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The Real Reason the Giant, Insolvent Banks Aren’t Being Broken Up

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Washington’s Blog
Saturday, Oct 3rd, 2009

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?

No.

The following top economists and financial experts believe that the economy cannot recover unless the big, insolvent banks are broken up in an orderly fashion:

  • Dean 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
  • MIT economics professor and former IMF chief economist, Simon Johnson (and see this)
  • 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
  • Professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Luigi Zingales

Others, like Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, think that the giant insolvent banks may need to be temporarily nationalized.

The Real Reason the Giant, Insolvent Banks Arent Being Broken Up  230909banner1

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.

Even the Bank of International Settlements – the “Central Banks’ Central Bank” – has slammed too big to fail. As summarized by the Financial Times:

The 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?

Nope.

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 competition:

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:

The 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 banks…

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.

Specifically 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 depository functions.

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:

The 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 size.”

And Governor Tarullo points out some of the benefits of small community banks over the giant banks:

Many 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 borrowers.

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?

Negatory.

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.

The 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:

The U.S. has failed to fix the underlying problems of its banking system after the credit crunch and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

“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.

Some 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?

Wrong.

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.

Geithner 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.

So 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 legal argument.

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.

That 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.

In 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.

Breaking 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:

    Guess 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:

    The 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.

    Traditional 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:

    Regulatory 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:

In 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 banking system.

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:

In 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.

So the 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.

This article was posted: Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 4:42 am





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