About a year ago, Arianna Huffington called my friend and colleague Dennis Santiago and asked if my firm could provide a list of “good banks” for an effort she was planning. Along with Rob Johnson from the Roosevelt Institute, Huffington conceived of something called “Move your Money,” which sought to get consumers to move their business from large banks to smaller community institutions.
The effort was modestly successful in terms of increasing awareness of consumers about the alternatives for financial services. But it did not really change the competitive equation between the too big to fail (TBTF) behemoths — Bank of America, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo and Citigroup — and the rest of the industry and the economy. Now that insurgents like Washington Mutual, Countrywide, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns & Co. and many others have disappeared, the banking industry is more concentrated than any time during the past century, both financially and in terms of the industry’s icy grip on political power.
One of the themes that motivated the “Move your Money” effort was the image of James Stewart as head of the mutual Building & Loan, who fought to keep his bank open in the Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His nemesis was Potter played memorably by Lionel Barrymore, the head of the big bank that sought to take over the Building & Loan and thereby gain a monopoly position in the allegorical American town.
But given the state of the U.S. economy and the fact that almost 15% of the banks in the U.S. are considered “troubled” by the FDIC, perhaps we should reconsider this interpretation of the film’s apparent story line. My friend Fred Feldkamp, a veteran lawyer with decades of experience in banking and securitization, notes that the Capra movie “portrays Potter as the owner of the bank in town, but I see him as a stand-in for the conservators FDIC put in place at selected ‘too big to fail’ institutions which were supposed to buy local banks, fix them and re-sell them to locals.”
If you think of Potter not as a Robber Baron a la J.P. Morgan but instead as a government bureaucrat working for the FDIC or even the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, that puts a different light on the big bank vs. the world battle, does it not? Feldkamp notes that from the Great Depression of the 1930s and again in the 1980s real estate bust, the government played an important role in restructuring the banking industry — and never more so than today.
“Small banks ended up being temporarily swallowed into the designated “banks of last resort” in various states,” Feldkamp relates regarding previous banking busts going back to the 1930s. “Conservators ran most of those banks until the mid-1950s. I represented one such bank in the 1970s… The only way the “managers” (conservators) could be criticized was by the head office of the FDIC in Washington D.C. That happened if they acted like real “bankers” and made loans into the community.”
Today many of my friends on the left and right are engaged in a protracted rear-guard battle, arguing over whether government sponsored entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were the cause of the mortgage bubble. Most recently we saw the clash between Peter Wallison of American Enterprise Institute and Joe Nocera at the New York Times, essentially disputing whether these government sponsored entities are the cause of the financial collapse that has been unfolding since 2007.
Liberals like my friends Nocera and Johnson still cannot believe that the government was the moved-mover in the mortgage mess, the catalyst for Wall Street’s entirely rational exuberance that merely followed Washington’s bad example. But such distinctions are meaningless. The corrupt relationship between the large TBTF banks and the federal government is long-standing and should be the focus of people on all points of the political compass. Indeed, somebody should tell Nocera he owes Peter Wallison and AEI an apology.
Look at the just announced settlement between Fannie and Freddie and Bank of America, where the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) now controlled by the Obama Administration are providing what appears to be a huge subsidy to Bank of America to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. If you look at the most recent quarterly earnings disclosure to the SEC from Bank of America on future losses from the GSEs, then look at today’s settlement with the GSEs, which was approved by the Geithner Treasury, and it is hard not to conclude that the settlement was a gift.
The losses hitting Fannie and Freddie will be borne by the American taxpayer and not the bond holders of Bank of America. The single digit billions BofA paid to Fannie and Freddie is less than a quarter of my firm’s estimate of such losses prior to the announcement. And our estimates were by no means the highest.
How can bankers like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, who settled his own tab with Fannie and Freddie on equally attractive terms last year, complain about Barack Obama when the supposedly liberal President is so generous with public subsidies for the zombie banks? The truth of the matter is that the federal government, through agencies like Fannie, Freddie, the Federal Home Loan Banks and the FDIC, have been calling the shots in the banking industry since the 1930s.
While American banks have, from time to time, shown a certain degree of independence, this in the form of speculative lawlessness known as “innovation,” all lenders in the U.S. are ultimately appendages of Washington. The degree of government support for the financial markets has never been greater in the history of the American republic and the largest players in the industry thereby exercise enormous political power. This is why calls from observers as disparate as Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig, Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders and Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher to break up the largest banks are entirely on target.