MacroScope

Priceless: The unfathomable cost of too big to fail

Just how big is the benefit that too-big-to-fail banks receive from their implicit taxpayer backing? Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke debated just that question with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren during a recent hearing of the Senate Banking Committee. Warren cited a Bloomberg study based on estimates from the International Monetary Fund that found the subsidy, in the form of lower borrowing costs, amounts to some $83 billion a year.

Bernanke, who has argued Dodd-Frank financial reforms have made it easier for regulators to shut down troubled institutions, questioned the study’s validity.

“That’s one study Senator, you don’t know if that’s an accurate number.”

Here’s more of the rather heated exchange:

Bernanke: “The subsidy is coming because of market expectations that the government would bail out these firms if they failed. Those expectations are incorrect. We have an orderly liquidation authority. Even in a crisis, we, in the cases of AIG for example, we wiped out the shareholders…”

Warren: “Excuse me, though, Mr. Chairman, you did not wipe out the shareholders of the largest financial institutions, did you, the big banks?

Don’t fear inflation boogeyman: BofA’s Harris

Worries about potential side-effects of unconventional monetary policy on financial markets are at least exaggerated, if not a near figment of the imagination.

This appears to be the conclusion of a comprehensively-argued research note by Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economist Ethan Harris.

The risk investors need to focus on is disinflation, not inflation; yet, remarkably, over the last several years critics of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing have “hijacked” the inflation debate, Harris says.

Financial headcounts stabilize in 2009

After financial firms slashed hundreds of thousands of jobs in 2007 and 2008, the bloodletting slowed in 2009 as major banks rebounded from the financial crisis. Even though firms like Goldman Sachs Group Inc and JPMorgan Chase & Co reported billions of dollars in profit, they still did not announce major hiring initiatives.

Recession layoffs Headcount (end 2008) Headcount (end 2009) Bank of America 45,000 240,202 283,717* Citigroup 75,000 323,000 265,000 Goldman Sachs 4,800 34,500 32,500 J.P. Morgan 23,700 224,961 222,316 Morgan Stanley 8,680 45,295 61,388* UBS 19,700 77,783 65,233 Credit Suisse 7,320 47,800 47,600 Barclays 9,050 152,800 144,200 Deutsche Bank 1,380 80,456 77,053 Santander 2,600 170,961 169,460

* Includes additional employees from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney merger and Bank of America’s merger with Merrill Lynch, both of which were completed in 2009 (Steve Eder and Steve Slater)

Insider recalls the day that Lehman died

Joseph Tibman was a senior banker at Lehman Brothers for 20 years and is now the author of “The Murder of Lehman Brothers, An Insider’s Look on the Global Meltdown”. Tibman writes under a pseudonym to preserve his ability to work in finance. The views expressed are his own.

September 12, 2008 was a Friday like no other.

Just one day earlier, I was somewhat concerned about the hammered Lehman Brothers share price and the persistent rumors about my firm, but I had been here before. Well not exactly here. But I was sure Lehman would survive as an independent firm.

Had I overdosed on the Lehman-distributed talking? Soon after I arrived at my office in the Lehman headquarters at 745 Seventh Avenue on the north end of Time Square, it was clear my world, and that of all those around me, was spinning off its axis. The word was out. The Federal Reserve Bank and U.S. Treasury were in the building. So were Bank of America and Barclays Capital. Or were they?

Mr. Green Shoots in an orange jumpsuit?

Economist James Hamilton was pretty offended by the rough treatment of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke last week at the hands of some U.S. politicians. But when he put up a defense of the Fed chief on his blog, he got an earful from readers who were critical of the U.S. central bank and suspicious over its role in the financial crisis and last year’s bank bailouts.

Some members of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee quizzing Bernanke last week voiced outrage over the Fed’s role in Bank of America’s takeover of Merrill Lynch. They claim the Fed covered up pressure on BofA to swallow massive Merrill losses in order to protect the wider economy.

Hamilton said they were trying to turn Bernanke into a scapegoat.

“These interrogations reveal more about those doing the grilling than they reveal about Bernanke,” Hamilton, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, wrote on his blog. “I see this as pure political theater, and I don’t like it.”