Go to almost any hearing of the House Financial Services Committee or the Senate Banking Committee these days and the most you’ll hear about the problem of “too big to fail” is that it’s scary and needs to be fixed…somehow. Try to get into specifics, however, and you run into problems. Example: the testimony from two members of the Squam Lake Working Group on Financial Regulation before the Senate Banking Committee in May. The economists, Martin Baily and Raghuram Rajan, members of an elite group of scholars who gather to produce influential policy papers on financial regulation, laid out in their written statements the reasons why big banks were necessary and why regulators could not impose size limits them.
International companies need financial giants to help them operate successfully in the global marketplace, Baily argued. Limiting the size or scope of financial institutions would be expensive and ineffective, Rajan told the committee.
There haven’t been many clear, public challenges to assertions like these and Congress has generally swallowed them without chewing. But a panel on “too big to fail” at the Economic Policy Institute today could mark the beginning of a collective counterpoint.
Four panelists gathered to discuss the problem of the largest banks and their effects on the U.S. economy. The premise was clear: “too big to fail” needed to be fixed—and fast. Unlike their peers, who seem to be spending a great deal of time on the reasons why curbing financial institutions’ size and complexity won’t work, the panelists each presented outlined how, based on their individual expertise, they would solve the “too big to fail” problem.
Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the IMF and a professor of entrepreneurship at MIT, opened with the assertions that financial innovation was dangerous and that there remains an unspoken understanding among big bank managers that the government—specifically the Federal Reserve—won’t let them go down. Increased capital requirements, Johnson said, aren’t nearly enough to counteract this phenomenon. Regulators also need to come up with strict leverage limits, a resolution authority, and a ban on instantaneous career changes between Washington and Wall Street. Big bankers shouldn’t be able to leave their sickly behemoths directly for senior Treasury jobs, for example. And retiring public servants shouldn’t expect a soft landing spot in the top ranks of a big bank.
Johnson couched the “too big to fail” fight as one of several fights the U.S. government has waged against unchecked, destructive industrial forces. Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought similar battles against, variously, the Bank of the United States; trust monopolies; and the securities industry.
John Boyd, a business professor at the University of Minnesota and an advisor to the Minneapolis Fed, proposed an indexed size limit of $150 billion on banks, based on assets on their balance sheets as well as off-balance-sheet guarantees. Any banks exceeding this limit would have to adopt a five-year plan to reduce their bulk. An alternative to this, Boyd said, would be to require all institutions that perform banking operations—including payments services and the holding of risky financial claims backed by short-term, liquid securities—would have to register and submit to bank regulation.
Albert Foer, an antitrust expert, said proposals floating around Washington to use antitrust laws to go after the biggest banks are actually not very realistic. Antitrust precedent comes out against the breakup of large financial institutions—at least currently. But Foer said the U.S. government needed to take on antitrust as a greater priority as it worked through problems in the financial market. A competitiveness representative should have been present, Foer said, while Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson worked out life-saving mergers and capital infusions for the biggest banks. Foer also said he supported a multi-tiered system for regulating banks according to size, and even a return to the days of Glass-Steagall silos, in which investment banking and commercial banking were wholly separate.
Damon Silvers, the AFL-CIO’s associate counsel and a member of the Tarp Congressional Oversight Panel, also supported a return to Glass Steagall. Beyond that, he said, the U.S. has to decide whether it wants a banking system that is centralized or one that is decentralized. But in the near-term, creating the Obama administration’s proposed consumer financial protection agency would go a long way toward reducing the size and influence of the biggest banks. Silvers added that he believed President Obama would come out with strong support for the CFPA. “I have it on good authority that he is personally committed to it,” Silvers said.
What was missing from this group’s remarks? Political realism, for sure. But there’s plenty of that to go around. If anything the EPI panel highlighted the dearth of constructive brainstorming elsewhere.