James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The Fantastic Four … Fed presidents against the Dodd bill

April 26, 2010

ffAgain, it isn’t just Republicans making the charge that the Dodd bill does not end Too Big To Fail. So are a quartet of regional Fed bank presidents:

1) Thomas Hoenig of the KC Fed (in a chat with the Huffington Post):

As for Dodd’s treatment of Too Big To Fail, Hoenig said the bill puts too much power in the hands of regulators. “What I worry about [is] if you have a large institution, and it got into very serious trouble and you only have a weekend to take care of it, the procedures under the Dodd bill would make that very difficult,” Hoenig said. “Let’s say you were coming into Monday morning and you didn’t have the ability to get to the judges in time to get this thing approved, and you had to get to another day. What you would tend to do is lend to that institution — if it were not a commercial bank, you would even use the [Fed's] so-called 13-3 authority… and you would lend to it,” he said in a reference to the legal authority that the Fed claimed gave it the power to lend taxpayer money to AIG. “So you would still have it as an operating bank, you would not have taken control of it, not put it in receivership yet, and yet you would be bailing it out. That’s what we have to avoid.
“There’s still this desire to leave discretion in the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury, and while I understand that desire — because you never know what the circumstance is going to be — the problem is in those circumstances you always take the path of least resistance because of the nature of the crisis.

“You don’t want to be the person responsible for the meltdown, so you take the exception and you move it through.

“But if you had a good firm rule of law, and the markets knew… there were no exceptions… you would be in the long run much better off. It does affect behavior,” he said.

2) Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed (in a speech):

The dangers posed by TBTF banks are too great. To be sure, having a clearly articulated “resolution regime” would represent steps forward, though I fear they might provide false comfort in that a special resolution treatment for large firms might be viewed favorably by creditors, continuing the government-sponsored advantage bestowed upon them. Given the danger these institutions pose to spreading debilitating viruses throughout the financial world, my preference is for a more prophylactic approach: an international accord to break up these institutions into ones of more manageable size—more manageable for both the executives of these institutions and their regulatory supervisors.

3) Jeffrey Lacker of the Richmond Fed (in a CNBC interview with Steve Liesman):

Lacker: The issue of our time has to do with the government safety net for financial firms. And it’s grown tremendously, and containing that, establishing clear boundaries of that, is the number one priority. As I read the Dodd bill and the mechanism it sets up for the resolution authority, it doesn’t strike me that it’s likely to help us there. And in fact, it seems to me like a major danger is that there’s going to be more instability in financial markets instead of less.

Liesman: The Dodd bill allows for a three-bankruptcy judge panel to declare insolvency. It allows losses to go to unsecured creditors; it allows management to be replaced and shareholders to be wiped out. How much clearer could the government be in this bill that there will be real losses to investors?

Lacker: It allows those things, but it does not require them. Moreover, it provides tremendous discretion for the Treasury and FDIC to use that fund to buy assets from the failed firm, to guarantee liabilities of the failed firm, to buy liabilities of the failed firm. They can support creditors in the failed firm. They have a tremendous amount of discretion. And if they have the discretion, they are likely to be forced to use it in a crisis.

4) Charles Plosser of the Philly Fed:

In order to end TBTF, we must have a way that credibly convinces large financial firms and the markets that firms on the verge of failure will, in fact, be allowed to fail. If the resolution mechanism is either too vague or allows for too much discretion by regulators or Congress to rescue firms through subsidies or bailouts, then troubled firms will surely argue that the risks of failure are so severe and systemic that they must be bailed out. This is what we saw in the recent crisis. A credible commitment by government not to intervene or bail out firms must be the centerpiece of the resolution mechanism.

I believe the best approach to making such a credible commitment and thus ending TBTF is amending the bankruptcy code for nonbank financial firms and bank holding companies, rather than expanding the bank resolution process under the FDIC Improvement Act (FDICIA). While the Senate bill has tightened up the proposal with a stronger bias toward liquidating a troubled firm, the bill would still give a great deal of discretion to policymakers to avoid the discipline of a bankruptcy court. I recognize that the current bankruptcy code does not adequately address the inherent challenges in liquidating large financial institutions without risks to the market, but I believe a modified bankruptcy process would eliminate discretion and strengthen market discipline, by permitting creditors as well as regulators to place the firm into bankruptcy when it is unable to meet its financial obligations.

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