By James Kwak
Thomas Frank has a review in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, but Mark Thoma has an excerpt) of Barry Lynn’s new book Cornered, which apparently documents the prevalence and power of monopolies and oligopolies in lots and lots of industries, not just finance. (I guess one response would be that we have been too harsh on the banks, since everyone’s doing it; but I still think banks are special for all sorts of reasons I won’t go into here.)
The problem, as Frank says, is that “the antimonopoly tradition is a museum piece today, and antitrust enforcement has been largely moribund since federal officials during the Reagan Revolution lost interest in this most brutal form of economic intervention.” Antitrust enforcement became a question of measuring predicted changes in consumer welfare, which meant that it became the province of models. More importantly, we are now in at least our fifth consecutive administration that sees big, profitable companies as inherently good, without stopping to question how they extract those profits.
The solution is already there to hand — go back to enforcing the existing antitrust laws. And appoint Supreme Court justices who are interested in enforcing them. But that assumes that the administration cares about the issue. Do they?
(For one thing, I applied for an internship in the DOJ’s antitrust division for this coming summer . . . and I was turned down.)
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s Massachusetts special election debacle, the White House today is set to announce a major change of strategy on financial reform, with the president to propose new legislation that will limit the size and complexity of banks.
Such legislation is unlikely to pass the Senate. In fact, the approach to financial reform already in place, crafted by Senator Christopher J. Dodd with the blessing of the White House, was to trade away some parts of the House bill — including perhaps the potential new consumer protection agency for financial products — in return for sufficient Republican support to pass a bill in the next month or two.
But fresh from their success in the Democratic heartland, the Republicans will be less inclined than before to compromise in any meaningful way. They may keep negotiating, but the Senate Democratic choice will quickly become: pass a law with little sensible content, or don’t pass anything and look ineffectual.
Fortunately, there is an alternative — one laid out neatly by Krishna Guha of the Financial Times on Tuesday. Instead of pursuing the issue of those “too big to fail” financial institutions exclusively through legislation, the administration could launch instead one or more serious antitrust investigations into the behavior of our biggest banks. Continue reading
The Department of Justice seems to thinking, at least in principle, about potential antitrust action in and around banking. Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney spoke about this yesterday, but her exact wording is open to interpretation, “”I have to ask if too big to fail is a failure of antitrust enforcement.” (The press release was uninformative on this point)
More encouraging was the background briefing given to the New York Times, as seen in this paragraph,
“Ms. Varney is expected to say that the Obama administration will be guided by the view that it was a major mistake during the outset of the Great Depression to relax antitrust enforcement, only to try to catch up and become more vigorous later. She will say the mistake enabled many large companies to engage in pricing, wage and collusive practices that harmed consumers and took years to reverse.”
The thinking among antitrust experts has been that there is not much market power, conventionally defined, in financial services. But this thinking may change, for at least three reasons. Continue reading
The Obama administration is strengthening its antitrust enforcement policy.
That said, this in itself probably wouldn’t have done anything about the “too big to fail” problem. It might have increased scrutiny over large bank mergers – like Nations-Bank of America, Bank of America-Fleet, or JPMorgan Chase-Bank One, but frankly those probably would have gone through anyway; the banking industry is just not that concentrated compared to some others. Too big to fail is a combination of size, interconnectedness, and the critical role of finance for the economy. But the signal that the administration will actually enforce antitrust law is a step in the right direction.
By James Kwak
This guest post was contributed by Lawrence Baxter, a member of the faculty at Duke Law School and formerly a divisional executive in a large banking organization. He takes a look inside the large mergers that created the behemoth financial institutions we know today, and the assumptions that encouraged and allowed those mergers.
A friend recently observed to me that he had maintained zero interest in banks and banking all his life—until the past year. Now everyone is engaged in a swirl of emotions and punditry as we focus as experts, taxpayers or consumers on almost every dimension of the financial crisis, from bailouts to complex executive compensation schemes. Yet throughout the commotion we have not lost our faith in one quintessential American value: bigger is better. How quickly we forget such disasters as Daimler Chrysler and Travelers-Citicorp, even as we hail Chrysler-Fiat.
True, a consequence of great scale has informed the public policy debate on banks: what do we do with a financial institutions that is “too big to fail”? Yet answers to this question have, for the most part, turned on whether a particular company should be allowed to fail, or be propped up by government action. The underlying pathology receives only passing attention. Why do we let these institutions get so large in the first place? Is it not likely that many of the institutions requiring massive injections of public capital and other forms of subsidization and public assistance are, and have been for some time, simply too big to manage?
America’s obsession with bigness has led us to assume glibly that organizational growth, vertical and lateral, is a natural consequence of business success and must be respected, even celebrated. Armies of consultants, lawyers and investment bankers devote their businesses to the science of corporate enlargement, encouraged by economists who celebrate not only economies of scale, but even “economies of super scale.” Ken Thompson, then CEO of one of the most venerated banks in the United States, Wachovia, spoke for an industry when he declared in 2006, at the very moment the company was making its fatal acquisition of Golden West Financial, that ““[c]onsolidation continues to make economic sense. Done right, size enhances competitive power. With economies of scale, a company can better afford the technology and longer branch hours that customers demand.”*
The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.
Theodore Roosevelt, “Address at Providence,” 1902 (emphasis added)
By “creatures of the State,” Roosevelt meant not that corporations were created by the state, but that their existence and power existed because of and in concert with the state. A few years ago, someone reading this quotation would have probably thought first of Halliburton; today, it evokes the large banks that are too big to fail.
That quotation was pointed out to us by Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Duke, who has been proposing new antitrust laws aimed at reducing the political power of large firms.
In early February I suggested there was a showdown underway between the US Treasury and the country’s largest banks. Treasury (with the Fed and other regulators) is responsible for the safety and soundness of the financial system, the banks are mostly looking out for their own executives, and the tension between these goals is – by now – quite evident.
As we’ve been arguing since the beginning of the year, saving the banking system – at reasonable cost to the taxpayer – implies standing up to the bankers. You can do this in various ways, through recapitalization if you are willing to commit more taxpayer money or pre-packaged bankruptcy if you want to try it with less, but any sensible way forward involves Treasury being tough on the biggest banks.
The Administration seems to prefer “forbearance”, meaning you just ignore the problem, hope the economy recovers anyway, and wait for time or global economic events to wash away banking insolvency concerns. But this strategy is increasingly being undermined by the banks themselves – their actions threaten financial system stability, will likely force even greater costs on the taxpayer, and demonstrate fundamentally anticompetitive practices that inflict massive financial damage on ordinary citizens. Continue reading