Summary: Using bank data for 80 countries for 1988-95, the authors show that differences in interest margins and bank profitability reflect various determinants: bank characteristics, macroeconomic conditions, explicit and implicit bank taxes, regulation of deposit insurance, general financial structure, and several underlying legal and institutional indicators. Controlling for differences in bank activity, leverage, and the macroeconomic environment, they find (among other things) that: 1) Banks in countries with a more competitive banking sector--where banking assets constitute a larger share of GDP--have smaller margins and are less profitable. The bank concentration ratio also affects bank profitability; larger banks tend to have higher margins. 2) Well-capitalized banks have higher net interest margins and are more profitable. This is consistent with the fact that banks with higher capital ratios have a lower cost of funding because of lower prospective bankruptcy costs. 3) Differences in a bank's activity mix affect spread and profitability. Banks with relatively high non-interest-earning assets are less profitable. Also, banks that rely largely on deposits for their funding are less profitable, as deposits require more branching and other expenses. Similarly, variations in overhead and other operating costs are reflected in variations in bank interest margins, as banks pass their operating costs (including the corporate tax burden) onto their depositors and lenders. 4) In developing countries, foreign banks have greater margins and profits than domestic banks. In industrial countries, the opposite is true. 5) Macroeconomic factors also explain variation in interest margins. Inflation is associated with higher realized interest margins and greater profitability. Inflation brings higher costs--more transactions and generally more extensive branch networks--and also more income from bank float. Bank income increases more with inflation than bank costs do. 6) There is evidence that the corporate tax burden is fully passed on to bank customers in poor and rich countries alike. 7) Legal and institutional differences matter. Indicators of better contract enforcement, efficiency in the legal system, and lack of corruption are associated with lower realized interest margins and lower profitability.
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