Are Banks Really Too Big To Fail?

Simon Johnson, a professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, raises the question of “As we move closer to a Senate – and presumably national – debate on financial reform, the central technical and political question is:  What would prevent any bank or similar institute from being regarded – ultimately by the government – as so big that it would not be allowed to fail?

Writing in the New York Times, Johnson believes that there is sharp disagreement on what would be needed to end “too big to fail” – or, as he terms it, “T.B.T.F.”  From the viewpoint of Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), “creating a ‘resolution authority’ would, at a stroke, effectively remove the perception and the reality that some banks are too big to fail.  The basic idea here, as elaborated by Sheila Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) would expand the powers it currently has to ‘resolve’ – i.e., take over and liquidate in an orderly manner – banks with federally insured deposits; it could do this for any financial institution.”

The Republicans, on the other hand, believe that this approach would formalize the existence of T.B.T.F. banks.  They believe that the FDIC lacks the skill to wind down complex financial institutions as this job differs from closing small- and medium-sized banks to protect depositors.  The “counterproposal, which seems to also have the support or Senate Richard Shelby (R-AL), is that we should just allow big financial firms to fail outright, i.e., to run through the usual bankruptcy procedures.  At a rhetorical level, ‘let ’em fail’ has some appeal.  But as a practical matter, it is a complete non-starter,” according to Johnson.

The third suggestion, proposed by Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), is quite simple.  “Break up these megabanks.  As even Alan Greenspan said in October 2009,” Johnson says, “‘If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big’.  There is no evidence for economies of scale or scope – or other social benefits – from banks with assets above $100 billion.  Yet our largest banks have balance sheets around $2 trillion.”

Johnson concludes:  “Making our largest banks smaller is not sufficient to ensure financial stability.  There are many other complementary measures that make sense – including higher capital requirements, more transparency for derivatives and generally more effective regulation.  But reducing the size of our largest banks is absolutely necessary if we are to reduce the odds of another major financial catastrophe.”