James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Henry Kaufman: Break up the banks

Nov 11, 2009 15:27 UTC

I think Henry Kaufman (in the WSJ) accurately outlines the public policy choice when it comes to financial reform: heavily regulated monster banks vs. a more decentralized, somewhat less regulated financial system TBTF creates a need for heavy regulation and less economic efficiency.

From what I could gather from a speech given by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke at a conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston a few weeks ago, the Fed favors constraining giant institutions to the point where they would become, in effect, financial public utilities. They might be required to increase equity capital and to limit their activities in proprietary trading and other risky activities.

But under this arrangement, these large institutions nevertheless would still command a vast amount of private-sector credit. And when markets became unstable in the future, other financial institutions would merge in order to come under the government’s protective too-big-to-fail umbrella.

If an overwhelming proportion of our financial institutions are deemed too big to fail, monetary restraint would fall heavily on institutions that are not. Pressure would sharply intensify on smaller institutions that mainly service local communities. Further consolidation would result, which in turn would reduce credit-market competition. At the same time, with increasing financial concentration, market volatility would increase.

All of this would narrow the gap between the Federal Reserve and the political arena. Taken to its logical conclusion, our market-based system of credit allocation would be replaced by a socialized financial system, and the Federal Reserve would become part of it.

A much better approach would be to prohibit any financial institution from remaining or becoming too big to fail. This would require that regulators downsize large financial conglomerates. In this process, the prime targets for divestiture should be financial activities that pose risk to the stability of the deposit function as well as operations that pose conflicts of interest.

Our financial system is at a crossroads. We can either succumb to the forces that are shifting markets toward greater government back-stopping and socialization. Or we can create a structure in which no institution is too big to fail, and a financial system that is supervised effectively by a modernized central bank.

Dodd financial reform bill underestimates populist anger

Nov 11, 2009 15:20 UTC

The instant analysis on Senator Christopher Dodd’s aggressive financial reform plan is that it’s more about getting him re-elected than getting a bill through the Senate.

And there’s some truth there. Dodd is in the fight of his political life to keep his U.S. Senate seat. A tough bill plays on populist outrage against Wall Street and mitigates the damaging public perception that he was AIG’s man in Washington.

The bill is also more ambitious than its counterpart in the House, at least in how it deals with systemic risk. (The Dodd version of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency may be slightly less powerful.)

Unlike the White House-blessed plan of House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, Dodd’s plan would create an Agency for Financial Stability to deal with too-big-too-fail firms. This new entity could write new regulations or subject such firms to enhanced supervision. Dodd would also combine existing financial regulators into a Financial Institutions Regulatory Administration.

Accomplishing this vast reorganization means clashing with myriad committee chairs and industry lobbyists. And the Richard Shelby-led Republicans on the Banking committee, while favoring limiting the Fed, have no use for the consumer piece or new limits on Sheila Bair’s FDIC.

So the politics are dicey. But an even tougher package might actually be more of a potential political winner by gaining grassroots support across America. Consider that the public seems to believe two big things about financial reform: The Fed should not be given more power, and too-big-to-fail is terrible policy.

The Dodd plan makes progress on the first but could go much stronger on the second. It could have, for instance, embraced Paul Volcker’s argument that banks should be prohibited from owning and trading risky securities (though not necessarily from underwriting stock and bond offerings).

Or Dodd could have incorporated the 225-word amendment of Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described ‘democratic socialist’, which would require the actual break-up of too-big-to-fail institutions.

Spend a few minutes at a ‘tea party’ or listening to conservative talk radio and you’ll find plenty of appetite for Sanders’ so-called left-wing reforms. Today’s right has about as much use for Big Money as it does for Big Government.

As it is, financial reform is a 2010 issue. Plenty of time to makes its teeth even sharper.

COMMENT

Dodd needs to start packing his bags and updating his resume.

Posted by Jim Brown | Report as abusive

Obama’s lost year

Nov 5, 2009 17:10 UTC

Rahm Emanuel famously said that you “never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  And certainly the sense of crisis earlier in the year helped the White House pass the $787 billion stimulus package. But where stands the rest of the Obama legislative agenda?

Healthcare. The House will likely pass a bill this weekend, but big difference remain with the Senate, including paying for the plan and what to do about a public option.

Cap-and-trade. Kerry-Boxer is going nowhere which is why Kerry and Graham are working on a a dual-track approach.

Financial regulatory reform. The House and the Senate have completely different notions about what to do about system risk regulation. Plus there may be new efforts to try and “shrink” the banks and limit the scope of future activities.

See you in 2010, Obama Agenda!

COMMENT

Everyone talks about how smart this president is. He is as dumb as a post. Bush didn’t pretend to be the smartest guy on the block. However, this guy Obama does pretend, but only fools people dumber than him like most of the people who elected him and the the DemoRat congress. He is just a hack that parrots things he has learned from his leftist mentors. This man does not have any principles or any original thoughts.

As a black man in America, I hoped that this guy would moderate and succeed. It seems that he is on the way to being a presidential failure because his welfare-state mentality and his weakness on foreign and military policy. He is someone that this black person will not ever respect unless he changes his leftist ways. (Which ain’t going to happen!)

Posted by Jack Smith | Report as abusive

Speaking up for big banks

Nov 3, 2009 20:43 UTC

Former Bush WH deputy press secretary Tony Fratto gives it his best shot:

Over the decades, large, complex financial institutions —big banks— have been unquestionably beneficial to the U.S. economy, and to the global economy. Big banks efficiently facilitate cross-border trade and investment on a global scale, resulting in benefits that have consistently accrued to consumers and improved standards of living for people in all markets.

Large U.S. financial institutions have also contributed to the development of deep, liquid capital markets here in the United States, ensuring unique access to global financing for U.S. firms. Scale and scope are needed to sustain global trade and finance, and big U.S. banks are leaders in delivering those services.

There are ways to increase the safety and soundness of big banks – to prevent the kind of explosion we saw with Lehman Brothers, but breaking up our big banks is the wrong way to go. Initiatives to raise capital levels, improve capital quality, decrease leverage and improve liquidity – across the entire global banking system – make sense.

Me: But I guarantee you that plenty of GOPers in 2010 and perhaps the 2012 nominee are going to call for breaking up the banks and paint the Ds as the party of Wall Street. The party will not be pro-Big anything

COMMENT

“Big banks efficiently facilitate cross-border trade and investment on a global scale, resulting in benefits that have consistently accrued to consumers and improved standards of living for people in all markets”Where are the benefits you speak of? Do you mean the technologies and conveniences created by business capitalized by the banks? This is not benefit. So we have nice toys. What’s the value in that if you have to spend your life trying to keep from loosing what you have?Looking around the world right now where do you see this so called “benefit”? The people have been screwed by their leaders and the merchants. Even this very article only talks of money as a benefit. People are getting evicted from their homes. People are going sick and dieing because their insurance plan doesn’t cover X treatment.Yeah…. it’s great over here.

GMAC, CIT provide more reasons to roll up TARP

Nov 2, 2009 18:29 UTC

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has the option of extending his authority to spend TARP money until October 2010. Congress should forcefully discourage him from doing so, even if it means stripping that authority.

The bankruptcy of CIT despite a $2.3 billion TARP infusion provides one reason. But the story of GMAC is even more compelling. Treasury has already sunk $12.5 billion into it, with perhaps another $5.6 billion on the way. Then there’s GMAC’s FDIC-guaranteed debt.

And given the amount of taxpayer dough on the line, government has become a less-than-silent partner. The FDIC, according to the Wall Street Journal, has ordered GMAC to abandon key components of its new business strategy — offering high rates to depositors and making more auto loans to borrowers with lower credit ratings — because it considers them too risky.

Conflicts and bad incentives abound. Sheila Bair of the FDIC is inclined to caution, given the taxpayer risk. Yet she also needs the company prosperous enough to make good its obligations.

GMAC might indeed be incentivized to take more risk than is prudent, counting on a continuation of the government backstop. But perhaps those risks are actually what GMAC should be doing to revitalize its business. When market discipline and the profit motive are entangled by government subsidy, clarity can prove elusive.

The GMAC bailout is part of the wider bailout of GM and Chrysler. The Bush administration started it in fall 2008 to keep the swing states of Michigan and Ohio in play. Then Team Obama signed on, not wanting to risk the potential jump in unemployment, especially among union autoworkers. But few in Obamaland thought GM and Chrysler to be “systemically” important.

The end result is a sort of crony capitalism where TARP money — originally meant for buying toxic bank assets — is propping up a politically sensitive sector of the economy while subjecting it to political control.

“Slush fund” may be too inflammatory, but recall that the administration is also proposing helping small business by funneling TARP money to community banks that increase lending to the sector. Small business, by the way, has been opposing both the president’s healthcare and cap-and-trade energy plans.

TARP was conceived in a time of crisis. The White House says the crisis has ended. Let TARP end with it.

Wall Street pay continues to be the Great Distraction

Oct 27, 2009 17:05 UTC

Again, all this focus on Wall Street pay distracts from more important issues.  Gary Becker summarizes:

I have not seen convincing evidence that either the level or structure of the pay of top financial executives were important causes of this worldwide financial crash. These executives bought large quantities of mortgage-backed securities and other securitized assets because they expected this to increase the average return on their assets without taking on much additional risk through the better risk management offered by derivatives, credit default swaps, and other newer types of securities. They turned out to be badly wrong, but so too were the many financial economists who had no sizable financial stake in these assets, but supported this approach to risk management.

The experience of other financial crashes also does not indicate that either the level or form of compensation of top financial executives were major factors in precipitating these crashes. Thousands of banks failed during the Great Depression, as did hundreds of American savings and loans institutions during the 1980s, without heads of these institutions in either case getting particularly high pay, or pay that was mainly in the form of bonuses and stock options. My impression is that this same conclusion applies to the Mexican bank crisis of the mid 1990s, and the Asian financial crisis at the end of the 1990s.

The generous bonuses and stock options received by financial executives may often have been unwarranted, but they are being used as a scapegoat for other more crucial factors. Financial institutions underrated the systemic risks of the more exotic assets, and apparently so too did the Fed and other regulators of financial institutions. In addition, large financial institutions may have recognized that they were “too big to fail”, and that they would be rescued by taxpayer monies if they were on the verge of bankruptcy because they took on excessively risky assets.

COMMENT

I think you’re both missing the point. This whole business of Wall Street pay levels and bonuses &c. has been a convenient shield for Mr. Obama and his radical advisors to move into territory previously off-limits. See David Rosenberg’s analysis of the current situation in the subsequent article. Mr. Obama has moved into corporate management (GM, Chrysler, AIG); has demonized insurance companies preparatory to taking over (read: socializing) the healthcare industry; and attempted to delegitimize FOX news and anyone else who would dare differ with his agenda. (Think Jimmy Carter and his criticism = racism remarks) Keeping the ignorant masses occupied watching some hapless Wall Street executives get crucified might have seemed a winning strategy for Mr. Obama’s radical advisors. American voters may be getting wise to this game.

Posted by gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

Wall Street pay is the Great Distraction of the Great Recession

Oct 22, 2009 11:49 UTC

If I made of list of factors contributing to the recession and financial crisis, Wall Street pay would come in around 6th, after 1) easy monetary policy; 2) TBTF; 3) US housing policy; 4) global savings glut/China labor shock; 5) Wall Street group think.  Yet pay is where so much energy is being directed at this issue thanks to its populist appeal. America hates TARP so Washington needs to make amends by hammering execs at TARP recipients.

Now two other takes. First, Marginal Revolution:

There is no way this will work as advertised.  If the administration actually follows through, most of these executives will quit and get higher paying jobs elsewhere.  Executives not directly affected by the pay cuts will also quit when they see their prospects for future salary gains have been cut.  Chaos will be created at these firms as top people leave in droves.  Will the administration then order people back to work?

Here is Naked Capitalism:

The point is that the collection of these scalps will do nothing to comp levels ex these firms. The companies that also enjoy implicit government guarantees are free to do the “heads I win, tails you lose” game of privatized gains and socialized losses. And Ken Lewis is the poster child of why these measures are completely meaningless. He sacrificed his 2009 pay, but will still collect $125 million when he departs Bank of America.

If the government is going to backstop the industry (and this isn’t an “if” anymore), it needs to limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking. As we have said, reining in executive pay (and note there is no will to do that anyhow) is not an effective approach. Those employees who don’t like that are free to decamp and raise money in ways that do not involve the regulated firms in any way, shape, or form, save perhaps counterparty exposures on very safe, highly liquid instruments.

COMMENT

I agree with much, but take issue with the Naked Capitalism blurb. The solution is not to’limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking.’ The solution is to eliminate the government policy of too big to fail.

Once that message is sent loud and clear, then the behavior of market participants will adjust accordingly and ‘excessive’ or ‘irresponsible’ risk taking will decline by virtue of the natural dynamics of capitalist discipline. Because the prospect of real failure is powerful incentive for any institution to be more judicious in the risks that it takes — as opposed to today’s environment where ‘failure’ means the government will likely step in to make you whole.

Posted by Bill, Fairfax, VA | Report as abusive

Winning the fight for the financial crisis narrative

Oct 21, 2009 13:58 UTC

In an FT piece, Daniel Yergin lists the many competing explanations for the financial crisis: 1) too much leverage; 2) rapid financial innovation; 3) wrongheaded or incomplete regulation; 4) government home ownership policies; 5) high US indebtedness; 6) too much greediness, not enough fear; 7) bubblicious easy credit; 8) hubris from years of global growth; 9) global securitization as a transmitter of crisis; 10) the oil spike; 11) intrinsic evil of capitalism.

Me: The media already has its narrative: markets failed. Now it’s time for government to reassert its authority. That is the political dimension. But there is obviously a policy dimension as a well. And we are seeing the “market failed” explanation play out in Washington where Wall Street is under attack and the housing bubble is being reflated.

Paul Volcker: Obama’s forgotten man

Oct 21, 2009 13:42 UTC

The most devastating part of the NYTimes piece on Paul Volcker’s lack of influence on WH economic policy comes into the very last sentence of the piece:

So Mr. Volcker scoffs at the reports that he is losing clout. “I did not have influence to start with,” he said.

Me: I can’t believe Volcker is also too thrilled with what’s been happening lately with King Dollar. Yet the focus of the story is how the WH is ignoring Volcker’s advice to separate banking from investing and trading, a de facto restoration of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.

Mr. Volcker’s proposal would roll back the nation’s commercial banks to an earlier era, when they were restricted to commercial banking and prohibited from engaging in risky Wall Street activities. … The only viable solution, in the Volcker view, is to break up the giants. JPMorgan Chase would have to give up the trading operations acquired from Bear Stearns. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would go back to being separate companies. Goldman Sachs could no longer be a bank holding company. It’s a tall order, and to achieve it Congress would have to enact a modern-day version of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which mandated separation.

Glass-Steagall was watered down over the years and finally revoked in 1999. In the Volcker resurrection, commercial banks would take deposits, manage the nation’s payments system, make standard loans and even trade securities for their customers — just not for themselves. The government, in return, would rescue banks that fail. On the other side of the wall, investment houses would be free to buy and sell securities for their own accounts, borrowing to leverage these trades and thus multiplying the profits, and the risks.

Being separated from banks, the investment houses would no longer have access to federally insured deposits to finance this trading. If one failed, the government would supervise an orderly liquidation. None would be too big to fail — a designation that could arise for a handful of institutions under the administration’s proposal.

Banking expert Bert Ely sees things differently:

Had Glass-Steagall never been enacted, had it been repealed much earlier than 1999 …  the Big Five investment banking firms … might not have become as focused as they did on buying, securitizing, and trading subprime, Alt-A, and option-ARM mortgages. While the large commercial banking companies also engaged in mortgage securitization and originating nonprime mortgages, they did not get as deeply involved in those activities as did the investment banks. Arguably, then, had the separate, distinct investment-banking industry been melded into mainstream commercial banking years ago, today’s mortgage and financial crisis would not be as severe as it is, or may not have occurred at all.

COMMENT

Goolsbee, Summers, et al need to listen to the chairman and his experience. Investment banking & commercial banking are separate functions which cannot be managed well by a single CEO and board.

Posted by bob mayo | Report as abusive

Is Geithner Wall Street’s man in Washington?

Oct 8, 2009 16:21 UTC

Yes, the treasury secretary talks to bankers, says the Associated Press:

The calendars, obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act, offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the continued influence of three companies — Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. — whose executives can reach the nation’s most powerful economic official on the phone, sometimes several times a day.

But as my pal John Carney of Clusterstock points out, he’s isn’t talking to everybody:

But these generalized claims miss something important: not all banks are equal in the eyes of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Today the AP revealed that Geithner doesn’t give equal access to all of the banks, or even all of the largest banks. Likewise, being one of the biggest, most well-connected investment banks doesn’t get you close to Geithner. Instead, it’s a small select group of financial firms that have Geithner’s ear, at least judging by a review of his phone records.

Who is Geithner chatting with on the phone.?

  • Goldman Sachs
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Citigroup

Most obviously left off the list are Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Morgan Stanley.

Me: To me, the interesting question is to what extent Geithner shares Wall Street’s world view, and how that has influenced policy. He certainly is sensitive to the systemic nature of these institutions and their role in the financial system, which is why he was a voice against nationalization or debt-for-equity ideas. As Megan McArdle put it earlier this year:

It’s easy to blithely say “Why don’t they just make the bondholders take a haircut?”  Harder when you think about who those bondholders are:  insurers.  pension funds.  the bond component of your 401(k).  Financial debt makes up something like a third of the bond market, and the largest holders are pensions and insurers.

The insurers are the biggest problem, because they’re just so heavily regulated.  They’re not allowed to hold risky assets.  Convert their bonds to equity and they will be forced to dump that equity at prices that will trend towards zero.  Many insurers will see their capital impaired below the regulatory limits, requiring a government bailout.

Pension funds are the next biggest problem.  They’re already in big trouble because of stock market declines.  The bonds are the “safe” portion of their portfolio, the stuff that’s supposed ot be akin to ready cash.  Convert their bonds to equity–or worse, default–and suddenly they’re illiquid and even further underwater.

Nor is the 401(k) problem small.  Bond funds are typically held most heavily by the people closest to retirement; they’re for income, not capital gains.  What is your mother going to do when a third of her mutual fund income gets converted to equity that produces no cash and can’t be sold because the insurers have all had to dump their shares on the market at once?  Or simply disappears into the land of bankruptcy lawsuits?

I think what Geithner et. al. fear is that nationalizing or reorganization will put the government on the hook for massive and immediate losses in both the banking system, and the “safe” entities that lent it money

:

COMMENT

Concerning the Restructuring of the Global Financial/Economic System and Recent Discussion of Nationalizing “Banking” Interests

With regards to “nationalizing” Banks and other “investor owned” Institutions, we must be realistic concerning the inter-national composition of the investing institutions, corporations, and individuals.

Writing from a libertarian socialist point of view, I think it is necessary to clarify the objectives of any comprehensive program to re-dedicate private resources to a quasi-public mission and to consolidate equity and assets for the purposes of sharing the former and writing off the economically paralytic inflationary cost aspects of the latter.

In lieu of an economic system based on credit and equity trading, whose motivation is the underwriting of speculative ventures, we need to transform our fundamentally inflationary financial/economic system to one that is based on equity sharing and meeting the needs of people in the form of community betterment.

Such a financial system would be the right hand, the resource allocation facilitating function and services of an ambidextrous ecological, democratic, economic “plan and implement” economy that would respect and favor the sovereignty of villages/neighborhoods, educate-foster-facilitate-inculcate inter-community and inter-regional equality, unity and cooperation based on the basic principles of inclusion, equity, humanity, mutualism, altruism, quality of life (in lieu of standard of living), environmental/public health and wellness, sustainability, and peace.

Such a system would seek to establish a more just balance between competitive advantage and comparative advantage with the concerns of those indigenous to a community being paramount.

Such an economic system would recognize the necessity to embrace and implement conservation ethics for shorter term programs and projects of ecological economic redevelopment dedicated to survival pursuits and skills and its concomitant ubiquitous environmental improvement activities, and to the longer term programs and policies related to the legacy of the human race and its dominion (i.e. the recognition and respect of the resource limits imposed by a finite planet).

I call such a proposal an equity union and believe it to be a prudent and practical alternative to the extant economic/financial system. I believe such an economic rearrangement based on the fundamental mission of world unity and cooperation is the best hope for the purpose of entering an unprecedented era of peace and human progress and success.

Mike Morin
Eugene, OR, USA
wiserunion@earthlink.net
(541) 343-3808

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