Friday, December 3

Maverick Fed Governor Hoenig: Too 'Bigger' to Fail Alive and Growing

The maverick of the Federal Reserve, Governor Thomas Hoenig, states the following in his NY Times op-ed:
There is an old saying: lend a business $1,000 and you own it; lend it $1 million and it owns you. This latest crisis confirms that the economic influence of the largest financial institutions is so great that their chief executives cannot manage them, nor can their regulators provide adequate oversight.
Last summer, Congress passed a law to reform our financial system. It offers the promise that in the future there will be no taxpayer-financed bailouts of investors or creditors. However, after this round of bailouts, the five largest financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis. They control $8.6 trillion in financial assets — the equivalent of nearly 60 percent of gross domestic product. Like it or not, these firms remain too big to fail.
Too 'Bigger' to Fail

At risk of causing my high school grammar teacher to roll in her grave, I've started calling what Hoenig describes above as 'Too Bigger to Fail'. The below chart helps illustrate the 'Too Bigger to Fail' concept.

The grey circles represent banks which failed and then were merged with the 'bigger fish' in the banking pond. By eating smaller fish the big fish grows, and that's precisely what's happend at the world's already Too Big to Fail megabanks (hence the new name Too 'Bigger' to Fail).

Regulators — not just in the U.S. but across the globe — activated their Too 'Bigger' to Fail strategy with the hope that the crisis would be solved by spreading toxic assets across a larger, and in theory healthier set of balance sheets. The same toxic assets still exist, but it was hoped that the bigger banks could better cope with the toxic asset losses.

Too 'Bigger' to Fail has one further element: megabanks would have time to lick their wounds and heal by a) generating increased profits due to fewer competitors (the small fish that were eaten), and b) through bank profit and banker bonus friendly programs like unlimited zero interest central bank lending to mega banks and QE2.

Ultimately, any hope for a solution to the Too 'Bigger' to Fail problem depends on whether sufficient political will and leadership can be mustered. Can it?

Small is Beautiful

The U.S. based megabanks -- Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley -- will not voluntarily shrink themselves out of a sense of patriotic duty. Hopefully this week's news of the Fed's foreign bank lending of perhaps as much as $1 trillion at nearly 0% interest rates to banks like UBS (Switzerland), Deutsche Bank (Germany), Barclays (U.K.) and BNP Paribas (France) puts to rest any lingering doubt of whether the megabanking establishment is loyal to any one nation's flag.

Turning to our current political leadership, unfortunately Inside Job Director Charles Ferguson may be right in his assessment that the Obama administration is unwilling to step up to the plate and drive the necessary stake through the heart of Too Big to Fail once and for all.

If our politicians can't fix the problem, what hope remains? Thankfully an arguably even more effective solution to Too Bigger to Fail exists completely outside of the Washington D.C. political black hole.

Lost Customers: The Only Language Megabanks Understand

Most of us are bank customers, which makes putting an end to Too 'Bigger' to Fail quite simple: all we have to do is take our banking business somewhere else.

For those customers at one of the above Too 'Bigger' to Fail banks, move your account to a smaller bank. Also never use an ATM at a Too 'Bigger' to Fail bank. Plenty of smaller banks now offer free ATM fee reimbursement, so this won't saddle you with extra fees. While moving your account will require a little extra work it's a relatively simple process. If enough of us pull together and do this it will go a long way towards solving the problem.

And for anyone who works at one of the aforementioned megabanks and has read this far, you can perhaps make one of the biggest contribution of all by seeking out another employer, or career. I did.

Democratic capitalism has many shortcomings. But one of the beautiful things about the marketplace in this particular instance is that it can successfully achieve what D.C. can't and Wall Street won't — cutting the Too 'Bigger' to Fail banks down to an appropriate size.

Disclosure: No positions; I bank primarily with the recently divested from BofA (NYSE: BAC) and IPO'd First Republic Bank (NYSE: FRC) and USAA Savings Bank (private).


  1. Outstanding post! Bernanke's showing on 60 Minutes did indeed seem something of a departure, though his lukewarm admonition against income and wealth inequality came with a weird personal responsibility caveat that the main driver of the phenomenon was education. Citing well worn statistics about the not-very startling disparity in unemployment rates between college graduates and high school-only workers didn't get at the kinds of jobs being offered in today's service sector economy. College graduates are more likely to find a job, it's true. But they're still more likely to find that job cashiering at a grocery store or selling home electronics than finding a career path to the middle-class. Education is only half of the answer to regaining prosperity; we need to create jobs with futures or we're all going to spend the rest of our lives wearing nametags with smiley faces on them.

  2. Bob,

    That's a great point, thank you for your comment.