By James Kwak
The Federal Reserve is serious—about something.
On May 2, The Wall Street Journal reported that regulators were pushing to require “very large banks to hold higher levels of capital,” including minimum levels of unsecured long-term debt, as part of an effort “to force banks to shrink voluntarily by making it expensive and onerous to be big and complex.” The article quoted Fed Governor Jeremy Stein, who said, “If after some time it has not delivered much of a change in the size and complexity of the largest of banks, one might conclude that the implicit tax was too small, and should be ratcheted up” (emphasis added).
A few days later, Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo said roughly the same thing (emphasis added):
“‘The important question is not whether capital requirements for large banking firms need to be stronger than those included in Basel III and the agreement on capital surcharges, but how to make them so,’ said Mr. Tarullo, adding later that even with those measures in place it ‘would leave more too-big-to-fail risk than I think is prudent.‘”
Tarullo recommended higher capital requirements and long-term debt requirements for systemically risky financial institutions.
Last week, Governor of Governors Ben Bernanke quoted from the same talking points (emphasis added):
“Mr. Bernanke said the Fed could push banks to maintain a higher leverage ratio, hold certain types of debt favored by regulators, or other steps to give the largest firms a ‘strong incentive to reduce their size, complexity, interconnectedness.’
“The Fed chairman acknowledged growing concerns that some financial companies remain so big and complex the government would have to step in to prevent their collapse and said more needs to be done to eliminate that risk.”
By James Kwak
On the title page of my copy of The Big Short, in black ink, it says:
“For James Kwak
And then a scrawl that I take to be Michael Lewis’s signature. (Christopher Lydon got the book signed for me, since Lewis was on his radio show a few days before I was.) It may be the only book I’ve ever bothered to get autographed.
So I was especially happy to read that Lewis also wants to break up the big banks (hat tip Ezra Klein):
“Along with the other too-big-to-fail firms, Goldman needs to be busted up into smaller pieces. The ultimate goal should be to create institutions so dull and easy to understand that, when a young man who works for one of them walks into a publisher’s office and offers to write up his experiences, the publisher looks at him blankly and asks, ‘Why would anyone want to read that?’”
When Simon and I made that the centerpiece of the last chapter of 13 Bankers, I thought our chances were slim. When we wrote, in the epilogue to the paperback edition, that a proposal to do exactly that had been voted down, 61 to 33, in the Senate, I thought they had changed from slim to none. It’s still a long shot, but the issue hasn’t died, and if anything is getting more attention now, what with people like George Osborne threatening to break up banks if they don’t reform themselves. Perhaps it isn’t impossible.
By Simon Johnson
Global megabanks have had a tough summer. Jamie Dimon, vociferous opponent of restrictions on reckless risk-taking by big banks, presided over large losses due to exactly such behavior in the London office of JP Morgan Chase. HSBC, which prided itself on running a uniquely decentralized management model, was found to have violated – massively, over many years, and in a uniquely decentralized manner – US money laundering and other laws; the head of global compliance resigned while on the witness stand during a Senate hearing in July. And Barclays – which had bulked up on the strength of its capital market activities – conceded that traders from that part of the company had conspired to rig Libor, a key benchmark for global interest rates; in the ensuing public outcry, the top two executives were forced out.
And last week Sandy Weill, who amassed a vast fortune building Citigroup and pushing to dismantle the constraints on such megabanks’ activities, concedes that the entire exercise was a mistake.
“I’m suggesting that they be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk, the leverage of the banks will be something reasonable,..”
According to American Banker, former top executives calling for the biggest banks to be broken up now include Phil Purcell, former chief executive of Morgan Stanley; John Reed, former chairman of Citigroup; and David Komansky, former chief executive of Merrill Lynch. (I am asking American Banker to bring their slide show on this issue out from behind their paywall.)
Backed into a corner, representatives of these Too Big To Fail banks and their allies are forced to fall back on perpetuating three myths. Continue reading
By James Kwak
Jonathan Macey, a former professor of mine at Yale Law School,* recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (paywall; excerpts here) arguing that we shouldn’t worry about JPMorgan’s recent trading loss because market forces will ensure that the bank does a better job next time. Here’s a key paragraph:
“Thus, far from serving as a pretext to justify still more regulation of providers of capital, J.P. Morgan’s losses should be treated as further proof that markets work. J.P. Morgan and its competitors will learn from this experience and do a better job of hedging the next time. They will learn because they have to: In the long run their survival depends on it. And in the short run their jobs and bonuses depend on it.”
Macey’s central point is that companies don’t like losing money, so losing $2 billion means that they will do a better job of figuring out how not to lose money in the future. That’s obvious. But it’s also beside the point.
By James Kwak
Jon Macey is no friend of regulation. In 1994, he wrote a paper titled “Administrative Agency Obsolescence and Interest Group Formation: A Case Study of the SEC at Sixty” arguing, in no uncertain terms, that the SEC was obsolete: “the market forces and exogenous technological changes catalogued in this Article* have obviated any public interest justification for the SEC that may have existed” (p. 949). This diagnosis was not confined to the SEC, either.
“The behavior of regulators in [the financial services] industry is due to exogenous economic pressures that, left alone, would result both in major changes in the structure of the financial services industry and in the need for regulation. However, these economic pressures threaten the interests of bureaucrats in administrative agencies and other interest groups by causing a diminution in demand for their services and products. In response to these threats, pressure is brought to bear for ‘reforms’ that will eliminate the ‘disruption’ caused by these market forces.
“The net result of this dynamic is as clear as it is depressing. One observes continued government intervention in the financial markets long after the need for such intervention has ceased. Such intervention stifles the incentives of entrepreneurs to devote the resources and human capital necessary to develop new financial products and to de- velop strategies that assist the capital formation process by helping markets operate more efficiently.”
So what does Jon Macey think of big banks?
By Simon Johnson
Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had some good lines yesterday,
“The magnitude of the financial shock [in fall 2008] was in some ways greater than that which caused the Great Depression. The damage has been catastrophic, causing more damage to the livelihoods and economic security of Americans and, in particular, the middle class, than any financial crisis in three generations.”
Like Ben Bernanke, Mr. Geithner also finally grasps at least the broad contours of the doom loop,
“For three decades, the American financial system produced a significant financial crisis every three to five years. Each major financial shock forced policy actions mostly by the Fed to lower interest rates and to provide liquidity to contain the resulting damage. The apparent success of those actions in limiting the depth and duration of recessions led to greater confidence and greater risk taking. “
But then he falters. Continue reading
By James Kwak
Last week, Charlie Gasparino reported at Fox Business that “Executives at Bank of America are coming under increasing pressure to downsize the firm as federal regulators seek to prevent large, cumbersome financial institutions from once again tanking the financial system as they did in the fall of 2008.” Later, he writes, “people close to the bank and government officials say government regulators have made it clear to BofA executives, including its new CEO, Brian Moynihan, that they want the bank to become much smaller.” The article refers to officials at Treasury and the Federal Reserve.
This would be interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that the administration and its allies in Congress are insisting that breaking up large financial institutions is not the answer to the too big to fail problem. If regulators are pressuring BofA to get smaller, that would seem to imply the opposite.
Uncle Billy pointed out this post by The Epicurean Dealmaker, which he described as “smoking.” TED actually is an investment banker (or an excellent imitator of one, down to the expensive tastes), so he can say things in more detail and more convincingly than I. Like this:
“But the assertion that large, multi-line financial conglomerates provide customers with services no smaller institutions can deliver is pure poppycock. The mid-1990s concept of globe-striding financial supermarkets has been completely discredited, most notably by their sad-sack poster child, Citigroup. Wholesale institutional clients make a point of using more than one investment or commercial bank for virtually all their financial transactions, no matter what they are. In fact, the bigger the deal, the more banks the customer usually uses. This is because banking clients want to 1) spread transaction financing and execution risk across multiple service providers and 2) make sure none of these oligopolist bastards has an exclusive right to grab the client by the short and curlies.”
By James Kwak
Paul Volcker, legendary central banker turned radical reformer of our financial system, has won an important round. The WSJ is now reporting:
President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to propose new limits on the size and risk taken by the country’s biggest banks, marking the administration’s latest assault on Wall Street in what could mark a return — at least in spirit — to some of the curbs on finance put in place during the Great Depression.
This is an important change of course that, while still far from complete, represents a major victory for Volcker – who has been pushing firmly for exactly this.
Thursday’s announcement should be assessed on three issues. Continue reading
She’s probably already said this before, but I just saw this in an interview by Tim Fernholz, which I completely agree with:
“There are a lot of ways to regulate ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions: break them up, regulate them more closely, tax them more aggressively, insure them, and so on. And I’m totally in favor of increased regulatory scrutiny of these banks. But those are all regulatory tools. Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”
But what really caught my eye was this: “I’m teaching my classes, doing my research, and helping out where I can.” I always assumed she took a leave from Harvard Law School when she became chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel. Now that is remarkable.
By James Kwak
One of our readers pointed me to a paper by Edward Kane with the unfortunately complicated title “Extracting Nontransparent Safety Net Subsidies by Strategically Expanding and Contracting a Financial Institution’s Accounting Balance Sheet.” The paper is an extended discussion of regulatory arbitrage — not the specific techniques (such as securitization with various kinds of recourse) that banks use to finesse capital requirements, but the larger game played by banks and their regulators. This is how Kane frames the situation:
“Regulation is best understood as a dynamic game of action and response, in which either regulators or regulatees may make a move at any time. In this game, regulatees tend to make more moves than regulators do. Moreover, regulatee moves tend to be faster and less predictable, and to have less-transparent consequences than those that regulators make.
“Thirty years ago, regulatory arbitrage focused on circumventing restrictions on deposit interest rates; bank locations; charter powers; and deposit institutions’ ability to shift risk onto the safety net. Probably because regulatory burdens in the first three areas have largely disappeared, the fourth has become more important than ever. Today, loophole mining by financial organizations of all types focuses on using financial-engineering techniques to exploit defects in government and counterparty supervision.”
“Banking on the State” by Andrew Haldane and Piergiorgio Alessandri is making waves in official circles. Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, is widely regarded as both a technical expert and as someone who can communicate his points effectively to policymakers. He is obviously closely in line – although not in complete agreement - with the thinking of Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England.
Haldane and Alessandri offer a tough, perhaps bleak assessment. Our boom-bust-bailout cycle is, in their view, a “doom loop”. Banks have an incentive to take excessive risk and every time they and their creditors are bailed out, we create the conditions for the next crisis.
Any banker who denies this is the case lacks self-awareness or any sense of history, or perhaps just wants to do it again. Continue reading
A reader pointed out a quick analysis done by Dean Baker and Travis McArthur of the Center for Economic Policy and Research back in September. They estimate the value of being “too big to fail” by looking at the spread between the cost of funds for banks above $100 billion in assets and banks below that level. The spread averaged 0.29 percentage points from 2000 through 2007, but rose to 0.78 percentage points from Q4 2008 through Q2 2009, an increase of 0.49 percentage points. Alternatively, the spread peaked at 0.69 percentage points from Q4 2001 through Q2 2002 at the end of the last recession; by comparison, the spread this time around was only 0.09 percentage points higher. Using 0.09 and 0.49 percentage points as their low and high estimates, Baker and McArthur come up with an estimate of the aggregate value of being TBTF that ranges from $6.3 billion to $34.2 billion per year.
Note: I’ve updated this post at the end with another response to Jamie Dimon, this one by James Coffman. Coffman served in the enforcement division of the SEC for over twenty years, most recently as an assistant director of enforcement, and previously wrote a guest post for this blog.
In the Washington Post, Jamie Dimon asserts that we shouldn’t “try to impose artificial limits on the size of U.S. financial institutions.” Why not?
“Scale can create value for shareholders; for consumers, who are beneficiaries of better products, delivered more quickly and at less cost; for the businesses that are our customers; and for the economy as a whole.”
I don’t know of any serious person who believes this to be true for banks above, say, $100 billion in assets. Charles Calomiris, who studies this stuff, couldn’t find anything stronger to back up the economies of scale claim than a study saying that bank total factor productivity grew by 0.4% per year between 1991 and 1997 — a study whose author thinks that the main factor behind increasing productivity was IT investments.
Gillian Tett has an article criticizing the idea that CoCos — contingent convertible bonds — will solve the “too big to fail” problem. (And yes, she calls it “too big to fail,” even though Gillian Tett of all people understands what interconnectedness means.)
Contingent convertible bonds, a.k.a. contingent capital, are the latest fad to hit the optimistic technocracy in Washington and London. A contingent convertible bond is a bond that a bank sells during ordinary times, but that converts into equity when things turn bad, with “bad” defined by some trigger conditions, such as capital falling below a predetermined level. In theory, this means that banks can have the best of both worlds. They can go out and borrow more money today, increasing leverage and profits (which is what they want). But when the crisis hits, the debt will convert into equity; that will dilute existing shareholders, but more importantly it means the debt does not have to be paid back, providing an instant boost to the bank’s capital cushion. In other words, banks can have the additional safety margin as if they had raised more equity today, but without having to raise the equity.