Opinion

The Great Debate

Big banks aren’t bad banks

— Mark T. Williams, a former Federal Reserve Bank examiner who teaches finance at Boston University School of Management, is the author of the soon to be published “Uncontrolled Risk” about the fall of Lehman Brothers. The views expressed are his own. –

Too big to fail has become nothing more than a political sound bite and the title of a best-selling book. Unfortunately, in the process big banks have gotten a bad rap. The proposed Obama administration plan to limit bank size is just another example of big-bank bashing by high-level politicians.

Policy that simply focuses on downsizing big banks overlooks an important point. The problem is not that banks are too big; it is that banks are taking excessive risk. This includes big and small banks. Since 2008, more than 170 banks have failed, including big banks such as Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and IndyMac. But most on this list – such as Citizens State Bank, Republic Federal Bank, and First State Bank — are smallish. They didn’t make big headlines. No books were written about them or movies made.

The fact that a bank is big should not automatically mean they are a threat to the financial system. It’s true that Citigroup, once our nation’s biggest bank, needed a massive government bailout. But this singular sample size is not large enough on which to base far-reaching policy changes.

Big banks offer many advantages over smaller ones. They provide consumers with a greater array of desired services and economies of scale allow them to deliver more for less, and they tend to have greater capital to protect them against unexpected losses. In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, the universal banking system (another phrase for big banks) dominates the market. In these countries, a universal big-bank system works.

There’s no way to hedge politics

Ben Bernanke in peril and the Volcker crackdown on proprietary trading by banks show two truths of the current dispensation: there is no effective hedge against politics and the reflation trade rests on fragile foundations.

Neither of these realities is particularly good for financial markets and neither is going away any time soon.

Both, too, are utterly related not just to each other, but to the Senate election in Massachusetts which installed a Republican into what had been a Kennedy seat, in the process terrifying Democrats who fear they will be sunk by association with a set of policies perceived to be favoring Wall Street.

from The Great Debate UK:

Glass-Steagall Lite, brewed by Volcker, served by Obama

Laurence Copeland

- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Let me say at the outset that I am far from enthusiastic about either of President Barack Obama’s major policy initiatives: healthcare reform and the banking reform plan announced on Thursday.

But both cases are truly momentous, because both are tests of whether America is an imperfect democracy (like all the others) where government by the people eventually works, more or less, or a totally dysfunctional oligarchy.

from Rolfe Winkler:

Money market funds aren’t cash!

Paul Volcker wants to kill money market funds. He says that investors don’t understand them and that the funds could crash the financial system. He’s right.

The root of the problem is that money market funds are sold as “cash equivalents,” when really they’re anything but.

Investors allocating a percentage of their assets to “cash” are typically looking for a “riskless” place to park money. They want their principal protected, but they would  also like a few extra points of interest thank you very much. Free checks ? Even better.

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