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Friday, February 24, 2012

Limiting Bank Size: Crude But Advisable

In February 2012, Tyler Cowen claimed in the New York Times that people across the political spectrum were “talking about splitting up America’s large banks.” At the time, I could discern no such talk, although this does not mean that it was not going on. As the Dodd-Frank financial reform law was being written in 2010, the option of splitting up banks like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase was quietly but assiduously kept off the front burners. It is difficult to believe that the big banks would have relaxed in their efforts to relegate such threats in early 2012 as if the passage of the legislation in 2010 meant that more astringent options were no longer possible. In his article, Cowen includes some other questionable claims. Reading between the lines, he seems to have been “playing by the rules” in support of the big guys.

Even as Cowen notes that “before its collapse, Lehman had a capitalization of about $60 billion, compared with the $143 billion capitalization of JPMorgan Chase [in early February 2012],” he goes on to characterize breaking up the biggest banks as penalizing size rather than failure. In doing so, he is conflating a regulation with the market mechanism. Whereas the latter is supposed to penalize failure, there is nothing wrong with a regulation limiting size, as it is often correlated with market (and political) power at the expense of competition (and democracy). Moreover, limiting size is not to penalize it. As Cowen himself admits, “banks are usually wealthier, nimbler and smarter than their regulators, at least when it comes to finding loopholes in the regulations or making their moves more opaque.” Limiting the power of bankers by limiting their respective bank’s assets makes perfect sense in protecting the regulators from being unduly pressured from their regulatees.

Furthermore, Cowen conflates bailing out a big bank with bailing out its parts after a spin-off as if a small bank failing were somehow as damaging as a big one going down. He argues that “if the resulting parts of a divided bank cannot turn a profit, the split-up may prompt the very bailout it was trying to avoid.” This is not true, as “the very bailout” to be avoided pertains to that of the big bank rather than any of its parts.

Cowen also assumes that the smaller banks would necessarily be bumping their heads against the maximum size allowed. He argues that “the incentives for the new, smaller banks would be unhealthy. Those banks could make mistakes or take on bad risks without being punished very much in terms of capitalization or revenue, because of their legally capped size. Even if they made big mistakes, these banks would probably be pushing on the frontier of maximum allowed growth.” In other words, he assumes that a limit on size would somehow eclipse any remaining market mechanism. Perhaps he is assuming an overly astringent limit, such as 50 employees. There is a lot of room for limits below a $143 billion capitalization without eviscerating the market mechanism.

In fact, Adam Smith would doubtless maintain that a market with smaller competitors functions better in terms of competition “rewarding” good performance and “penalizing” incompetence. It is as if we are so used to corporate capitalism that we assume that Adam Smith’s version cannot work. I would argue that Smith’s version is actually superior with regard to the market mechanism. Because that mechanism can “freeze up” rather than price-adjust for added risk, we should not rely exclusively even Smith’s competitive market. Given the downsides of the market mechanism itself, limiting the size (and thus power) of the participants is certainly justified. It is not “penalizing size.” I do not believe that Cowen has a firm grasp on either the market mechanism or the nature of government regulation.

Tyler Cowen, “Break Up the Banks? Here’s an Alternative,” The New York Times, February 11, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/business/making-shareholders-liable-for-big-banks-economic-view.html?scp=1&sq=%2520%25E2%2580%259CBreak%2520Up%2520the%2520Banks?%2520Here%25E2%2580%2599s%2520an%2520Alternative%25E2%2580%259D&st=Search