Commentaries

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from Rolfe Winkler:

Why not Baby Banks?

The President is right to target firm size if he wants to insure no financial firm can cause a system failure. Yet despite clear evidence that banks are already too big, Obama's proposal won't cut them down. It would only limit future growth by acquisition.

Specifics are being worked out, but what is clear is that Paul Volcker’s “size” proposal will limit future growth by acquisition only. It won’t force existing firms to shrink nor limit their ability to grow organically.

But if Obama wants to end the too-big-to-fail paradigm, if he wants to eliminate the possibility that one firm’s failure could cause a cascading financial collapse, he needs to engineer a system with more circuit breakers. Shrinking banks is crucial.

Like the power grid, the financial system is huge, dynamically complex and interconnected. A single point of failure can cause a cascading collapse. In 2003, some overgrown trees in Ohio were enough to cause a blackout that hit 55 million from Ontario to New York. In 2008, the failure of any one of a handful of financial firms could have plunged the economy into Depression.

from Rolfe Winkler:

The Ascent of Volcker

So, wow, the Obama administration has reacted very quickly -- perhaps too quickly -- post the Massachusetts Senate election. After proposing a tax on bank liabilities, Obama is taking an even tougher line, adopting recommendations from Paul Volcker that banks be limited in their size and scope.

Before getting to specifics, it's worth noting how Geithner and Summers appear to have lost favor. In the preamble to the proposal, Obama mentions neither of them. And when he announced the plan he did so with Volcker and Bill Donaldson standing behind him...Geithner and Summers were off to the side. Could the duo be headed for the exit?

from Rolfe Winkler:

Lunchtime Links 1-19

MUST READ -- Souring mortgages, weak market put FHA on tightrope (Timiraos, WSJ) Good article, though Timiraos doesn't address the absurd circularity perpetuated by FHA Chief David Stevens when Stevens says, on the one hand, that more gov't lending protects the housing market from further declines, while simultaneously arguing that such lending isn't sustainable. That said, Timiraos has worked lots of interesting stuff into this piece, especially towards the end. For instance, in late '07 investors were refinancing at-risk borrowers into FHA loans in order to shift risk to taxpayers. Barney Frank defends permanently raising FHA maximum loans for certain geographies to $729k. Also lots of data about how badly FHA loans are performing.

Citi's Q4 earnings: Not terrible but not great (Wilchins, Reuters) Trading revenues in the investment bank were much weaker compared to last quarter. Citi also benefited from a tax break, without which they wouldn't have met consensus estimates for the quarter. Here's a helpful chart.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Move your money

Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson are organizing a big bank boycott. They want depositors to take their money out of Too-Big-To-Fail banks and put them in smaller, high quality banks.

They've launched a new website and have teamed up with Chris Whalen to give folks other options. Whalen's firm, Institutional Risk Analytics, has a proprietary system that grades banks using FDIC data. Enter your zip code and Whalen provides a list of high quality banks in your area.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Politics and bank regulation don’t mix

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp tried to seize and sell Cleveland thrift AmTrust last January but local politicians intervened. In the end, the bank still went bust 11 months later - a delay that may have increased losses to the U.S. regulator’s funds. As Congress debates banking reform, AmTrust provides a useful warning that the regulatory apparatus needs to be kept free from politics.

Regulators had known for some time that AmTrust was troubled. AmTrust's chief regulator turned down the bank’s request for TARP money last fall. It also hit AmTrust with a cease-and-desist order, instructing management to change lending practices and boost capital by December 31. When AmTrust missed the deadline the FDIC decided to step in.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Sander’s TBTF amendment

Now THIS is legislation to get behind. From Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent from VT.

Update: Reader macstibs posts this link to a petition supporting Sanders.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

from Rolfe Winkler:

Legislation coming to break up big banks?

In a note to clients yesterday, Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets wrote:

We are hearing that discussion of breaking up large financial institutions that pose systemic risk to the market is gaining traction on the Hill. At this point, discussions are in the early stages, but we understand that an amendment addressing breaking up institutions deemed "too big to fail" could be introduced in the House over the next few days. How does one define "too big to fail" and how would the divestiture process work - these are good questions that Congress will have to address as the discussion moves forward. To our understanding, any amendment that could be introduced in the coming week would likely be vague and would give the regulators discretion to determine which institutions qualify as "too big" and how to address the risk they pose to the system.

[UPDATE: It appears this legislation may be coming from PA's Paul Kanjorski]

Hmmm. A "vague" amendment directing regulators to look into breaking up TBTF banks might not lead to much, not when regulators have made clear they have no interest in breaking up big banks.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Bubble-wrapping the China shop

Do you think we should establish a government-backed insurance fund for big banks' risky trading activities? Probably not. But that's precisely what the administration and Congress agree should be done. Today Sheila Bair proposed her own variation on the theme. At first glance her idea sounds better, but it's just as bad as the others.

From Alison Vekshin at Bloomberg:

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair, breaking with the Obama administration, said U.S. financial companies should prepay into a fund the government would use to unwind large failed firms.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Break up the big banks

Photo

President Barack Obama pledged on Monday "to put an end to the idea that some firms are 'too big to fail.'"  Though he outlined some worthy prescriptions, he failed to face up to the very size and power of the financial institutions that makes "too big to fail" possible.

For the big have gotten even bigger since the start of the financial crisis. At the end of 2007, the Big Four banks -- Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo -- held 32 percent of all deposits in FDIC-insured institutions. As of June 30th, it was 39 percent.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Bair on ending “too-big-to-fail”

FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair is right now testifying in front of the Senate Banking Committee on "establishing a framework for systemic risk regulation."  This is of course hugely important.  How do we end "too-big-to-fail?"  And how do we resolve failures that are so big they pose a systemic risk?

There's so much valuable stuff in this testimony, readers should really see all of it.  To help you get through all 30 pages, I've highlighted key passages and provided commentary (in pink italics...I didn't choose pink, btw, Scribd just read my formatting that way!).

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