By Simon Johnson
A central idea in the financial reforms currently undergoing final negotiation in the United States – and also in similar initiatives in Europe – is that large banks must draw up “living wills” that should explain, in considerable detail, how they will be wound down in the event of future failure.
The concept is appealing in theory. No one knows their business better than the banks, the reasoning goes, so they should have responsibility for explaining how they can close down their various operations – or perhaps sell more valuable parts while limiting losses for unprofitable activities. This is often presented as “smart regulation”, with government regulators requiring private sector experts to do the difficult technical work.
Tuesday’s hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee shed considerable light on why living wills are highly unlikely to work in practice. The hearing was actually about the oil industry – and its government-mandated plans to deal with oil spills. The committee posted the spill response plans for the Gulf of Mexico of five companies – BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell – which demonstrated striking, peculiar and disconcerting similarities. Continue reading