But Do We Really Want Smaller Zombie Banks?

rcwhalen's picture

Your humble blogger is headed to DC today to participate in a General Accountability Office session on the US banking industry.  In a letter last month to Gene L. Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, Senator Sherrod Brown (D- OH) and Senator David Vitter (R-LA) complain that despite the passage of the Dodd-Frank law, the largest US banks continue to grow and remain “too big to fail.”  They write:

“Though Congress has enacted financial sector reforms that its supporters, both in Congress and the Administration, intended to mitigate the TBTF problem, we are concerned that these measures may not be sufficient to eliminate government support for the largest bank holding companies.  Federal Reserve Board Governor Daniel Tarullo recently lamented, ‘to the extent that a growing systemic footprint increases perceptions of at least some residual too-big-to-fail quality in such a firm, notwithstanding the panoply of measures in Dodd-Frank and our regulations, there may be funding advantages for the firm, which reinforces the impulse to grow.’”

And this statement is true.  But when you look at why the TBTF banks are so large, much of the blame lies with Washington.  In fact, Congress itself is probably the leading reason for the odious doctrine called “too big to fail.”  Congress has mismanaged the finances of the US Treasury and has thus given the bankers who service the nation’s debt big leverage, even extortionate powers.  The US government cannot strike down the bankers without killing the ability of the government to finance its debts – at least absent the intercession of the Federal Open Market Committee.

As I noted in a comment for IRA this week, “Mutually Assured Destruction: The Legacy of Timothy Geithner -- and Robert Rubin,” the real reason that the DOJ does not go after the big banks is the same reason why the Fed has always pandered to the zombie dance queens, namely the overriding concern about the market for Treasury debt. In the minds of Washington's ministerial class, systemic risk trumps securities fraud -- or anything else. The TBTF banks and three or four other players are all that remains of the primary dealer community. Mess with the remaining big banks, so the story goes, and the world really does end.”

Of course, the problem with the whole issue of “too big to fail” is that the large banks are net takers of resources from the economy.  The hundreds of billions of dollars per year in subsidies that flow through the largest banks c/o the Fed and various federal agencies far exceed the nominal profits reported by the entire banking industry.  Consider, for example, that the total interest expense for the US banking industry was just $16 billion in Q3 2012 compared with almost $100 billion in Q4 2007.  Add in the debt leverage and the annual subsidy to the banks from the Fed for just QE alone is hundreds of billions per year.  

As I told the GAO:

“The subsidy value of the SIFI/TBTF designation is enormous and basically gives the TBTF bank a funding profile similar to a US government agency. Thus the most obvious value of the SIFI label is the economic benefit in terms of funding cost. If market participants really believed that a TBTF bank could, in fact, fail and default in a legal sense, then the funding costs would reflect that perception.   The list of subsidies that flow to the TBTF banks includes the Fed’s zero rate/QE policies, the cartel pricing profits from agency mortgage originations, and the exemption from the automatic stay in bankruptcy for OTC derivative contracts.  My rough guess as to the size of the annual subsidy for the five largest US SIFI institutions would be $500 billion annually or more.”

It may even be hypocritical for members of Congress to complain about the zombie banks given the degree to which large banks have become instruments of public policy.  The subsidies for TBTF banks reflect policy decisions made in Washington by Congress, such as tying monetary policy to “full employment,” a notion that goes back to WWII and the Great Depression.  The large banks simply align themselves to make maximum profit from America’s decidedly socialist the public policy goals.

The wisdom that allows Congress to subsidize the housing market to the tune of several points worth of annual interest expense implicitly endorses the role of the TBTF banks.  There is no higher risk adjusted return for banks than making a residential mortgage loan that is covered by the FHA, extracting fees from the borrower, then selling that loan into the TBA market for a several point profit.  Uncle Sam holds the first lost risk and the bank holds the servicing on the loan.  

At least that was the plan until the Dodd-Frank legislation.  Now the TBTF banks are headed into a brave new world where much of the subsidies from housing are being offset by a new tax called Basel III.  Under the foreign-inspired capital rules, large banks will be forced out of the mortgage market and will no longer be able to retain large portfolios of loan servicing.  Over time, this change in the cost of capital for large banks could see them shift their activities even more toward capital markets and derivatives.  The irony of Dodd-Frank and Basel III is that it may make the TBTF banks more risky and unstable. 

Indeed, even as members of Congress fret about the problem of TBTF, a move is afoot to repeal the Volcker Rule as part of continuing financial reform.  I have never been a fan of the Volcker Rule, a part of the Dodd-Frank law that prohibits banks from trading for their own account.  The London Whale trade at JPMorgan was an example of a prohibited activity under the Volcker Rule, one reason that the bank had started to terminate employees in the CIO office in 2011, prior to the supposed bad acts.  

The trouble with the Volcker Rule is that is completely misses the point of the subprime crisis, namely securities fraud at the syndicate desk.  The fact of banks trading their own book is trivial compared to the vast larceny that took place across the trading floor on the new issue desk.  Of course, former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker understands this very well.  As I have noted before, Volcker has never seen a TBTF bank he would not bail out given the chance.  Indeed, the public paragon Paul Volcker is the father of too-big-to-fail, as I noted in my 2010 book “Inflated.” 

So while the attention of Senators Brown and Vitter is commendable, somebody needs to take them aside and tell them the punch line to the joke.  The TBTF banks are big because of excessive risk taking, not because of leverage per se, and much of this risk is underwritten by Washington.  You can increase capital requirements in a static sense, but it is the type of business model decisions taken by these banks which is the real issue for the public.  As I told the GAO:

“When a bank hides risk, as in the case of the Citigroup SIV example, the problem is internal systems and controls, not capital.  In the JP Morgan episode with the “London Whale,” the problem likewise was internal systems and controls, not capital.  The JPM example with the London Whale apparently involved deliberate risk taking, not hedging, but regulators seem willing to accept the bank’s version of why this loss event occurred.” See my earlier ZH comment in terms of what did or did not happen in 2010, “A few more questions for JPMorgan on the London Whale.”

The problem with “too-big-to-fail” is first and foremost the behavior of our beloved political leaders in Washington.  Our love-hate relationship with the big banks is a legacy of WWII and the fiscal depravity which has followed ever since.  When we start to shrink the federal government and our chronic deficits, the large banks will get smaller.   The zombie banks feed from the public trough in many ways.  Just don’t assume that when Washington screams “no, no” to more zombie love that those protestations are entirely genuine.


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HalinCA's picture

How much of our banking and financial trouble is due to the fact that interest expense is tax deductable?

Useful long term solutions to our debt/finance problem have to eliminate this discrepancy.  It skews SO much behavior in finance, government, and industry.

Umh's picture

Somewhat along those lines. Have you been to an open air mall in the summer time when they are running the AC full blast with the doors wide open; this insanity is treated just like other business expenses.

JR's picture

The TBTF banks own the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve owns the Congress and so, regardless of what smaller banks would do, if the people can get rid of the hold that the Federal Reserve has over the government of the USA, there can be no more worthwhile a target.

The first thing is to split up these huge banks that are the owners of the Federal Reserve. I would welcome a plethora of smaller banks. After all, the reason the Federal Reserve System was created, with its goal of controlling the world economy, was to protect it members from competition and for the Game-called-Bailout to cover the losses of the cartel – making the latter possible by manufacturing w hatever money might be necessary and extracting payment from the American people through the hidden tax called inflation.  And, of course, the TBTFs get an additional advantage over their smaller competitors - a free ride on their FDIC insurance at the expense of the small banks. And to top off this rich concoction, they've designated themselves, in classic Bernaysesque, “too big to fail.”

The people’s problem is that these TBTFs own the currency printing plant.

This, then, is first and foremost the problem, that these megabanks own the printing plant and, thereby, Washington, DC. The behavior of Congress already has been demonstrated. Congress showed us what it could do in 1913. It gave away the Constitution of the United States to the foreign banks. It showed us what it could do! It could give away the country if it wanted to.

Radical Marijuana's picture

... The behavior of Congress already has been demonstrated. ...

It gave away the Constitution of the United States to the foreign banks.

There are no doubts about that, JR! However, when one looks more closely at the astonishing history of WHY the government "could give away" the power to make money out of nothing to private banks, it becomes clear that that was due to the long history of the systematic application of the methods of organized crime, in order to take control over the political processes. Bribery, intimidation, and ASSASSINATION when those did not work, were the means, behind the scenes, that enabled the banksters to corrupt Congress so totally. To give away the power to make money out of nothing, as debts, to private banks, was to legalize counterfeiting! Indeed, at face value, to stop "money" being backed by gold and silver was to divorce "money" from the material world. The triumphs of fraud are the triumphs of creating a society that deliberately ignores the laws of nature! That is one of the deeper meanings of the current financial systems, which are fundamentally based on the triumph of fraud. THE WHOLE SYSTEM BECOMES BASED ON DELIBERATELY IGNORING THE LAWS OF NATURE, AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE!

Thereafter, the runaway process of buying up control of the mass media, and other "education", etc., has resulted in successfully brainwashing the vast majority of people to the extent where they can not understand the patent absurdity of privatized fiat money-as-debt, or rather, have been even more deeply brainwashed that they do not want to understand. The American financial system has become Orwellian on steroids! But nevertheless, the triumph of absurd lies, which are the opposite of the truth in every way, seems taken for granted in most ways, by most people.

The achievements of organized crime taking control of the government were like a home invasion of the American Family, which was able to be consolidated for generation, after generation, after generation. Relentlessly rewarding those who agree to go along with the criminals' systems, while punishing those who did not, spiralled around and around, so that, more and more, people agreed with lies, to the extent that they can not face the truth.

The deeper truths are that money is backed by murder, and that the best organized gangs of criminals, through the methods of organized crime, have been able to completely take over the government of the USA. Furthermore, there are no genuine solutions outside of that deeper truth. The Federal Reserve Board system is merely the salient symptom of the deeper problems. The most astonishing paradoxes were the ways in which Americans had become the absolute biggest and best at running money/murder systems, while they simultaneously, and necessarily, were also the absolutely worst at perceiving and understanding what they are doing.

People who superficially talk about "ending the Fed" tend to deliberately not understand what they are talking about!

After one faces the central FACT that the Fed is the result of the triumph of organized crime, which has become the government, the real problems are that nothing else is practical and realistic outside of that context. There is no way to stop money being backed by murder. There is no way to avoid the astronomically amplified paradoxes of murder systems depending on the maximum deceits, which have resulted in financial systems developing the maximum frauds, other than to continue to deliberately ignore the laws of nature, which results in running a civilization which automatically becomes crazier and crazier!

People who superficially direct their anger at the banksters tend to deliberately not want to understand what they are talking about. It is not who the banksters are, but what they do, that matters. Ultimately there is no set of genuine solutions to these problems which are not finally just better organized crime. The current systems are driving themselves mad with too much success through frauds. There is systematic fraudulent science developing throughout every aspect of society, which is one of the worst aspects of these problems. The entire system is BASED on being able to deliberately ignore the basic laws of nature, as much as possible! The original constitutional idea of gold and silver money, whose values were set by Congress, has been utterly destroyed by the runaway triumph of frauds, driven by the organized crimes that backed up that fraud with force. As America switched from "money" related to the conservation of matter, to fiat "money" made out of nothing as debts, Americans became more and more insane, and more and more out of touch with the basic laws of nature.

As Americans were taken over by a debt slavery system, they became a slave society. More and more, they took pride in the stupid things that they had to do to survive as slaves. They have been brainwashed to think about the world in the ways that are backwards. Most of those proposing solutions to those problems continue to advocate that we go backwards, as their preferred solutions, depending upon which old-fashioned religions or ideologies they prefer.

My suggestions are always that we should go forwards to understand general energy systems better. However, when one does that, then there are no ways to avoid the central paradoxes and dilemmas with respect to the death controls being crucial and central to everything else which is controlled. The runaway debt insanity situation was due to the runaway triumph of covert death controls, as the most extreme manifestation of the expression of the methods of organized crime, taking control of the government.

To more thoroughly apply general energy systems views to human society results in there being unitary mechanisms, rather than false fundamental dichotomies. The TRUTH is that government IS organized crime. That was how and why covert organized crime, done by the international banksters, was able to recapture control of the government of the USA. Furthermore, there is nothing adequate outside of that frame of reference which could provide any real solutions. No going backwards to abolish the Fed and reinstitute "sound money" is enough, since the world has rushed forwards into understanding energy systems, more and more, while the murder systems which control men are manifestations of those!

Smaller Zombie Banks is just another absurd "monetary reform" suggestion which fails to understand the real problems! There can be nothing less than "monetary revolution" that could work, but that may not work until after the established systems finish driving themselves mad, and causing their own self-destruction, due to too much success based on too much fraud, that ignores the real laws of nature, too much, for too long.

The sublime paradoxes we actually face are that there are no adequate ways to understand our problems which do not understand how and why the government IS organized crime. There are no genuine solutions to our monetary problems which fail to address the murder system problems. Tragically, Americans, and the whole world system today, became based on runaway triumphant fraudulence, actively ignoring the laws of nature, as much as possible. That has enabled a global system of electronic fiat money, backed by atomic bombs. It appears quite impossible to fully understand the magnitude of that runaway social insanity! The only realistic and practical solutions are going to have to become new murder systems, doing new death controls. So far, there are no reasons to believe that could be done in any but the worst possible ways, since there are no signs that enough people will ever understand basic energy systems enough to understand their problems.

I find it quite intelligible how and why what made War King, then made Fraud King. It makes sense why the whole world is now directed by the triumphant system of fraudulent financial accounting, and why that system is manifestly going mad, and becoming self-destructive. However, I can not believe in any practical and realistic solutions which could avoid the eventual psychotic breakdown of those established systems. I can only hope against hope that more people might understand energy systems enough so that those transformations could be catalysed, so that the return to more social sanity could be facilitated.

Of course, I agree that the Fed is the central problem that Americans have, and resolving that problem must be central to any solutions to those problems. However, as I outlined above, understanding that problem required understanding organized crime, and that government IS organized crime, and that any actual solutions that could exist in the real world are going to have to be based on the FACTS that money is backed by murder, and the debt controls depend on the death controls.

Gingerly going through those transformations, AFTER the world ALREADY is based on global electronic fiat money fraud systems, backed by atomic bombs, is the challenge we face ... At the present time, I see not the slightest sign that the people in North America will rise to that challenge in the creative ways which are theoretically possible. However, I nevertheless present my vain hopes that they might ...

decentralizedscutinizer's picture

Congress can't run a business and business can't rule a nation. The problem is mixing the two and blurring responsibilties. To function "as advertised" a democratic government and a free market need to be firewalled, transparent, and  mutually responsible. This is how:

 28th Amendment

"Corporations are not persons in any sense of the word and shall be granted only those rights and privileges that Congress deems necessary for the well-being of the People. Congress shall provide legislation defining the terms and conditions of corporate charters according to their purpose; which shall include, but are not limited to: 1, prohibitions against any corporation becoming so large its failure would pose a threat to national security or harm the general economy; 2, prohibitions against any form of interference in the affairs of government, education, and news media; and 3, provisions for civil and criminal penalties to be paid by corporate executives for violation of the terms of a corporate charter."

riphowardkatz's picture

a horrible idea
" Congress deems necessary for the well-being of the People" you win biggest idiot of the day award, congrats.

You think they are being bought off now, try enacting something as stupid as the above.

Holy smokes what an idiot. Stop centralizing power and you will take away power from centralized businesses. MORON That would centralize power to a degree never seen before.

decentralizedscutinizer's picture

Are you seriously suggesting we break up the USA and return to some sort of tribal society like the indigenous peoples that came before; and whom were immediately over-run by centralized civilizations from the East?

I may be a moron, but I can read; so maybe you could explain it in terms such as even I could comprehend?    

riphowardkatz's picture

NO I am advocating for the proper roll of government. The only legitimate use of force by a government is  self defense against a foreign enemy, the adjudication of differences between parties and prosecution of force or fraud.

I never advocated for the break up of the USA. Stop making stuff up. 

decentralizedscutinizer's picture

So; you don't think my amendment would serve "the adjudication of differences between parties and prosecution of force or fraud" ?

Are you familiar with "regulatory capture", and "conflicts of interest", and the "corporate veil"? These are the things that this amendment would criminalize. Abolishing these practices would serve to restore integrity to the free press, ethics in banking, and the representation of the public in economic policy where the free market needs certain protections that only government can provide, like fraud. Its purpose is to DE-centralize power.  

The proper roll of government is to protect the people from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Our government is failing miserably when it comes to protecting us from our own banks. We can fix that. You could help.   

riphowardkatz's picture

THE GOVERNMENT IS COMMITTING THE FORCE AND FRAUD. Giving them this power would do nothing but create more force and fraud. 

Are you a masocist? More government power will not eliminate the problem of too much government power.  

decentralizedscutinizer's picture

Government uses force against you by means of police power.

Corporations use force against government by means of money power.

When corporate-sponsored politicians get together with corporate lobbyists they commit fraud on the People (and get away with it).

Therefore BOTH government and big business commit fraud, by force, against you (being at the bottom of the pile and all that).

Being a citizen, you have inalienable rights and sovereignty over both if you (and a bunch of others) chuse to excercise that  sovereignty. The government is there to protect those rights against the threat of corporate force (fraud). Government isn't doing that now because The People don't understand how money corrupts government and government corrupts business. My amendment, by criminalizing corporate interference in the affairs of government, makes government officials responsible to YOU for election (the way it was supposed to be) . Therefore you ARE the government. Elected officials represent YOU. Do you want to use force? Would you like to force Congress to end the Fed? Would you like to force Congress to go back to a gold standard? Would you like to force Wall Street to stop gambling with taxpayers' money?

Without force, we could be invaded by Nicaragua and made to learn Spanish. Without force we'd have warlords and street gangs terrorizing Main Street. Force isn't necessarily bad.

Government isn't necessarily bad.   

Big business isn't necessarily bad.

Constitutions, charters, and rules aren't necessarily bad. That's why we have a democratic republic; to establish the rules that satisfy the greatest number of citizens. Being a voting member of the greatest corporation of all - the USA, you get to make those rules.

But you've got to assert that power of sovereignty once in a while. Now would be a good time. Will you help us ratify an amendment to keep money out of politics, and politics out of money; for the sake of both?

suteibu's picture

"So while the attention of Senators Brown and Vitter is commendable, somebody needs to take them aside and tell them the punch line to the joke."

You seem connected.  Why haven't you done this already?  Report back to us their responses.

WTFUD's picture

It is a Real sodden worry that having put our arses through the ringer ( screwing savers ; manipulating every market ; screwed over some very fine people who are dead or in jail or financially ruined to name but a few) for several + years And now want to insult OUR intelligence by throwing meaningless titbits of may or mights to test public opinion in the Hope that time has mellowed US.

TahoeBilly2012's picture

Who's "we", what, do you have a mouse in your pocket? "We" have nothing to say about anything. Double negative, there!

williambanzai7's picture

Tell them to continue their bankster sponsored circle jerking. We'll be waiting for them all, torches, pitchforks and ropes at the ready, when the time comes.

Renfield's picture

My favourite paragraph:

<<It may even be hypocritical for members of Congress to complain about the zombie banks given the degree to which large banks have become instruments of public policy.  The subsidies for TBTF banks reflect policy decisions made in Washington by Congress, such as tying monetary policy to “full employment,” a notion that goes back to WWII and the Great Depression.  The large banks simply align themselves to make maximum profit from America’s decidedly socialist the public policy goals.>>

This is why I think the "Western" populations so stubbornly keep their heads in the sand with regard to abandoning (Neo-)Keynesian policy. It will take a tremendous adjustment for us to learn to face into the abyss of standing or falling, living or dying, separated from the protection of a paternal government. Our long-cherished "safety net" is a trap.

rsnoble's picture

And because they won't do the right thing that's exactly what will happen. We will have 1000's of small pieces of rancid shit vs. 5 big ones.  There will be shit spread out everywhere.

11b40's picture

Thinly spread shit is fertilizer.  Great gobs of shit is pollution, and needs to be eliminated, or it might kill you.

marathonman's picture

The privately controlled central bank is the vehicle for vast wealth extraction by the TBTF zombie banks.  Look at their incentives - they have created a debt based monetary system that to be stable has to expand exponentially.  To do that, they get the government to implement spending programs that are ill advised, unpayable, and unsustainable.  They start wars to expand debt and expound resources from weaker countries. 

In the eyes of big governmnet cronies, military hawks, and fascist/socialist goons it's everything a corrupt dictatorship could want.  And the best part is that most of the American people don't even know it and can't change it even if they wanted to.  Cloward-Piven be damned.  This system is as good as it gets if you're a banker, crony, or power hungry sociopath.  It is the new Utopia.

Mercury's picture

But when you look at why the TBTF banks are so large, much of the blame lies with Washington.


All the blame for TBTF lies with Washington because Washington alone prevents banks from failing when they otherwise would. With that kind of backstop the natural incentive is for banks to get bigger.

But given that nothing, especially a human creation, is too big to fail it follows that some things are simply too big.

There shouldn't be a Too Anything To Fail policy so there is no need to worry about smaller zombie banks. In the event that any bank fails the model for government involvement should be the Resolution Trust Corporation which handled such matters quite well during the S&L crisis of the late 80s-early 90s.

We're pretty close to learning the hard way that government can become too big not to fail.

Northeaster's picture

Instead of discussing ideas that CONgress Members probably don't understand in the first place, the best idea would be to tell them to start putting TBTF Executives in jail, maybe even a few CONgress Members for good measure. Public hangings probably wouldn't go over so well, so jail time is a start. Chop up TBTF's and sell off the good parts to competent and more efficient smaller banks.

Of course, having read Whalen for some time, I think he likes to play both sides of the fence as to not outright offend certain members of the political and plutocratic classes.

Kayman's picture

Banking by its very nature is a priviledge, not a right. Credit creation begets regulation. Limiting the size of banks must come. The working poor cannot continue to subsidize these arrogant criminals.

p.s. I am reading your book now.

Nobody For President's picture

You say 'public hangings probably wouldn't go over so well,...'


Why in the world would you assume that?

Live TV ratings would go through the ROOF! 

Hell, even I would watch that, and I don't do tv...

Tango in the Blight's picture

I would pay to see Blankfein, Corzine and Dimon bungle.

Especially if Max Keiser is the MC.

disabledvet's picture

if this is your testimony this is really very good. "Government" and "banking" don't work because Government wants to "control things" whereas banks are in the more "prosaic" business of "future returns." In other words i would point out these folks the BEST the Government can do is "create confidence" as there is no way in a forward looking world to prevent failure no matter how "conservatively" or "rules based" run a bank is. (they are still failing btw.) in other words Governments...OUR Government...needs to concentrate NOT on "how do we deal with the banks" but "how do we grow the economy?" cuz simply put "there is no dealing with the banks." they're a lot small today anyways (whereas the Government has remained huge) so i don't really see what the deal is is the first place. Probably not good for scoring political points but this is about the "blocking and tackling" of tax policy, transfer payments and whether or not the Federales are getting ANY "bang for the buck" with their massive spending programs. I would argue the lack of transparency...indeed "secrecy" of the Federal Government is impeding loan demand, loan growth and a healthy recovery beyond all measure. In short "we need MORE Congress" in the form of oversight, budgeting...and just plain acting on the rule of law. this of course is not easy to do..."where we go we go together" is about the best to be expected...but it is why we have elections. at this point "what else can Congress do?" All of their Federal programs are now debt service payments anyways.