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Too Big to Fail Meets Too Failed to be Saved

It’s becoming apparent that several of the large institutions that are in the vortex of bailoutdom are teetering: namely AIG and Citi. They were deemed too big to fail, bit now we are wondering if they are too far beyond saving.

I am struggling with this concept and am rambling here, but now is the time to fix things for the long term benefit. I am sick of quick fixes.

The Too Big to Fail [1] policy is the idea that in American banking regulation the largest and most powerful banks are “too big to (let) fail.” This means that it might encourage recklessness since the government would pick up the pieces in the event it was about to go out of business. The phrase has also been more broadly applied to refer to a government’s policy to bail out any corporation. It raises the issue of moral hazard [2] in business operations.

The top 5 banks are showing significant signs of weakness [3].

Citibank, Bank of America, HSBC Bank USA, Wells Fargo Bank and J.P. Morgan Chase reported that their “current” net loss risks from derivatives — insurance-like bets tied to a loan or other underlying asset — surged to $587 billion as of Dec. 31. Buried in end-of-the-year regulatory reports that McClatchy has reviewed, the figures reflect a jump of 49 percent in just 90 days.

The industry never thought macro enough to consider systemic risk – as in “What happens if it all goes wrong?” Seems pretty basic.

The Federal Reserve appears to be trying to reform its ways and perhaps even the concept of too big to fail. Fed Chairman Bernanke just spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations [4]

Until we stabilize the financial system, a sustainable economic recovery will remain out of reach. In particular, the continued viability of systemically important financial institutions is vital to this effort. In that regard, the Federal Reserve, other federal regulators, and the Treasury Department have stated that they will take any necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that our banking institutions have the capital and liquidity necessary to function well in even a severe economic downturn. Moreover, we have reiterated the U.S. government’s determination to ensure that systemically important financial institutions continue to be able to meet their commitments.

…while former Fed Chairman Greenspan has been attempting [5]to re-write history.

David Leonhardt, in his piece “The Looting of America’s Coffers [6]” said:

The investors had borrowed huge amounts of money, made big profits when times were good and then left the government holding the bag for their eventual (and predictable) losses.

In a word, the investors looted. Someone trying to make an honest profit, Professors Akerlof and Romer said, would have operated in a completely different manner. The investors displayed a “total disregard for even the most basic principles of lending,” failing to verify standard information about their borrowers or, in some cases, even to ask for that information.

The investors “acted as if future losses were somebody else’s problem,” the economists wrote. “They were right.”

Last week, Sheila Bair of FDIC told 60 Minutes [7] she would like to see Congress attempt to set boundaries for banks to remain as banks. In other words, they grow beyond a certain level, they become some other entity but can’t be bailed out if something goes wrong. Perhaps this implies a higher risk which is understood by investors, forcing the institution to decide whether it can afford to be bigger.

Let’s get our act together real quick or we also too big to fail?


Aside: Why make billions [8], when you can make millions [9]? – Austin Powers