New U.S. TBTF plan is too big to succeed

February 15, 2013

By Daniel Indiviglio
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A U.S. lawmaker’s new idea to fix too-big-to-fail looks too big to succeed. In theory, Republican Representative John Campbell’s proposal for a new capital cushion at the largest banks could minimize the likelihood of bailouts and justify the lighter regulation he desires. But do the math, and the proposal would mean big U.S. banks issuing more than $2 trillion of junior debt. Other flaws aside, that just doesn’t square with today’s markets.

The plan’s intent, to protect senior creditors by making banks issue a layer of long-term subordinated debt, seems on the right track. Requiring at least five years to maturity could help to keep banks’ funding more stable in a credit crunch. That ought to make government intervention less necessary and protect the economy from systemic risk.

That said, the protection would be stronger if the proposal involved banks holding more equity rather than debt, or at least a “bail-in” idea whereby the subordinated debt would convert to equity if a bank ran short of capital. The details of the new legislation, however, leave room for graver criticism.

The idea is that banks with assets of $50 billion or more would have to issue junior debt equal to at least 15 percent of their total assets. The 38 U.S. banks to which that would apply would, as a result, have to issue more than $2 trillion of the new paper. That’s already a quarter of the size of the entire corporate bond market – something that’s simply not achievable from scratch, even if investors turn out to like the instruments. JPMorgan alone would need to issue nearly $350 billion of the new debt – which would also logically cost more than whatever funding it replaced, setting back banks’ recovering profitability.

The bill would also create market triggers to compel regulators to resolve troubled institutions if their credit deteriorates sharply enough. This is also a fine concept in principle, but the proposal relies on often-volatile credit-default swap prices.

A well-structured additional capital requirement would legitimately support the idea of cutting back other regulation, as Campbell proposes, on the grounds that the largest banks would be safer in the first place. Unfortunately, his plan looks too out of whack with financial market reality to pass the test.

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