Posts filed under “Think Tank”

We Can’t Break Up the Giant Banks, Can We? Yes We Can!

Washington’s Blog strives to provide real-time, well-researched and actionable information. George – the head writer at Washington’s Blog – is a busy professional and a former adjunct professor.

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Top economists and financial experts believe that the economy cannot recover unless the big, insolvent banks are broken up in an orderly fashion.

Even the Bank of International Settlements – the “Central Banks’ Central Bank” – has slammed too big to fail. As summarized by the Financial Times:

The report was particularly scathing in its assessment of governments’ attempts to clean up their banks. “The reluctance of officials to quickly clean up the banks, many of which are now owned in large part by governments, may well delay recovery,” it said, adding that government interventions had ingrained the belief that some banks were too big or too interconnected to fail.

This was dangerous because it reinforced the risks of moral hazard which might lead to an even bigger financial crisis in future.

In response, defenders of the too-big-to-fails make one or more of the following arguments:

(1) The government does not have the authority to break up the big boys

(2) To break up the banks, the government would have to nationalize them, which would be socialism

(3) The giant banks have now recovered and are no longer insolvent, so it would be counter-productive to break them up

(4) We need the giant banks to restore credit to the economy

None of these arguments are persuasive.

The Government Does Have Authority to Break Up the Big Boys

One of the world’s leading economic historians – Niall Ferguson – argues in a current article in Newsweek:

[Geithner is proposing that] there should be a new “resolution authority” for the swift closing down of big banks that fail. But such an authority already exists and was used when Continental Illinois failed in 1984.

Indeed, even the FDIC mentions Continental Illinois in the same breadth as “too big to fail” banks.

And William K. Black – the senior regulator during the S&L crisis, and an Associate Professor of both Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – says that the Prompt Corrective Action Law (PCA), 12 U.S.C. § 1831o, not only authorizes the government to seize insolvent banks, it mandates it, and that the Bush and Obama administrations broke the law by refusing to close insolvent banks.

Others argue that the PCA does not apply to bank holding companies, and so the government really does not have the power to break up the big boys (see this, for example; but compare this).

Whether or not the financial giants can be broken up using the PCA, no one can doubt that the government could find a way to break them up if it wanted.

FDR seized gold during the Great Depression under the Trading With The Enemies Act.

Geithner and Bernanke have been using one loophole and “creative” legal interpretation after another to rationalize their various multi-trillion dollar programs in the face of opposition from the public and Congress (see this, for example).

So don’t give me any of this “our hands are tied” malarkey. The Obama administration could break the “too bigs” up in a heartbeat if it wanted to, and then justify it after the fact using PCA or another legal argument.

Temporarily Nationalizing a Bank is Not Socialism

Many argue that it would be wrong for the government to break up the banks, because we would have to take over the banks in order to break them up.

That may be true. But government regulators in the U.S., Sweden and other countries which have broken up insolvent banks say that the government only has to take over banks for around 6 months before breaking them up.

In contrast, the Bush and Obama administrations’ actions mean that the government is becoming the majority shareholder in the financial giants more or less permanently. That is – truly – socialism.

Breaking them up and selling off the parts to the highest bidder efficiently and in an orderly fashion would get us back to a semblance of free market capitalism much quicker.

The Giant Banks Have Not Recovered

The giant banks have still not put the toxic assets hidden in their SIVs back on their books.

The tsunamis of commercial real estate, Alt-A, option arm and other loan defaults have not yet hit.

The overhang of derivatives is still looming out there, and still dwarfs the size of the rest of the global economy. Credit default swaps still have not been tamed (see this).

Indeed, Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said today:

The U.S. has failed to fix the underlying problems of its banking system after the credit crunch and the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

“In the U.S. and many other countries, the too-big-to-fail banks have become even bigger,” Stiglitz said in an interview today in Paris. “The problems are worse than they were in 2007 before the crisis.”

Stiglitz’s views echo those of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who has advised President Barack Obama’s administration to curtail the size of banks, and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who suggested last month that governments may want to discourage financial institutions from growing “excessively.”

While the big boys have certainly reported some impressive profits in the last couple of months, some or all of those profits may have been due to “creative accounting”, such as Goldman “skipping” December 2008, suspension of mark-to-market (which may or may not be a good thing), and assistance from the government.

Some very smart people say that the big banks – even after many billions in bailouts and other government help – have still not repaired their balance sheets. Reggie Middleton, Mish, Zero Hedge and others have looked at the balance sheets of the big boys much more recently than I have, and have more details than I do.

But the bottom line is this: If the banks are no longer insolvent, they should prove it. If they can’t prove they are solvent, they should be broken up.

We Don’t Need the Giant Banks

Fortune pointed out in February that smaller banks are stepping in to fill the lending void left by the giant banks’ current hesitancy to make loans. Indeed, the article points out that the only reason that smaller banks haven’t been able to expand and thrive is that the too-big-to-fails have decreased competition:

Growth for the nation’s smaller banks represents a reversal of trends from the last twenty years, when the biggest banks got much bigger and many of the smallest players were gobbled up or driven under…

As big banks struggle to find a way forward and rising loan losses threaten to punish poorly run banks of all sizes, smaller but well capitalized institutions have a long-awaited chance to expand.

BusinessWeek noted in January:

As big banks struggle, community banks are stepping in to offer loans and lines of credit to small business owners…

At a congressional hearing on small business and the economic recovery earlier this month, economist Paul Merski, of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington (D.C.) trade group, told lawmakers that community banks make 20% of all small-business loans, even though they represent only about 12% of all bank assets. Furthermore, he said that about 50% of all small-business loans under $100,000 are made by community banks…

Indeed, for the past two years, small-business lending among community banks has grown at a faster rate than from larger institutions, according to Aite Group, a Boston banking consultancy. “Community banks are quickly taking on more market share not only from the top five banks but from some of the regional banks,” says Christine Barry, Aite’s research director. “They are focusing more attention on small businesses than before. They are seeing revenue opportunities and deploying the right solutions in place to serve these customers.”

And Fed Governor Daniel K. Tarullo said in June:

The importance of traditional financial intermediation services, and hence of the smaller banks that typically specialize in providing those services, tends to increase during times of financial stress. Indeed, the crisis has highlighted the important continuing role of community banks…

For example, while the number of credit unions has declined by 42 percent since 1989, credit union deposits have more than quadrupled, and credit unions have increased their share of national deposits from 4.7 percent to 8.5 percent. In addition, some credit unions have shifted from the traditional membership based on a common interest to membership that encompasses anyone who lives or works within one or more local banking markets. In the last few years, some credit unions have also moved beyond their traditional focus on consumer services to provide services to small businesses, increasing the extent to which they compete with community banks.

Indeed, some very smart people say that the big banks aren’t really focusing as much on the lending business as smaller banks.

Specifically since Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, the giant banks have made much of their money in trading assets, securities, derivatives and other speculative bets, the banks’ own paper and securities, and in other money-making activities which have nothing to do with traditional depository functions.

Now that the economy has crashed, the big banks are making very few loans to consumers or small businesses because they still have trillions in bad derivatives gambling debts to pay off, and so they are only loaning to the biggest players and those who don’t really need credit in the first place. See this and this.

So we don’t really need these giant gamblers. We don’t really need JP Morgan, Citi, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. What we need are dedicated lenders.

The Fortune article discussed above points out that the banking giants are not necessarily more efficient than smaller banks:

The largest banks often don’t show the greatest efficiency. This now seems unsurprising given the deep problems that the biggest institutions have faced over the past year.

“They actually experience diseconomies of scale,” Narter wrote of the biggest banks. “There are so many large autonomous divisions of the bank that the complexity of connecting them overwhelms the advantage of size.”

And Governor Tarullo points out some of the benefits of small community banks over the giant banks:

Many community banks have thrived, in large part because their local presence and personal interactions give them an advantage in meeting the financial needs of many households, small businesses, and agricultural firms. Their business model is based on an important economic explanation of the role of financial intermediaries–to develop and apply expertise that allows a lender to make better judgments about the creditworthiness of potential borrowers than could be made by a potential lender with less information about the borrowers.

A small, but growing, body of research suggests that the financial services provided by large banks are less-than-perfect substitutes for those provided by community banks.

It is simply not true that we need the mega-banks. In fact, as many top economists and financial analysts have said, the “too big to fails” are actually stifling competition from smaller lenders and credit unions, and dragging the entire economy down into a black hole.

Category: Think Tank

Economic data

Aug Retail Sales were much better than expected. Including clunkers, sales were up 2.7% vs expectations of a gain of 1.9%. Ex clunkers, sales were up 1.1%, .7% more than expected and ex clunkers and gasoline stations, sales were up .6% vs the estimates of flat. Sales for auto/parts were up 10.6% and gasoline station…Read More

Category: MacroNotes

Lehman’s Legacy Still Being Written

Good Evening: After small stutter steps on Friday and this morning, U.S. stocks marched ahead today for the sixth time in the last seven trading sessions. The early dip in prices could probably be attributed to some nascent nervousness over a brewing trade dispute between the U.S. and China. But market participants took little time…Read More

Category: Markets, Think Tank

Capital markets/bank lending

To the question of whether banks are lending to businesses and the flip side of what’s the demand for loans, from Friday’s Federal Reserve data for the week ended Sept 2nd, Commercial and Industrial loans outstanding fell for a 9th straight week and is at the lowest level since Jan ’08. Fortunately though for many…Read More

Category: MacroNotes

An economics lesson from ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’

“In 1930, the Republican controlled House of Rep, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the… Anyone? Anyone?… the Great Depression, passed the…Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act which, anyone? anyone? Raised or lowered?… Raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal gov’t. Did it work? Anyone?…Read More

Category: MacroNotes

Elements of Deflation, Part 2

Just as water is formed by the basic elements hydrogen and oxygen, deflation has its own fundamental components. Last week we started exploring those elements, and this week we continue. I feel that the most fundamental of decisions we face in building investment portfolios is correctly deciding whether we are faced with inflation or deflation in our future. (And I tell you later on when to worry about inflation.) Most investments behave quite differently depending on whether we are in a deflationary or inflationary environment. Get this answer wrong and it could rise up to bite you.

The problem is that there is not an easy answer. In fact, the answer is that it could be both. Today I got another letter from Peter Schiff, who seems to be ubiquitous. He says the rise in gold is because of rising inflation expectations among investors. Gold is predicting inflation. Maybe, but the correlation between gold and inflation for the last 25-plus years has been zero. I rather think that gold is rising in terms of value against most major fiat (paper) currencies because it is seen as a neutral currency. The Fed and the Obama administration seem to be pursuing policies that are dollar-negative, and they give no hint of letting up. The rise in gold above $1,000 does not really tell us anything about the future of inflation.

In fact, it is my belief that if the Fed were to withdraw from the scene of economic battle, the forces of deflation would be felt in short order. The answer to the question “Will we have inflation in our future?” is “You better hope so!”

I wrote in 2003, when Greenspan was holding down rates too long in order to spur
the economy, that the best outcome or endgame over the course of the full cycle would be stagflation. I still think that is the most likely scenario. The Fed will fight deflation and knows how to do that. They also know what to do when inflation becomes too high. But there is a cost.

It is not a matter of pain or no pain; it is a matter of choosing which pain we will face and for how long, and perhaps in what order. As I wrote a few weeks ago, like teenagers, we as an economic polity have made some very bad choices. We are now in a scenario where there are no good choices, just less-bad ones.

In a normal world, the amount of monetary and fiscal stimulus we are witnessing would
produce inflation in very short order. That is what has the gold bugs of the world excited. It is their moment. They keep repeating that Milton Friedman taught us that inflation was always and everywhere a matter of too much money being printed. The answer to that is that the statement is mostly true, but not always and not everywhere (think Japan). The reality is somewhat more nuanced. Let’s review something I wrote last year about the velocity of money, and this time we are going to go into the concept a little more deeply. This is critical to your understanding of what is facing us.

Read More

Category: Think Tank

Reflection on 9/11

September 12, 2009 It has been two pensive days. Somehow the words won’t come. Difficult for me since I write 100 times a year. I sit staring at the keyboard. No words. Everyone is/was so busy with 9/11. Public moments of silence, ceremonies, TV filled with remembrances, talk shows, websites, commentaries, footage of planes and…Read More

Category: Think Tank, War/Defense

Gold net longs at record highs

According to the just reported CFTC data for the week ended Tuesday, the net spec long position in gold rose to an all time record high (dating back to 1993), up 22% on the week to a net 225k contracts. Silver net longs rose to the most since Aug ’08 and net longs in platinum…Read More

Category: MacroNotes

India vs the US: A Visual Comparison

Another interesting chart via Jess Bachman of WallStats: > Graphic via Mint

Category: Think Tank

Today’s data

The preliminary Sept U of Michigan confidence figure was 70.2, almost 3 points higher than expected and is up from 65.7 in Aug and is the 2nd highest reading going back to Sept ’08. Current Conditions rose 5.2 points to 71.8 to the most since June and the Outlook rose by 4.2 points to 69.2,…Read More

Category: MacroNotes