Too Big to Fail Should Be Too Big to Exist

Against Monopoly has a great graphic that shows a big part of the problem with our financial sector and our economy.

How the Too Big to Fail Banks Got  So Big

How the Too Big To Fail Banks Got So Big

The four banks shown above are the four largest banks in the U.S.: JP Morgan Chase, Citi, BofA, and Wells Fargo.  Together they dominate the financial industry. If you add in Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the domination is near complete.  They all received large bailouts in the 2008-09 crisis.  Today they are much larger than when we entered the crisis. As the graph shows, none of these banks grew so large by “natural” or “organic” means.  They didn’t grow because they offered better or more efficient services to customers.  They didn’t “win in the marketplace” by competing better.  They simply bought the competition.  It’s domination by merger.  The U.S. banking system which at one time was very competitive and decentralized with literally thousands of very competitive banks is now dominated by a few.  We call it oligopoly on the way to monopoly.

When very, very large banks get too big, they become “Too Big To Fail”.  That means, if the banks were allowed to fail because of bad decisions, bad management, or bad investments, it would set off a domino effect throughout the economy and financial system.  That would punish all of us and not just the bank’s owners.  This, of course, is what happened in 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail.  It set off a financial panic where banks wouldn’t / couldn’t loan to each other (or anyone else).  Result:  big bailouts of big banks.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Yes, once we have a “too big to fail” bank and it fails, then there’s pretty much no choice but to bail them out.  There are choices about the structure of the bailout. We could have set up the bailouts in a way that the economy wins and the failed managers and bank owners suffered.  We didn’t.  The Federal Reserve, the Bush administration, and then the Obama administration made it a priority to keep the bank managers and bank owners whole.  The economy has suffered from a slow recovery partly as a result.

But bailouts shouldn’t be necessary because we shouldn’t allow the banks to become this big in the first place.  Again, we have a choice.  We could have prevented some or all of these mergers.  The laws are on the books to do it.  Washington, following the failed anti- antitrust philosophy of the Chicago school since the 1980’s simply doesn’t challenge many mergers these days.  It’s bad for campaign contributions.  Besides we’re supposed to believe that a market fairy will make it all right.  Instead of challenging and stopping some of these mergers, both the government and The Federal Reserve have actually facilitated and acted as match-maker for many of the mergers.  In March 2008, when Bear Stearns failed, The Federal Reserve offered a deal to JP Morgan Chase.  If Chase would buy Bear Stearns, The Fed would reimburse Chase for any losses over a set amount.  Heads Chase wins. Tails Chase wins.  Nice deal.

We have other choices as well.  In other industries historically when the private competition in the market led to monopoly or near-monopoly outcomes, the government chose to regulate the industry as a public utility.  We did it in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the electrical industry.  Your local electrical company wasn’t always a regulated utility.  At one time it was ravenous and rapacious private monopoly just like these banks are becoming.  When Standard Oil became a monopoly over a hundred years ago, we sued and broke it up into a bunch of other companies.

This complicity in allowing the big banks to become Too Big To Fail is among the types of policies that the protesters of #OccupyWallStreet want changed.  Me, too.

Iceland Shows Banks Are Not Too Big To Fail

Few nations were hit harder initially by the financial crisis in 2008 than Iceland. It’s economy had grown rich around four very large (relative to Iceland) banks that were players in the big global casino financial industry expansion.  In the U.S., U.K., and most other large developed countries governments responded with large bank-bailout packages.  The economic logic is that the banks and the banking system is too interconnected, too large, and too important to let it fail.  There’s a part of this argument that has economic truth.  To the extent that the creditors (depositors) of a bank are ordinary citizens and businesses in the country, letting a bank fail will have disastrous macroeconomic consequences.  But this is only true to the extent that these ordinary depositors get wiped out and lose their deposits.  Depositors were in large part not protected in 1929-33 when banks failed across the U.S. and that led to worsening of the Great Depression. It also led to the creation of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  The FDIC is still on the job protecting little depositors (and our economy).

But in the Great Global Financial Crisis, the U.S. government didn’t just try to rescue the little depositors, it rescued the banks themselves.  There’s a huge difference. In rescuing the banks as corporations, the government rescued the large wealthy depositors who should have known better. They rescued the shareholders who selected the managers that caused the banks to get in trouble. They rescued the very management teams that had just failed so spectacularly.  At the time, the argument made by the government for rescuing the banks was that they were “too big to fail”.  This little phrase, often abbreviated as TBTF, came to be a short-hand logic for bailing out the banks.

The problem is that the economic justification for a “bailout” calls for protecting the little, ordinary depositors, not the banks.  In practice, that’s what FDIC does. It “rescues” the little depositors when the bank fails.  It lets the bank and it’s management fail. But the Bush and Obama administrations did not do that. Instead they bailed out the banks and the bank shareholders, arguing there was no alternative.

Iceland, however, shows there was an alternative. Iceland rescued (guaranteed) deposits by ordinary Icelanders and let the banks themselves fail. It has worked pretty well. Much better than Ireland’s approach that rescued the banks themselves. From the New Zealand Herald by way of Daily Bail:

Unlike other nations, including the US and Ireland, which injected billions of dollars of capital into their financial institutions to keep them afloat, Iceland placed its biggest lenders in receivership. It chose not to protect creditors of the country’s banks, whose assets had ballooned to US$209 billion, 11 times gross domestic product.

The crisis almost sank the country. The krona lost 58 per cent of its value by the end of November 2008, inflation reached 19 per cent in January 2009, GDP fell 7 per cent that year and the Prime Minister resigned after nationwide protests.

But with the economy projected to grow 3 per cent this year, Iceland’s decision to let the banks fail is looking smart.

  • “Iceland did the right thing by making sure its payment systems continued to function while creditors, not the taxpayers, shouldered the losses of banks,” says Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York. “Ireland’s done all the wrong things, on the other hand. That’s probably the worst model.”


Krugman Misses Boat on TBTF Banks

Today Paul Krugman claimed:

From Ben Bernanke’s encomium to Milton Friedman:

It was in large part to improve the management of banking panics that the Federal Reserve was created in 1913. However, as Friedman and Schwartz discuss in some detail, in the early 1930s the Federal Reserve did not serve that function. The problem within the Fed was largely doctrinal: Fed officials appeared to subscribe to Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s infamous ‘liquidationist’ thesis, that weeding out “weak” banks was a harsh but necessary prerequisite to the recovery of the banking system. Moreover, most of the failing banks were small banks (as opposed to what we would now call money-center banks) and not members of the Federal Reserve System. Thus the Fed saw no particular need to try to stem the panics.

The point is that breaking up the big players, then saying that it’s OK to let banks fail because no one player is crucial to the system is not a solution.

He knows better and I’m disappointed at his misleading rhetoric. What he wrote is highly deceptive. Nobody today is urging that banks be allowed to fail in the way they failed in 1930-32. Then there was no FDIC, no protection of depositors, and no real mechanism for an orderly dissolution of the existing management and transfer of what was valuable to a new, stronger bank.

What folks are asking for today is that the biggies (the TBTF) be broken up so that they can be, if necessary, handled the same way the rest of the banks are today. To imply that critics of TBTF’s are asking that banks be allowed to fail in the same way as 1930 is total nonsense.