Systemic Risk

58 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2008 Last revised: 26 Sep 2008


This article is the first major work of legal scholarship on systemic risk, under which the world's financial system can collapse like a row of dominos. There is widespread confusion about the causes and even the definition of systemic risk, and uncertainty how to control it. This article attempts to provide a conceptual framework for examining what risks are truly systemic, what causes those risks, and how, if at all, those risks should be regulated.

It begins by carefully examining what systemic risk really means, cutting through the confusion and ambiguity to establish basic parameters. Economists and other scholars historically have tended to think of systemic risk primarily in terms of financial institutions such as banks. However with the growth of disintermediation, in which companies can access capital market funding without going through banks or other intermediary-institutions, greater focus should be devoted to financial markets and the relationship between markets and institutions.

Using this integrated perspective, the article derives a working definition of systemic risk. It then uses this definition to examine whether systemic risk should be regulated. To that end, the article examines how risk itself - in particular, financial risk - should be regulated and then inquires how that regulatory framework should change by reason of the financial risk being systemic.

A threshold question is whether regulatory solutions are appropriate for systemic risk. The article argues they are because, like a tragedy of the commons, no individual market participant has an incentive, absent regulation, to limit its risk taking in order to reduce the systemic danger to other participants and third parties.

Suggested Citation

Schwarcz, Steven L., Systemic Risk. Duke Law School Legal Studies Paper No. 163, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 97, No. 1, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Steven L. Schwarcz (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7060 (Phone)
919-613-7231 (Fax)

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