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Some Like It Hot: Can a Financial “Cancer” from the 1980s Help Prevent Bank Runs?



Bank runs have long been a concern in the financial industry, with the potential to cause widespread panic and destabilize economies. In the 1980s, a financial product known as “cancer bonds” emerged as a controversial solution to prevent bank runs. While the name may raise eyebrows, these bonds aimed to provide a unique insurance mechanism to protect depositors in times of crisis. This article explores the concept of cancer bonds, their historical context, and their potential role in preventing bank runs in the modern era.

Understanding Cancer Bonds

Cancer bonds, also referred to as “contingent capital securities,” were first introduced by Merrill Lynch in 1983. The name “cancer” stemmed from the idea that these bonds would grow and spread throughout the financial system in times of distress, acting as a protective mechanism.

The basic concept behind cancer bonds was to create hybrid instruments that would convert into equity or absorb losses in the event of a bank’s financial deterioration. By doing so, they aimed to provide an additional layer of protection for depositors and stabilize the banking system during times of crisis.

Historical Context and Controversy

The development of cancer bonds in the 1980s was largely influenced by the savings and loan crisis in the United States. During this period, numerous savings and loan institutions faced insolvency, triggering a wave of bank failures and widespread panic.

Cancer bonds were seen as a potential solution to mitigate the impact of future bank failures. Advocates argued that these bonds would act as a buffer, absorbing losses and preventing the need for government bailouts. Additionally, they were expected to instill confidence in depositors, reducing the likelihood of bank runs.

However, the introduction of cancer bonds was met with significant controversy. Critics raised concerns about the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the conversion mechanisms and questioned their effectiveness in practice. Skeptics argued that the bonds could potentially exacerbate market instability during a crisis rather than prevent it.

The Modern Relevance of Cancer Bonds

In recent years, the concept of contingent capital securities, similar to cancer bonds, has resurfaced in discussions surrounding financial stability and the prevention of bank runs. Proponents argue that these instruments have evolved over time and can play a crucial role in protecting the financial system.

Advancements in financial engineering and regulatory frameworks have led to the development of more sophisticated contingent capital securities. These modern instruments often incorporate trigger mechanisms based on predefined financial indicators, such as a bank’s capital ratio falling below a certain threshold. Upon activation, the securities can be converted into equity, providing additional capital and absorbing losses.

The potential benefits of modern contingent capital securities include strengthening banks’ capital positions, promoting market discipline, and reducing the reliance on taxpayer-funded bailouts. By aligning the interests of debt holders with the stability of the financial institution, these instruments can incentivize prudent risk management and reduce the probability of bank runs.


The concept of cancer bonds, though controversial in the 1980s, has resurfaced in discussions about preventing bank runs in the modern era. While the name “cancer bonds” may be off-putting, the underlying idea of contingent capital securities has gained traction as a potential tool for enhancing financial stability.

With advancements in financial engineering and regulatory frameworks, modern contingent capital securities offer the possibility of creating a stronger safety net for depositors and reducing the systemic risks associated with bank runs. However, careful consideration must be given to their design, transparency, and effectiveness to ensure they contribute positively to financial stability.

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