Still too big to fail

Tom Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and a skeptic on loose monetary policy and the state of the world’s biggest banks, is convinced the United States still hasn’t heeded the lessons of the last financial crisis.

During an otherwise happy gathering in our hometown, the “CFO of the Year” awards event organized by the Kansas City Business Journal, Hoenig climbed on his soapbox to warn of the prospect of another crisis in the future. The trouble is, he said, the same too-big-to-fail banks that starred in the 2008 meltdown and the recent HBO dramatization of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail are still, well, too big to fail – even moreso.

The financial reform law enacted in 2010 to guard against the next crisis doesn’t solve the issue of systemic risk, Hoenig said. And the world’s central banks continue to be “held hostage” by issues raised in 2008, he said. Exhibit A is the way everyone is worrying that debt problems of one smallish country could reverberate through big banks worldwide – roiling capital markets and threatening a new crisis.

“Dodd-Frank does three things, and it leaves one thing undone – and that is the most significant thing,” Hoenig said. What the financial reform law does:

  • Enhances supervision. “We’ve enhanced supervision after every crisis,” and it hasn’t prevented the next cycle of financial collapses, Hoenig noted.
  • Raises capital standards. But commercial banks used to hold capital around 15% of assets, and now some bankers feel 8% is too onerous a requirement, he said.
  • Mandates a new resolution process. But the next time a giant bank teeters on the brink, the bailout impulse will be as strong as ever, Hoenig said.

What Dodd-Frank leaves undone is addressing “too big to fail,” Hoenig said. The U.S. banking system is more concentrated than ever, and that fact haunts the financial markets, he said.

Hoenig offered a “TBTF” history lesson: In 1913, when the Federal Reserve was created, the five largest U.S. financial institutions managed assets totaling 2½% of the country’s GDP. In the Great Depression, the government created a safety net for banks – FDIC insurance and the like – and barred bank holding companies from speculative activities through the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.

And it worked, Hoenig said. Banks lent money and cushioned their balance sheets against downturns. Investment banks, kept separate from the safety net, took on leverage and invested in riskier assets for greater returns. The economy grew. Markets did well. While the banks expanded, by 1980 the five biggest still held assets equal to only 14% of GDP. One failure wouldn’t have crashed the system.

That changed after the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall freed banks to enter other financial services, growing bigger and bigger – and taking on more and more risk. Despite the turmoil of 2007 to 2010, Hoenig said, the banks kept getting bigger.

“Even today, after the crisis, the five largest financial institutions control 20% more assets than before the crisis,” Hoenig said. With the mergers caused by the financial crisis, concentration in U.S. banking has grown to around 60% of GDP.

As one who has lived through weekend “too big to fail” negotiating sessions, Hoenig said, when another giant teeters on the brink the story will be the same. Given the threat that a huge bank failure could lead to collapse in the real economy, he said, “on Sunday evening, before the Asian markets open, you will in fact bail it out.”

Before that next crisis arrives, Hoenig suggested, big U.S. banks should be broken into more manageable pieces – especially, separating commercial banking with its publicly provided safety net from those riskier investment activities in the capital markets. Hoenig laid out more specifics in a speech last month in Philadelphia.

I agree. Let’s dismantle too-big-to-fail before it fails us, again.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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