Shock and awe the TBTF

November 23, 2009

For all the fear that bankers have expressed about Representative Paul Kanjorski’s amendment to end “too big to fail,” the final text shows that they don’t have much to fear. While the amendment gives regulators new power, it’s unlikely they’d actually use it.

The Pennsylvania Democrat neuters his own legislation with a single line, which stipulates that for regulators to take action against a systemically dangerous institution (SDI) it must “(pose) a grave threat to the financial stability or economy of the United States.”

But if the point is to break up systemically dangerous institutions pre-emptively, then we want regulators to tear them apart before they pose a grave threat. SDIs tend to fall into that category only after they’re in trouble. By that point it’s too late.

“There’s no political constituency for bank soundness regulation until it’s too late,” says Professor Richard Carnell of Fordham. “Regulators will tend to do what’s politically expedient. During good times that means carrying on business as usual.”

I don’t suspect any regulator today would say that Goldman Sachs poses a grave threat to financial stability. Yet the complexity of its operation and its interconnectedness with the rest of the financial system means that it clearly has the potential to. That may be a fine distinction, but in practice it’s one regulators will be likely to hide behind.

Another problem with Kanjorski’s amendment is that it pollutes bank regulation with politics. The Treasury secretary would have to sign off on resolutions over $10 billion and the president on resolutions over $100 billion.

Walker Todd, a bank expert at the American Institute for Economic Research recently told me: “It’s been my experience over the last 35 years that examiners in the trenches identify the problems in banks quickly. They dutifully pass their concerns up the line, but their criticisms often get wiped away or tamped down for political reasons.”

Examiners do their job well, but politicians get in their way.

I’m torn. At a visceral level, I like the idea of using TBTF status as a hammer to shatter SDIs into pieces. But if this is the best we can hope for, then perhaps it’s better to focus on other structural reforms that will make banks safer and less complex.

Putting OTC derivatives onto exchanges, strengthening capital (the Miller-Moore amendment is a good start), splitting commercial from investment banking, establishing some sort of exposure rules so that SDIs can’t have too much exposure to any single counterparty. But that’s a wish list that will never get done. In the end, I suspect the only way we’ll rebuild a sound financial system is after the one we have blows itself up.

Comments

“In the end, I suspect the only way we’ll rebuild a sound financial system is after the one we have blows itself up.”

That’s my view now as well.

 

Inertia. You would think that after what has happened with us teetering over the edge (and still just a step or two away from the edge) something significant would be done. Apparently not.

Then again, let a commander-in-chief raise a war cry, as GWB did, and Congress jumps to approve with a blank check.

How strange that national security is a proven winner with military deployment but it seems to pass everyone’s understanding that the financial world and national financing pose equal, if not even more dangerous threats than any armed foe.

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