Why isn't the government breaking up the giant, insolvent banks?
We Need Them To Help the Economy Recover?
Do we need the Too Big to Fails to help the economy recover?
following top economists and financial experts believe that the economy
cannot recover unless the big, insolvent banks are broken up in an
- Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz
- Nobel prize-winning economist, Ed Prescott
and professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, and
chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W.
Bush, R. Glenn Hubbard
- Deputy Treasury Secretary, Neal S. Wolin
- The President of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington-based trade group with about 5,000 members, Camden R. Fine
- The head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair
- The leading monetary economist and co-author with Milton Friedman of the leading treatise on the Great Depression, Anna Schwartz
- Economics professor and senior regulator during the S & L crisis, William K. Black
- Economics professor, Nouriel Roubini
- Economist, Marc Faber
- Professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Luigi Zingales
- Economics professor, Thomas F. Cooley
- Former investment banker, Philip Augar
- Chairman of the Commons Treasury, John McFall
Others, like Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, think that the giant insolvent banks may need to be temporarily nationalized.
In addition, many top economists and financial experts, including Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer - who was Ben Bernanke’s thesis adviser at MIT - say that - at the very least - the size of the financial giants should be limited.
report was particularly scathing in its assessment of governments’
attempts to clean up their banks. “The reluctance of officials to
quickly clean up the banks, many of which are now owned in large part
by governments, may well delay recovery,” it said, adding that
government interventions had ingrained the belief that some banks were
too big or too interconnected to fail.
This was dangerous because it reinforced the risks of moral hazard
which might lead to an even bigger financial crisis in future.
If We Break 'Em Up, No One Will Lend?
Do we need to keep the TBTFs to make sure that loans are made?
Fortune pointed out
in February that smaller banks are stepping in to fill the lending void
left by the giant banks' current hesitancy to make loans. Indeed, the
article points out that the only reason that smaller banks haven't been
able to expand and thrive is that the too-big-to-fails have decreased
Growth for the nation's smaller banks
represents a reversal of trends from the last twenty years, when the
biggest banks got much bigger and many of the smallest players were
gobbled up or driven under...
As big banks struggle to find a way forward and rising loan losses
threaten to punish poorly run banks of all sizes, smaller but well
capitalized institutions have a long-awaited chance to expand.
BusinessWeek noted in January:
As big banks struggle, community banks are stepping in to offer loans and lines of credit to small business owners...
At a congressional hearing on small business and the economic
recovery earlier this month, economist Paul Merski, of the Independent
Community Bankers of America, a Washington (D.C.) trade group, told
lawmakers that community banks make 20% of all small-business loans,
even though they represent only about 12% of all bank assets.
Furthermore, he said that about 50% of all small-business loans under
$100,000 are made by community banks...
Indeed, for the past two years, small-business lending among community
banks has grown at a faster rate than from larger institutions,
according to Aite Group, a Boston banking consultancy. "Community banks
are quickly taking on more market share not only from the top five
banks but from some of the regional banks," says Christine Barry,
Aite's research director. "They are focusing more attention on small
businesses than before. They are seeing revenue opportunities and
deploying the right solutions in place to serve these customers."
And Fed Governor Daniel K. Tarullo said in June:
importance of traditional financial intermediation services, and hence
of the smaller banks that typically specialize in providing those
services, tends to increase during times of financial stress. Indeed,
the crisis has highlighted the important continuing role of community
For example, while the number of credit unions has declined by 42
percent since 1989, credit union deposits have more than quadrupled,
and credit unions have increased their share of national deposits from
4.7 percent to 8.5 percent. In addition, some credit unions have
shifted from the traditional membership based on a common interest to
membership that encompasses anyone who lives or works within one or
more local banking markets. In the last few years, some credit unions
have also moved beyond their traditional focus on consumer services to
provide services to small businesses, increasing the extent to which
they compete with community banks.
Indeed, some very smart people say that the big banks aren't really focusing as much on the lending business as smaller banks.
since Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, the giant banks have made
much of their money in trading assets, securities, derivatives and
other speculative bets, the banks' own paper and securities, and in
other money-making activities which have nothing to do with traditional
Now that the economy has crashed, the big banks are making very few loans to consumers or small businesses because they still
have trillions in bad derivatives gambling debts to pay off, and so
they are only loaning to the biggest players and those who don't really
need credit in the first place. See this and this.
So we don't really need these giant gamblers. We don't really need JP Morgan, Citi, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. What we need are dedicated lenders.
The Fortune article discussed above points out that the banking giants are not necessarily more efficient than smaller banks:
largest banks often don't show the greatest efficiency. This now seems
unsurprising given the deep problems that the biggest institutions have
faced over the past year.
"They actually experience diseconomies of scale," Narter wrote of
the biggest banks. "There are so many large autonomous divisions of the
bank that the complexity of connecting them overwhelms the advantage of
And Governor Tarullo points out some of the benefits of small community banks over the giant banks:
community banks have thrived, in large part because their local
presence and personal interactions give them an advantage in meeting
the financial needs of many households, small businesses, and
agricultural firms. Their business model is based on an important
economic explanation of the role of financial intermediaries--to
develop and apply expertise that allows a lender to make better
judgments about the creditworthiness of potential borrowers than could
be made by a potential lender with less information about the
A small, but growing, body of research suggests that the financial
services provided by large banks are less-than-perfect substitutes for
those provided by community banks.
It is simply not true
that we need the mega-banks. In fact, as many top economists and
financial analysts have said, the "too big to fails" are actually
stifling competition from smaller lenders and credit unions, and
dragging the entire economy down into a black hole.
The Giant Banks Have Recovered, And Are No Longer Insolvent?
Have the TBTFs recovered, so that they are no longer insolvent?
The giant banks have still not put the toxic assets hidden in their SIVs back on their books.
The tsunamis of commercial real estate, Alt-A, option arm and other loan defaults have not yet hit.
overhang of derivatives is still looming out there, and still dwarfs
the size of the rest of the global economy. Credit default swaps have arguably still not been tamed (see this).
Indeed, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said recently:
U.S. has failed to fix the underlying problems of its banking system
after the credit crunch and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings
“In the U.S. and many other countries, the too-big-to-fail banks
have become even bigger,” Stiglitz said in an interview today in Paris.
“The problems are worse than they were in 2007 before the crisis.”
Stiglitz’s views echo those of former Federal Reserve Chairman
Paul Volcker, who has advised President Barack Obama's administration
to curtail the size of banks, and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley
Fischer, who suggested last month that governments may want to
discourage financial institutions from growing “excessively.”
While the big boys have certainly reported some impressive profits in the last couple of months, some or all of those profits may have been due to "creative accounting", such as Goldman "skipping" December 2008, suspension of mark-to-market (which may or may not be a good thing), and assistance from the government.
very smart people say that the big banks - even after many billions in
bailouts and other government help - have still not repaired their
balance sheets. Tyler Durden, Reggie Middleton, Mish and others have looked at the balance sheets of the big boys much more recently than I have, and have more details than I do.
But the bottom line is this: If the banks are no longer insolvent, they should prove it. If they can't prove they are solvent, they should be broken up.
The Government Lacks the Power to Break Them Up?
Does the government lack the power to break up the TBTFs?
One of the world's leading economic historians - Niall Ferguson - argues in a current article in Newsweek:
[Geithner is proposing that] there should be a new "resolution
authority" for the swift closing down of big banks that fail. But such
an authority already exists and was used when Continental Illinois failed in 1984.
Indeed, even the FDIC mentions Continental Illinois in the same breadth as "too big to fail" banks.
And William K. Black (remember, he was the senior regulator during the S&L crisis, and is a Professor of both Economics and
Law) - says that the Prompt Corrective
Action Law (PCA), 12 U.S.C. § 1831o, not only authorizes the government
to seize insolvent banks, it mandates it, and that the Bush and Obama administrations broke the law by refusing to close insolvent banks.
Whether or not the banks' holding companies can be broken up using the PCA, the banks themselves could be. See this.
And no one can doubt that the government could find a way to break up even the holdign companies if it wanted.
FDR seized gold during the Great Depression under the Trading With The Enemies Act.
and Bernanke have been using one loophole and "creative" legal
interpretation after another to rationalize their various
multi-trillion dollar programs in the face of opposition from the
public and Congress (see this, for example).
And the government could use 100-year old antitrust laws to break them up.
don't give me any of this "our hands are tied" malarkey. The Obama
administration could break the "too bigs" up in a heartbeat if it
wanted to, and then justify it after the fact using PCA or another
Is Temporarily Nationalizing the Giant Banks Socialism?
Many argue that it would be wrong for the government to break up the banks, because we would have to take over the banks in order to break them up.
may be true. But government regulators in the U.S., Sweden and other
countries which have broken up insolvent banks say that the government
only has to take over banks for around 6 months before breaking them up.
contrast, the Bush and Obama administrations' actions mean that the
government is becoming the majority shareholder in the financial giants
more or less permanently. That is - truly - socialism.
them up and selling off the parts to the highest bidder efficiently and
in an orderly fashion would get us back to a semblance of free market
capitalism much quicker.
The Real Reason the Giant Banks Aren't Being Broken Up
So what is the real reason that the TBTFs aren't being broken up?
Certainly, there is regulatory capture, cowardice and corruption:
- Joseph Stiglitz
(the Nobel prize winning economist) said recently that the U.S. government is wary of challenging the
financial industry because it is politically difficult, and that he
hopes the Group of 20 leaders will cajole the U.S. into tougher action
- Economic historian Niall Ferguson asks:
which institutions are among the biggest lobbyists and campaign-finance
contributors? Surprise! None other than the TBTFs [too big to fails].
- Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Gelinas agrees:
too-big-to-fail financial industry has been good to elected officials
and former elected officials of both parties over its 25-year life span
- Investment analyst and financial writer Yves Smith says:
Major financial players [have gained] control over the all-important over-the-counter debt markets...
It is pretty hard to regulate someone who has a knife at your throat.
- William K. Black says:
There has been no honest examination of the crisis because it would embarrass C.E.O.s and politicians . . .
Instead, the Treasury and the Fed are urging us not to
examine the crisis and to believe that all will soon be well. There
have been no prosecutions of the chief executives of the large nonprime
lenders that would expose the “epidemic” of fraudulent mortgage lending
that drove the crisis. There has been no accountability...
The Obama administration and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke have
refused to investigate the nature and causes of the crisis. And the
administration selected Timothy Geithner, who with then Treasury
Secretary Paulson bungled the bailout of A.I.G. and other favored “too
big to fail” institutions, to head up Treasury.
Now Lawrence Summers, head of the White House National Economic
Council, and Mr. Geithner argue that no fundamental change in finance
is needed. They want to recreate a secondary market in the subprime
mortgages that caused trillions of dollars of losses.
neo-classical economic theory, particularly “modern finance theory,”
has been proven false but economists have failed to replace it. No
fundamental reform can be passed when the proponents are pretending
that there really is no crisis or need for change.
- Harvard professor of government Jeffry A. Frieden says:
agencies are often sympathetic to the industries they regulate. This
pattern is so well known among scholars that it has a name: “regulatory
capture.” This effect can be due to the political influence of the
industry on its regulators; or to the fact that the regulators spend so
much time with their charges that they come to accept their world view;
or to the prospect of lucrative private-sector jobs when regulators
retire or resign.
- Economic consultant Edward Harrison agrees:Regulating Wall Street has become difficult in large part because of regulatory capture.
But there is an even more interesting reason . . .
The number one reason the TBTF's aren't being broken up is [drumroll] . . . the 'ole 80's playbook is being used.
As the New York Times wrote in February:
the 1980s, during the height of the Latin American debt crisis, the
total risk to the nine money-center banks in New York was estimated at
more than three times the capital of those banks. The regulators,
analysts say, did not force the banks to value those loans at the
fire-sale prices of the moment, helping to avert a disaster in the
In other words, the nine biggest banks were all insolvent in the 1980s.
And the Times is not alone in stating this fact. For example, Felix Salmon wrote in January:
the early 1980s, when a slew of overindebted Latin governments
defaulted to their bank creditors, a lot of big global banks, Citicorp
foremost among them, became insolvent.
government's failure to break up the insolvent giants - even though
virtually all independent experts say that is the only way to save the
economy, and even though there is no good reason not to break them up - is nothing new.
William K. Black's statement that the government's entire strategy now - as in the S&L crisis - is to cover up how bad things are ("the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts") makes a lot more sense.