By Simon Johnson and James Kwak, authors of 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown (Pantheon, 2010).
The number of important people expressing serious concern about financial institutions that are too big or too complex to fail continues to increase. Since last fall, many leading central bankers including Mervyn King, Paul Volcker, Richard Fisher, and Thomas Hoenig have come out in favor of either breaking up large banks or constraining their activities in ways that reduce taxpayers’ exposure to potential failures. Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Kaufman have also called for cutting large banks down to a size where they no longer pose a systemic threat to the financial system and the economy.
To its credit, the Obama administration recognizes the problem; according to Treasury Department officials, addressing “too big to fail” is one of the central pillars of financial reform, along with derivatives and consumer protection. However, the administration is placing its faith in technical regulatory fixes. And, as Andrew Ross Sorkin emphasizes in his recent Dealbook column, they see increased capital requirements as the principal weapon in their arsenal: “[Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner insists that if there is one change that needs to be made to the banking system to protect it against another high-stakes bank run like the one that claimed the life of Lehman Brothers, increasing capital requirements is it.”
(Brief primer: Capital is money contributed by a bank’s owners–conceptually, their initial capital contributions plus reinvested profits–that does not have to be paid back. Therefore, it acts as a buffer to protect a financial institution from defaulting on its obligations as the value of its assets falls. The more capital, the less likely a bank is to fail. The more capital, however, the lower the institution’s leverage, and hence the lower its profits per dollar of capital invested–which is why banks always want lower capital requirements.)
Don’t get us wrong: we think that increased capital requirements are an important and valuable step toward ensuring a safer financial system. We just don’t think they are enough. Nor are they the central issue. Continue reading