The recently unveiled Brown-Vitter bill goes beyond the goal of making the system safer. Make no mistake in its intentions: the bill seeks to break up the largest banks, removing their value from the U.S. and global economies, permanently. In the midst of the implementation of the largest financial regulatory overhaul in a generation, this proposal is a distraction for policymakers and regulators alike.
Before examining the substance of the bill, the fact is it's unlikely to gain traction in Congress because it is not bipartisan. It's fringe-partisan. Frankly, most members of Congress aren't ready for the extreme results of this type of proposal. For example, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., recently stated, "I want to have tough regulation, which is what I think Dodd-Frank stood for and explicitly says." He continued, "I'm fighting for that. I can't at the same time give up on that and say 'break up the banks.' "
Practically speaking, the proposal will leave banks with no choice but to sell off assets. The capital requirements advocated by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and David Vitter, R-La., are far beyond what banks could possibly meet by issuing new equity or retaining profits. And beyond the requirements themselves, the bill places a strict deadline on the industry, requiring full compliance within five years. The first part aims to break up the banks, and the second part guarantees it.
The amount of new capital proposed by the Brown-Vitter requirements is equal to roughly $1 trillion, according to recent estimates from Goldman Sachs. For comparison, the largest banks have doubled their capital since the crisis to the amount of $400 billion – that's less than half the amount of additional capital required with this bill. It's an impossible amount of capital to raise.
Instead, banks will need to target assets – the other half of the ratio – by selling them. Brown-Vitter requires banks with between $50 billion and $500 billion to meet a capital ratio of 8%. But, if you're a bank with assets greater than $500 billion, like the largest banks, then the capital ratio is 15%. Why does Brown-Vitter double the ratio? The bill's only explanation is that it's a standard surcharge for an implicit subsidy across all large banks – a subsidy that may or may not exist. The doubling, therefore, is arbitrary. It just makes being big that much harder.
Perhaps the largest concern I have is that Brown-Vitter would remove Basel III standards, proposing the U.S. retreat from international agreements. In an increasingly global world, the U.S. should at the very least meet international standards, then lead with more if necessary.
Included in Basel III are not only risk-based capital and leverage standards, but liquidity requirements that are essential to the safety of the financial system. A liquidity shortfall was a major reason banks burned through capital so quickly during the last crisis. Technically, if a bank were to experience a confidence (liquidity) run, no amount of capital is enough.
The Brown-Vitter bill is not a serious attempt to fix "too big tofail." Dodd-Frank did and is continually working towards this goal. Not only does it focus on making banks less likely to fail and failure less messy, but it also brings the entire financial system in to view. Make no mistake about it. This bill is a breakup proposal and nothing else.
Patrick Sims is a director at Hamilton Place Strategies, a policy and communications consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He previously worked as a lead research analyst in the financial institutions' group at SNL Financial LLC.