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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Making Too Big To Fail Costlier: A Check on Empire-Building

Testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on September 2, 2010, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, observed, “As of 2003 and 2004, there really was quite a bit of disagreement among economists about whether there was a bubble, how big it was, whether it was a local or a national bubble. We certainly were aware it was a risk factor, but frankly by the time it was clear it was a bubble” it was too late to address it through monetary policy. The NYT also reported that he spoke favorably of forcing huge banks to hold much more capital, particularly if they were systemically important — so much capital, indeed, that being big would be costly. He advocated that the increased capital requirements should include capital that is more aligned with risk and able to absorb losses more effectively, and that works in a countercyclical manner, so that banks have more of it during times of stress. Given the difficulty involved in recognizing a bubble even as it crests, Bernanke’s statements on capital-holding changes make sense. Absent breaking up banks too big to fail, making it very costly for them to be big is the next best option. The regulators would be wise to be on the look out, however, for bankers who try to hide their banks’ true sizes (and risk). Given the empire-building proclivity in the business world, designing a system that makes bigness more costly could result in an overall balance of forces. The key is to make being big sufficiently costly so that the drive to empire-build is sufficiently checked.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/business/03commission.html?_r=1&ref=business