When it comes to banking, size isn't the only thing that matters.
[...] When the news of Wachovia's failure first reached Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Chair Sheila Bair, she wanted to liquidate the bank and cut into the pocketbooks of its investors -- as she had done with Washington Mutual, the largest U.S. bank failure ever, a few days prior. But Tim Geithner, then president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, argued strenuously for Bair to invoke her agency's "too big to fail" exception and spend more money to cover the costs of the bank's sale. He worried another collapsing bank would only intensify the financial panic at a time when the government's hands were tied. (While the FDIC can liquidate a commercial bank like Wachovia, the Fed doesn't have the tools to shut down financial institutions, only the ability to prop them up with loans.)
Geithner, now the Treasury secretary, made the right decision at the time, but it was a terrible precedent to set. Sending the message that the government won't let large banks fail in a crisis gives them an unfair advantage over their smaller competitors. Worse, if bankers are rewarded for success and insulated from failure, there is little incentive for prudence and smart management -- the problem of moral hazard.
Of all the Orwellian phrases to arise from our financial crisis -- "troubled assets," "stress tests," "capital infusion" -- "too big to fail" is perhaps the most hated and least understood. Many populists and progressive economists have called on the Obama administration to bust up the banks and make them smaller. "Just break them up," economist Dean Baker argues. "We don't have to turn Citigroup and Bank of America into hundreds of small community banks, just large regional banks that can be safely put through a bankruptcy."
The administration hasn't pursued that course of action, in part because of the political power of the banks and in part because breaking them up isn't as easy as it sounds -- it is hard to know what the right size for a bank is, especially in an increasingly global financial market. Further, the importance placed on the issue of size is deceptive: The problems that caused the 2008 crash also had to do with leverage, liquidity, and the complex connections between banks. The banks tied themselves into knots neither they nor their regulators could untie.
"The problem we have had isn't that institutions were too big -- it was that there was no uniform way to let them fail without causing an absolute market meltdown," Arthur Levitt, the widely respected former Securities and Exchange Commission chair, told the House Financial Services Committee in September.
If we want to clean up the financial mess, we have to realize that the size of institutions is a secondary problem. We must also accept that some facets of our current system are here to stay. Shrinking the financial sector will be slow going, so we're best off watching it more closely, forcing institutions to put stronger safety nets in place, and, most important, helping them fail gracefully when they make mistakes.
Perhaps the kind of restrictions that progressives wanted to put on the initial bailout loans -- strict compensation limits, firing existing management, and even more stringent rules -- should be codified so they will be clear if and when bailouts are needed again. The goal would be to penalize executives, not institutions, so the people at banks have the incentive to perform.
Regulatory reform is not just about providing new structures and tools. Reform is also about putting in place politicians and regulators who are willing to take the banks to task. The administration's proposed approach to the problem of systemically risky institutions would require the secretary of the Treasury to green-light any response to their failure, whether that response is bankruptcy, government-assisted liquidation, or even another bailout. That means direct political accountability to the president instead of the "Republic of the Central Banker" that we saw in 2008 as the Fed single-handedly undertook massive efforts to protect the financial system without any checks on its power -- or its spending.
Looking back on last fall's argument between Geithner and Bair over what to do about Wachovia, it's clear that Bair was right in principle -- using federal money to keep bad banks alive isn't a good idea. Geithner was right in practice -- letting another bank fail would have only intensified the financial panic at a time when the Fed didn't have the right tools to solve the problems further bank failures would cause. What we need is a rulebook that doesn't force regulators to choose between those two approaches. We need a system designed by someone like Tim Geithner -- and run by someone like Sheila Bair.
This was an interesting article. It's about creating a system that allows banks to fail gracefully when they screw up, to suffer the consequences for their bad decisions, but without dragging down large sectors of the economy with them. This article was about finding solutions to achieve that, not partisan bickering. I appreciated that.