of credit.

This empirical evidence fits with the experience of countries that have used macroprudential policy tools. In general, these tools have been found to perform better in avoiding bad outcomes following credit booms rather than in preventing them altogether. Country experience with the most common macroprudential tools can be summarized as follows:

  • Capital and liquidity requirements: These measures have been broadly successful in building up buffers to deal with busts. But they have been less successful in curtailing the incidence and duration of credit booms. Tight capital and reserve requirements in Croatia are viewed as having been effective in increasing the banks’ liquidity and capital buffers. This helped banks weather the global financial crisis, but was less effective in slowing credit growth and capital inflows (Kraft and Galac, 2011; Ostry and others, 2011; Annex 3). Likewise, Peru’s reserve requirements on deposits in 2008 helped contain the risks posed by rapid credit growth while shielding the inflation targeting framework (Terrier and others, 2011). Dynamic loan-loss provisioning rules introduced in Spain in 2000 allowed Spanish banks to better absorb the negative shocks and maintain exposures during the crisis. In this way, they worked in their intended countercyclical fashion (Jiménez and others, 2011). Yet they did not stop the boom, and reliance on historical series to determine their magnitude may have made the buffers too small for what turned out to be an exceptional boom-bust cycle. In an interesting case targeting a specific class of assets, Brazil raised the risk weight on high-LTV car loans in December 2010, to restrain the rapid growth in this segment. Preliminary data suggest that this move has had its intended effect of raising interest rates on car loans and slowing down the supply of such credit.

  • Asset concentration and credit growth limits: These measures have had some success in slowing down the pace of credit, although often at the expense of building up concentrations of risk elsewhere in the system. For example, while credit growth in Romania remained strong despite a wave of measures, strict foreign exchange exposure limits introduced between September 2005 and January 2007 managed to curb foreign-currency-denominated loan growth. In Croatia, speed limits on credit growth by banks were introduced in 2003 (limiting the annual growth of banks’ domestic credits to 16 percent), combined with a penalty in the form of minimum holdings of central bank’s bills, if credit growth exceeded this limit. These had some success in reducing the growth rate of bank credit (which fell from 28.7 percent in 2002 to 11.8 percent in 2003), since the penalty for breaching the rule was high. However, the growth of total domestic credit (including credit from nonbanks) barely declined, as banks circumvented the rule by booking loans directly on their foreign parent banks and by lending to the private sector through their nonbank (for example, leasing company) subsidiaries (Kraft and Galac, 2011). This contributed to the build-up of systemic risk in the nonbank financial sector.

  • Loan eligibility criteria: Experience using these measures is limited, but when implemented they seem to have been effective in curbing the deterioration in lending standards typically associated with credit booms (Dell’Ariccia, Igan, and Laeven, 2008). For example, the resilience of the banking system in Hong Kong during the Asian financial crisis in 1998 has been attributed to the introduction of actively managed LTV and DTI restrictions (Wong and others, 2011). Similarly, in Korea, LTV and DTI limits seem to have discouraged speculation in housing markets (Igan and Kang, 2011). In Poland, loan eligibility requirements on foreign-currency-denominated mortgage loans were credited for keeping default rates low during the global financial crisis – this in spite of the zloty’s significant depreciation against the currencies (euro and Swiss franc) in which these loans were denominated.

As a whole, macroprudential tools show some promise in dealing with credit booms and busts (see also Lim and others, 2011, based on the experience of 49 countries since 2000). However, more time and analysis are needed for a full assessment of their effectiveness. Their targeted nature entails a more favorable cost-benefit balance. Yet a potential problem with their targeted nature is that it makes these instruments more susceptible to circumvention and political resistance. Circumvention may end up masking or increasing systemic risks by shifting credit activity into less-regulated intermediaries or to riskier loan types. And these distortions may prove economically important, similar to those documented for credit controls (Kane, 1977; Borio, 2003 and 2009).

Since the losers and winners of a particular macroprudential measure are more clear-cut than in the case of macroeconomic policies, it might be easier to gather and organize public opposition to the implementation of certain measures. There is then a tension between a rule-based approach to the application of these measures, to minimize political interference, and a discretionary approach that could better deal with circumvention. As with monetary tightening, cross-border policy coordination could help avoid circumvention and enhance the potential effectiveness of macroprudential policies. For example, the incentives to shift lending to foreign bank branches or less-regulated financial institutions may be reduced when communication and coordinated action among supervisors are strong.

VI. Conclusions

Prolonged credit booms are a harbinger of financial crises and have real costs. Our analysis shows that, while only a minority of booms end up in crises, those that do can have long-lasting and devastating real effects if left unaddressed. Yet it appears to be difficult to identify bad booms as they emerge, and the cost of intervening too early and running the risk of stopping a good boom therefore has to be weighed against the desire to prevent financial crises.

While the analysis offers some insights into the origins and dynamics of credit booms, from a policy perspective a number of questions remain unaddressed. In part this reflects the limited experience to date with macroprudential policies and the simultaneous use of multiple policy tools, making it hard to disentangle specific policy measures’ effectiveness.

First, while monetary policy tightening seems the natural response to rapid credit growth, we find only weak empirical evidence that it contains booms and their fallout on the economy. This may be partly the result of a statistical bias. But there are several “legitimate” factors that limit the use and effectiveness of monetary policy in dealing with credit booms, especially in small open economies. In contrast, there is more consistent evidence that macroprudential policy is up to this task, although it is more exposed to circumvention.

All of the above raise important questions about the optimal policy response to credit booms. Our view is that when credit booms coincide with periods of general overheating in the economy, monetary policy should act first and foremost. If the boom lasts and is likely to end up badly or if it occurs in the absence of overheating, then macroprudential policy should come into play. Preferably, this should be in combination and coordination with macroeconomic policy, especially when macroeconomic policy is already being used to address overheating of the economy.

Second, questions remain about the optimal mix and modality of macroprudential policies, also in light of political economy considerations and the type of supervisory arrangements in the country. Political economy considerations call for a more rules-based approach to setting macroprudential policy to avoid pressure from interest groups to relax regulation during a crisis. But such considerations have to be weighed against the practical problems and unintended effects of a rules-based approach, such as the calibration of rules with rather demanding data requirements and the risk of circumvention in the presence of active earnings management. The design of a macroprudential framework should also consider the capacity and ability of supervisors to enforce such rules so that unintended and potentially dangerous side effects can be avoided.

Third, the optimal macroprudential policy response to credit booms, as well as the optimal policy mix, will likely have to depend on the type of credit boom. Because of data limitations, our analysis has focused on aggregate credit. While it seems natural that policy response should adapt to and be targeted to the type of credit, additional analysis is needed to assess the effectiveness of policies to curtail booms that differ in the type of credit.

Fourth, policy coordination, across different authorities and across borders, may increase the effectiveness of monetary tightening and macroprudential policies. Cooperation and a continuous flow of information among national supervisors, especially regarding the activities of institutions that are active across borders, are crucial. Equally important is the coordination of regulations and actions among supervisors of different types of financial institutions. Whether and how national policymakers take into account the effects of their actions on the financial and macroeconomic stability of other countries is a vital issue, calling for further regional and global cooperation in the setup of macroprudential policy frameworks and the conduct of macroeconomic policies.

Policies for Macrofinancial Stability: How to Deal with Credit Booms
Author: Mr. Bas B. Bakker, Mr. Giovanni Dell'Ariccia, Mr. Luc Laeven, Jérôme Vandenbussche, Ms. Deniz O Igan, and Mr. Hui Tong