I have repeatedly mentioned Too Big To Succeed as a cause of the most recent crisis, but have you ever wondered HOW we got that way?

One obvious suspect has been the easy M&A environment of the past 20 years. Instead of a very competitive market where mergers for sheer size sake is discouraged, the opposite occurred. The number of bank acquisitions skyrocketed, and the number actual banks got slashed. Where there were once over 18,000 banks in early 1980s, today, the number is less than half, to under 8,500.

Recall that the big acquisitions and mergers in the 1980s were so banks could be competitive with Sumitomo and Mitsubishi and other big Japanese banks. (Why was that again?)

Hence, we end up with a few Superbanks. Ask yourself why Citibank (C), Bank of America (BAC), Washington Mutual (JPM), and Wachovia (WFC) got to be too large to manage. And once again, I am compelled to ask why it is in the country’s interest that 65% of the depository assets are held by only a handful of banks.

To put this into context, consider the chart below, courtesy of banking analyst Dick Bove:


chart courtesy of Rochdale Securities

Category: Bailouts, Credit, M&A, Regulation

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

69 Responses to “Too Few Banks, Too Many Giants”

  1. Got any better ideas?

  2. leftback says:

    Part of it was that ridiculous business that didn’t end until the end of the 1980s where you couldn’t get money out of banks in another state and had to carry massive wads of cash on business trips or stupid traveler’s checks around the country with you. The Europeans couldn’t believe that system – or the fact that credit in their home countries was useless on arrival. Of course all of that could have been solved by ATM networks without mega-mergers.

  3. CJBob says:

    We have only 5 banks in Canada and the IMF has us ranked at the top of the list for banking. It’s about regulation, oversight and greed. Nothing to do with size.

  4. call me ahab says:

    at the rate we are going- there will be ONE super ginormous bank coast-to-coast-

    talk about economies of scale- and with not competition they can keep their advertising budgets miniscule and pass on the savings to the citizens- er- I mean- customers-

    sounds like a win/lose to me- what more could we ask for

  5. syphax says:

    Chart-nazi feedback: Given the context of the post, this chart should really start at zero, not 7500.

    I’d also go with a line chart vs. bars (higher data-to-ink ratio), but that’s less important.


    BR: Bove has a flair for the dramatic!

  6. There is a reason they are called monopoly men.

    ….and don’t kid yourself. There is ONE bank in the US, the Fed. The rest are just branch offices

  7. Pat G. says:

    “Ask yourself why Citibank (C), Bank of America (BAC), Washington Mutual (JPM), and Wachovia (WFC) got to be too large to manage.”

    We know why. Who cares? But when they get to a point that they’re not a cohesive or viable business… LET THEM FAIL!! It teaches the other’s a lesson. Like discipline.

  8. pmorrisonfl says:

    1) It won’t be the market that creates a system that manages systemic risk because it is in any single firm’s capitalistic interest to become a monopoly
    2) It seems like the Fed should be banned from systemic regulation by conflict of interest.
    (I say this as an econ-semi-literate, feel free to correct me).

    Seems like there needs to be a referee that imposes the systemic rules. There are probably many excellent reasons for not having a rule like ‘no bank may have more than 5% of deposits/a market’… but what are they?

  9. jr says:

    “I am compelled to ask why it is in the country’s interest that 65% of the depository assets are held by only a handful of banks.”

    Some ideas:

    Banks make money on volume in our fractional reserve banking system. Bigger banks/bank holding companies also have many efficiency advantages.

    And their is more political and market power with a huge market cap – maybe you can grow big enough to become a primary dealer and otherwise splash around in the new money the FED pumps. The FED bestows arbitrage opportunities and other benefits to big banks that are otherwise unavailable to smaller, regional institutions, and in turn the Big Banks assist the Fed conduct monetary policy and otherwise influence/regulate credit markets and banking.

    And all this consolidation of risk is no so daunting with the Federal Money backing the system. You are incentived to grow big enough to become bailout worthy, to grow so big you become TBTF.

    For the more conspiracy theory indulging, of course the powerful like more power, and big banking is powerful, so its not surprising they want to concentrate their power, or that the politicians who they heavily donate to would not stand in the way of this consolidation.

  10. Florida says:

    Reminds me of the first bank I ever did business with, Barnett Bank. I had nothing but good things to say about working with them. Then one day, they got bought out by NationsBank. They changed all the bank signs in my hometown and I had just got my new ATM card in the mail when, what do you know, Nations merged with BankAmerica and BoA was born.

    The quality of service went right into the toilet. I closed accounts with them within that first year.

  11. Init4good says:

    I didn’t know one of the side effects of deregulation was lack or competition! It’s obvious the bigger banks swallowed up all the liitle one….or did I miss something?

  12. Init4good says:

    ..meant lack “of” competition….

  13. Mannwich says:

    @jr: Actually, many studies have revealed that banking is one industry that hasn’t offered many benefits from consolidation. I’ll try to find some links and share them, but I believe I’m right in recalling this. The benefits of consolidation haven’t typically gone to the customer from an “efficiency” standpoint, but have gone into banking executives’ pockets, as we’ve seen, regardless of how well they manage the business.

  14. matt says:

    What is Herfindahl-Hirschman again? I bet someone outside of the banking industry could tell you.

    By the way, just like consolidation of banking has been in the best interest of the Wall Street oligarchs, so will consolidation of regulation. It makes it easier to capture the regulator.

  15. The Curmudgeon says:

    The common man is right…there is only one bank, the US Fed Reserve Bank. Problem is, just like empires throughout history, it thinks it is too big to fail, but it isn’t.

  16. Init4good says:

    Banks’ “profits” (use term loosely) in recent years have come mostly from fees, as I understand it. In a waor, we’ve been “goosed” and we’ve all allowed it to happen!

  17. twshore says:

    Banking rollups don’t necessarily offer benefits to the customer. It is however the one business that offers massive benefits to the consolidator and does so almost immediately. Large amounts of expenses are easily taken out of the acquired bank in 18 months and presto…..massive return on larger asset base on significantly reduced expenses and required working capital. It really makes sense…up to some point where it gets ridiculous.

    I don’t have a problem with large banks so long as they’re large commercial banks that engage in commercial banking activities. Deposit cap regulations are fine and serve a good purpose in limiting size. What I do have a problem with is publicly traded “financial supermarkets.” They should be killed and investment/merchant banks should go back to be non-deposit institutions that took risks with their own partners money.

  18. NJlou says:

    Why History Is Repeating Itself.

    There are several reason why the big banks were allowed to merge. One reason was to hide the U.S. industrial decline by substituting the FIRE service economy for the industrial economy. The FIRE economy never created the volume of jobs or the high wages of the industrial sector.

    The second reason was to help hide the real and growing deficits necessary to prop up a failed and deindustrialized state, deep in massive debt that it can’t repay and facing a massive currency crisis that will lead to hyperinflation and default.

    As wages stagnated (outsourcing, cheap Third World labor, illegal immigrants and H1 visas replaced U.S. workers) and there was no cost living adjustments made to wages or people living on fixed incomes, Americans were encouraged to substitute DEBT for real wage to artificially boost income and live beyond their means.

    GM, Ford and GE are really banks (without regulation and reserve requirements) masquerading as industrial companies. This is the part of the fraud perpetuated on the American public.

    GM is listed as an ‘industrial’ on the stock exchange when it is really a bank. Three or four years, the ratings agencies declared that GM was ‘no longer a going concern’ with $300 BILLION in debt. The company was already bankrupt then. It took this many years to resolve and the end result is the same with a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

    Starting in 1970’s as Nixon defaulted on the ‘gold for dollars’ exchange payments, worthless treasury bills that the US could print at will were substituted for gold. Nixon was forced to default in part from the huge deficits from the failed Korean and Vietnam Wars.

    In the 1980’s during the Reagan era as the U.S. deficits soared once again to fund another failed war, the Cold War, the Japanese refused to fund the U.S. causing the 1987 crash.

    The US then convinced the Japanese to raise the yen, so that the US debt could be lessened by having to paying back fewer dollars to the Japanese, this artificially lowered the deficits. Still the U.S. didn’t learn its lesson then.

    Well, Japan in now in year 16 of their soft depression, helped in part by their manufacturing exports and high savings rates. The US has nothing to export except worthless dollars and a minuscule savings rate.

    Tim Geithner is now in CHINA hoping to pull off the same trick one more time, by getting the Chinese to float the yuan. The Chinese have turned him in to a laughing stock. They saw what happened to Japan is not about to let it happen to China.

    We are about to default on treasuries…
    Instead of shrinking its imperial footprint by getting rid of foreign aid to the parasites sucking us dry and dismantling the hundreds of useless military bases around the globe to match it industrial decline, the U.S. aided by the ignorant PNAC neocons started 2 failed wars-in Iraq and Afghanistan, racking up the same deficit that forced Nixon to default.

    The parasites have now destroyed the host nation, US. The parasites took over the U.S. brain, convincing Americans it was feeding itself with stupid slogans such as ‘The World’s Only Superpower,’ ‘The World’s Policeman’ and ‘The New American Century’.

    Iraq alone will cost more than $3 TRILLION, when the indirect costs such as interest on the borrowed money and the cost of caring for the wounded are factored.

    Now it will be Obama’s turn to default on treasury bills as nobody wants to buy worthless treasury bills and Bernake can’t keep printing them and then buying them up.

    Americans have been in a state of denial for too long. There are lessons to be learned here: You can’t build prosperity by accumulating debt and what is the purpose of winning a war if you win your way into bankruptcy?

  19. Mannwich says:

    @NJlou: Very well said. Don’t think there’s anything else to offer on that topic.

  20. call me ahab says:


    “Now it will be Obama’s turn to default on treasury bills as nobody wants to buy worthless treasury bills and Bernake can’t keep printing them and then buying them up.’

    please elaborate- do you mean an outright default on the interest payments??? also-

    I am all for floating the yuan- would cause the dollar to plummet- but that’s the reality of making our nation more competitive

  21. Mannwich says:

    @ahab: I agree. Until there’s more wage parity around the world, decent jobs will continue to be sent elsewhere where the costs of production are much lower.

  22. Bill in SF says:

    leftback is right:

    “Of course all of that could have been solved by ATM networks without mega-mergers.”

    …and mega-fees.

    Here’s how it works; Bank A tells Bank B: let’s share ATMs. Any time one of your customers uses our ATM, we charge you a $3 fee; any time one of our customers uses your ATM, you can charge us a $3 fee. Then, we charge the customer $3 and say; ‘We’re just passing on the cost of doing business’.

    But, it’s a bogus fee! How do I know? I have another bank that lets me use any ATM, and they immediately reimburse the $3 fee. Banks don’t just give away $3 at the drop of a hat, so it can’t be that expensive; maybe $0.30, but not $3…

    Greedy bastards… big, greedy bastards.

  23. drollere says:

    i wonder how much of the consolidation is really driven by infrastructure costs — specifically back end and transaction costs. aggregation + consolidation = profit.

    one thing a big bank can do really well is … crunch data. crunchy data means cross selling, list selling, targeted marketing, better risk estimation, better customer modeling, better product development. little banks can do nothing but count nickels and dimes and hope customers come in the door. they are drift feeders in the modern tides of data.

  24. call me ahab says:


    I know you are at least a short term bull on the $- do you see any risk that the $ will continue to fall, either willingly or unwillingly, especially with talk of some countries using a different currency-

    do you see any risk that China will allow the yuan to float, or that they will buy other denominated debt in lieu of $ denominated debt?-

    I don’t know where the defense of the $ will come from

  25. Blurtman says:

    NJlou – Nicely said.

    Why does the USG not create a new fiat currency, the Oballar, with an exchange rate of 1,000,000 to 1?

  26. danm says:

    Canada has 5 (6 if you include NBC) big banks and we didn’t get in the mess you got in.

    Not a good reason.

  27. danm says:

    I think America’s biggest problem is that it became God’s gift to the world

  28. Mannwich says:

    @ahab: Once Lispy Lloyd and friends are done propping up the equity markets (and making big coin for themselves), they will sell/short the market and rotate back into Treasurys. Won’t that defend the dollar a bit for his buddies Uncle Ben & Turbo Tax Timmay?

  29. danm says:

    ahab: I agree. Until there’s more wage parity around the world, decent jobs will continue to be sent elsewhere where the costs of production are much lower.
    When there is wage parity around the world our infrastructure will be disintegrating before our very eyes because resoruces and energy will be divided between more than 6 billion users instead of 1 or 2 billion today.

  30. Marcus Aurelius says:

    “I am compelled to ask why it is in the country’s interest that 65% of the depository assets are held by only a handful of banks.”

    Of course it’s not in the country’s best interests. You must be confusing patriotism/nationalism with capitalism. Bankers are globalists. We need some gibbets.

  31. Mannwich says:

    @danm: Good point. I guess there really is no easy way out of this mess, is there? That’s why I’m a little baffled about just how blase most Americans are by the predicament we’re in. The denial is thick and bizarre, almost creepy even.

  32. I-Man says:

    @ NJlou at 2:28pm:

    Very well said. You should post here more. That was a very keen synopsis of the trail of debt… and decay.

    I-Man is bookmarking that shit.

  33. bogwad_seigneur (the smelly one) says:

    Being as perennially off topic as you might expect, I think it’s time for an open “what say ye?” thread. I’m sensing pent up demand here. kinda like a coiled comments market. Gawdluvus.

    @Bill in SF: leftback is always right. It sounds like a paradox. Maybe he should re-up as rightback…or berightback…or something like that.

  34. leftback says:

    @ahab: The Dollar Collapse Scenario is not here. Yet. The chatter about a new reserve currency is chatter. Now. Mannwich put it pretty well above. If they want to defend the $, GS sells equities and buys Treasuries. Done.
    Figure out what the Devil is going to do, trade ahead of the Devil. Try not to get thrown off the bucking bronco.

    Almost all of today’s leading stocks are debt-laden health care plays or homebuilders. Junk rally, SQUEEZE.

    P/E ratios in some sectors are close to 1999 Nasdaq valuations, absolutely amazing. Denial indeed.

  35. Transor Z says:


    In the 1980’s during the Reagan era as the U.S. deficits soared once again to fund another failed war, the Cold War, the Japanese refused to fund the U.S. causing the 1987 crash.

    Eh? How was the Cold War a failed war? Explain please.

    Up until that point in your post — after which old-timey commie rhetorical flourishes with words like “parasites” and “imperial” predominate — I thought you made some very interesting points about the US flight to financials masking industrial decline.

    Also hope to hear more from you in future, but I’m wondering whether you truly are from the US . . .

  36. I-Man says:

    @ Left:

    “Figure out what the Devil is going to do, trade ahead of the Devil. Try not to get thrown off the bucking bronco.”

    Well put. A wise rasta once told me:

    “In order to beat Babylon, you must understand it first.”

    Thus you have I and I… the Sheep… In Wolf’s clothing.

    Woe be unto the shepherd that leadeth my sheep astray… So Jah Say.

  37. Mannwich says:

    I’m guessin this is going to be one long, tedious slog this summer. No quick reversal like we had last Sept/Oct and Jan/Feb. It’s going to be one long, tedious, cranky, humid summer with a lot of sideways action for a while before the markets grind lower. Too nice outside to be couped up in my dungeon watchin this crap unfold when I’m quite sure I know what’s coming, but it doesn’t want to happen on MY time. The nerve.

    Maybe it’s time to buy an I-Phone and trade at the beach.

  38. The Curmudgeon says:

    @Transor Z:

    NJlou is correct in his assertion that the Cold War was another failed war. Just heard a guy on Bloomberg extol the virtues of the creative destruction happening in Russia’s “market economy” right now that he said would make it more competitively viable than the West’s (US) socialist/statist economies spending vast sums to prop up failing industries. The remarkable thing is he is right. We won the Cold War, thereby eliminating our only existential threat, in order to destroy ourselves. I guess the freedom to destroy ourselves is what we fighting for after all.

  39. leftback says:

    Manny: How about this scenario? A reversal soon, but maybe not a very big move, maybe a 15-20% “correction”, mainly after the Q2 earnings in July. More InvestTools sucked in at those levels, during the quiet months of August and early September. Then another shoe drops and it’s the Hunt for Red October™, just like last year. :-)

  40. call me ahab says:


    by China pegging the yaun to the $ they keep their currency artificially low thereby exacerbating the trade imbalance with us and other countries-

    their growth and prosperity cannot be at the expense of the rest of the world- als0-

    I was in China – up and coming for sure- infrastructure seems to be good- with major large scale projects such as the Three Gorges Dam-

    ask them if they believe they need a stronger currency to pay for it

  41. Transor Z says:

    Way, way OT, but I’ve got to share this:


    This is 11:40 of truly fascinating courtroom cross examination of the ex-wife of the “Clark Rockefeller” impersonator character here in Boston accused of kidnapping his daughter to Baltimore. She worked for ML in municipal derivatives restructuring and this guy claimed to work in debt restructuring for the IMF. The whole thing is too, too bizarre.

  42. matt says:

    I think the big banks are going to “surprise” to the upside for 2Q for several reasons:
    1. It looks like the ibanks earned some nice fees in 2Q
    2. The return to risk will juice the tradable securities, which will show up on the P&Ls
    3. Steepening yield curve
    4. Spreads snapping shut
    5. Analysts not pricing 1 through 4 (hence the “surprise”)

    If these “surprises” happen, it could add to this positive feedback loop and keep the nitro under the market.

    I still think the economy deteriorates through all of this, but since the financials are front and center (when it’s convenient), this is something for those of you with your shorts on to watch out for this summer.

  43. DL says:

    leftback @ 4:25

    A 15% correction… yes. But half of that correction coming in the first two trading sessions (which would scare some people).

  44. DL says:

    Mannwich @ 2:56

    “Until there’s more wage parity around the world, decent jobs will continue to be sent elsewhere…”

    What is the proposed government policy (if any)…?

  45. call me ahab says:

    please- NJlou- was pulling most of that shit out of his ass- and he still has not answered my question

  46. Transor Z says:


    Shhh! Be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting commies. . .

  47. Transor Z says:

    Heeeere commie-commie-commie-commie-commie!

    Heeeere commie-commie-commie-commie-commie!

    Hmm… maybe I’ll try a commie call…

    “Yanqui running dog parasite imperialists go home!”

    Damn. Must be a time zone thing.

  48. leftback says:

    Matt: That may be true for the Big Banks, but:

    1. It’s priced in. (GS, JPM almost at pre-crisis levels)
    2. No tradeables on the P&L for the Mid-Size and Small Banks.
    3. The CRE boogeyman is about to show up and
    4. The RRE boogeyman is STILL under the bed (Alt-A, Prime).
    5. Share issuance. New inwestors will be diluted.

    All right out of the Japanese playbook, chaps.

  49. Mannwich says:

    @leftback: I could see that happening. Don’t see it going straight down though like before. This is going to be piss off A LOT of people as it grinds lower. Many head fakes to come here. I’ll be back short at some point but am mostly watching right now. Gotta make sure I have some powder left for when the action starts up again.

  50. Mannwich says:

    @DL: Have no idea. I’m not ashamed to admit that either, but let’s face it, we’re in deep, which is why I’m so puzzled why most Americans are so blase about it. They seem to just assume that everything will always work out OK. Well, throughout history many people and countries thought that, and most times they were right, but at some point they usually were wrong (the unlucky ones). We can pretend and jack up more debt upon existing debt only for so long before some other blow up occurs. Just what that blow up will be is anyone’s guess.

  51. Mannwich says:

    Maybe I need to put away my tin foil hat, but what’s to stop the banks and other companies from just lying (you know, Jack Welch/Enron-style, not overt, but subtle lies) for as long as they can to keep this sucker propped until we actually have a real recovery? Is that even possible or do I need to remove my tin foil hat and use that foil during my meal preparations this evening?

  52. call me ahab says:

    Transor Z-

    you are a funny dude- by the way- Elmer’s a stud

    question for everyone-

    my only short position is QID- the NAZ is on one big long bong hit- or possibly ‘shroomin’, but- that be-atch has got to go down eventually – right ? right???

  53. Mannwich says:

    @ahab: I’ve hung in there with a small position in QID as well. That one’s all about the dollar trade (as is everything else, it seems). Once we get a stronger dollar, the NAZ will get a beat down and QID will run. I just hope I’m not broke by then. ;-)

  54. DL says:

    Mannwich @ 4:53

    What we need is more politicians running on a platform of “cold showers and root canal”
    (to quote journalist Mark Shields), and of course, people willing to vote for them.

  55. call me ahab says:

    mannwich- my man- the USG is setting the country up for another long bubble ride to nowhere- the common folk will smell the green and jump on board as they always do- ready to get in on the action- what will it be- maybe NAZ- I mean it has been a few years- or oil- can’t lose there- or housing- so low nowhere to go but up- a sure win-

    but it will probably something else I haven’t thought of- all I know is it will be a lock that you will make the big money- and you will hear all about it on CNBC

  56. DL says:


    I think this bubble’s going to be bigger than Greenspan’s last one.

  57. Mannwich says:

    @DL: Too many people long ago decided they’d rather be talked to (and lied to) like they’re little children. Our politicians have been only too happy to accomodate them.

  58. Mannwich says:

    @ahab: Also, emerging markets look very bubblicious to me, although part of me thinks that many of those countries may come out of this better than us if they play their cards right. A big “IF” though.

  59. call me ahab says:

    DL Says:

    “What we need is more politicians running on a platform of “cold showers and root canal””

    that’s pretty funny but I happen to like Ron Paul-

    poor guy just can’t sell the optimisim- or lie- as mannwich suggested

  60. call me ahab says:

    also- DL-

    so- what is the bubble train this time around?-

    mannwich – emerging markets?- any other ideas-

    I wan’t to get rich- and I don’t want to have to think about it

  61. DL says:


    “I want to get rich- and I don’t want to have to think about it”

    Good luck. Money moves from the “sheeple” to the savvy.

  62. [...] a comment » I really like this post by Barry Ritholtz over at The Big Picture. He has a great chart that shows how we went from around [...]

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  64. call me ahab says:


    should have flagged my last comment w/ [snark]-

    however- this comment-

    “I think this bubble’s going to be bigger than Greenspan’s last one.”

    deserves some more analysis- I do believe another bubble will occur- at least that is what we are setting up for-

    cheap money always need some place to go

  65. jr says:

    Hi Mannwich @ 2:15,

    I agree totally, what I was trying to express (inarticulately) is that their are efficiencies to be gained in growing bigger from the perspective of the banks’ bottom lines, not from the consumer’s perspective.

    This idea is a big part of Nassim Taleb’s black swan scenario. In trying to reap the benefits efficiency can have on the bottom line in a volume business like banking, you amalgamate risk and make the black swan event far more liekly maybe he will discuss it during his time at the TBP conference.


    “PAUL SOLMAN: What do you mean by “over-optimized”?

    NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: Let me tell you what is happening in the ecology of the banking system. They’re swelling to large banks, OK, because it’s vastly more optimal to have one large bank than 10 small banks. It’s more efficient.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Well, we’ve certainly seen the consolidation of the industry.

    NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: Exactly. And that consolidation is what’s putting us at risk, because we are — when one bank, large bank makes a mistake, OK, it’s 10 times worse than a small bank making a mistake.”

    “Complex systems don’t allow for slack and everybody protects that system. The banking system doesn’t have that slack. In a normal ecology, banks go bankrupt every day. But in a complex system there is a tendency to cluster around powerful units. Every bank becomes the same bank so they can all go bust together.”

  66. jr says:

    Quick example of greater bank efficiency through M&A growth is regulatory compliance.

    Bank’s are incredibly regulated and thus have lots of regulatory compliance costs. There are big time economies of scale in having a well developed regulatory department overseeing these responsibilities for a huge bank/huge bank holding company.

  67. [...] points out that yet another ingredient to the crisis pie might have been that there were too few banks and too many giants. You had super mergers in which smaller banks were snatched by the larger banks. One argument is [...]

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  69. danm says:

    call me ahab Says:

    June 2nd, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    by China pegging the yaun to the $ they keep their currency artificially low thereby exacerbating the trade imbalance with us and other countries-

    their growth and prosperity cannot be at the expense of the rest of the world- als0

    And the US prosperity isn’t at the expense of the rest of the world? Talk about a pot calling the kettle black!