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Friday, May 3, 2013

Can the Federal Reserve Handle Banks Too Big To Fail?

The biggest banks operating in the U.S. reaped an estimated $13 billion of income by taking advantage of the Federal Reserve’s below-market rate of .001% on $7.7 trillion in emergency loans in the wake of the credit freeze in September 2008. Rather than using the additional funds to increase lending, the banks fortified reserves and paid bonuses out to executives. Had member of Congress had been able to anticipate all this, it is possible that they would have prescribed stronger medicine, perhaps even including breaking up the banks with over $1 trillion in assets.
As Shakespeare has Marcellius say in Hamlet in reference to moral and political corruption, “something is rotten in Denmark.” One might add the line, “Out, out damn spot!” from Macbeth. Bloomberg News reports that “the Fed and its secret financing helped America’s biggest banks get bigger and go on to pay employees as much as they did at the height of the housing bubble.”
Total assets held by the six biggest U.S. banks increased 39 percent to $9.5 trillion on Sept. 30, 2011, from $6.8 trillion on the same day in 2006, according to Fed data reported by Bloomberg. Employees at the six biggest banks made twice the average for all U.S. workers in 2010, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics hourly compensation cost data. “The banks spent $146.3 billion on compensation in 2010, or an average of $126,342 per worker. That’s up almost 20 percent from five years earlier compared with less than 15 percent for the average worker. Average pay at the banks in 2010 was about the same as in 2007, before the bailouts.”
When members of Congress were voting on the $700 billion TARP, they were being kept in the dark on the Fed’s loans. The general public was out of the loop as well. Ted Kaufman, a former U.S. senator from Delaware, said that if Congress had been aware of the extent of the Fed rescue, the knowledge “could have changed the whole approach to reform legislation,” He claims he “would have been able to line up more support for breaking up the biggest banks. More than three years after the financial crisis, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio observed, “There are lawmakers in both parties who would change their votes now [i.e., in December, 2011].” Byron L. Dorgan, a former senator from North Dakota, says the knowledge might have helped pass legislation to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, which for most of the last century separated customer deposits from the riskier practices of investment banking. Had people known about the hundreds of billions in loans to the biggest financial institutions, they would have demanded Congress take much more courageous actions to stop the practices that caused this near financial collapse.”
The government’s response to the crisis has not significantly reduced systemic risk, even with the higher reserves requirements for the biggest banks. According to Bloomberg, “Kaufman says some banks are so big that their failure could trigger a chain reaction in the financial system.” For so few banks to hold so many assets is “un-American,” says Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “All of these gargantuan institutions are too big to regulate,” he continued. “I’m in favor of breaking them up and slimming them down.” Oliver William, an economist, concluded that the “banks that were too big got even bigger, and the problems that we had to begin with are magnified in the process.” A conflict of interest may be part of the underlying cause.
It could be that the bankers at the Federal Reserve Bank have been overly friendly to the bankers getting the funds. This conflict of interest could expose the Fed to losing lent funds should one or more of the troubled banks become insolvent and with insufficient collateral. Therefore, in an attempt to make the Fed accountable in regard to its emergency lending,  Congress included in its Dodd-Frank legislation (2010) requirements stipulating that the Fed develop and submit guidelines regarding selection criteria to be applied to banks seeking emergency loans and requirements by which bank collateral is to be reckoned as sufficient.
The publication of selection criteria would reduce the risk of moral hazard. The cost of borrowing for so-called too-big-to-fail banks is lower than that of smaller firms because lenders believe the government won’t let them go under. The perceived safety net creates what economists call moral hazard—the belief that bankers will take greater risks because they’ll enjoy any profits while shifting losses to taxpayers.” Jeremy Stein, a Fed governor, has spoken of moral hazard, according to the New York Times, as “the belief that government support can subsidize banks and make them less careful about the dangers inherent in their businesses.” Depending how strict the selection criteria are, “the banks might then realize that the Fed will not be a pushover in times of market stress.” At least as of April 2013, the Fed had not followed through on the mandate in Dodd-Frank that the Fed promulgate rules.
The Fed might have good reason to stave off rules that could restrict the Fed’s flexibility in a crisis. “The Fed might be thinking, ‘We don’t want to make a lot of rules that might hinder us from acting in an emergency situation that we can’t anticipate,’” Michael Bradfield, a former general counsel at the Fed, remarked. “I think the Fed should have reasonably broad discretion to deal with systemic issues,” he continued, “(b)ut then the question is, What’s systemic and what’s really needed, and what conditions ought to accompany that lending?” Demanding too much in collateral, for example, might mean that some very big banks that are hemorrhaging capital might not qualify for an emergency loan and go under as a result. If those banks are too big to fail, the entire financial system could follow suit.
Unfortunately, discretion at the Federal Reserve could enable the “insider” conflict of interest to be exploited. Such exploitation is likely from the banking lobby as well as from the Federal Reserve. Bloomberg reports that “(l)obbying expenditures by the six banks that would have been affected by the legislation rose to $29.4 million in 2010 compared with $22.1 million in 2006, the last full year before credit markets seized up—a gain of 33 percent, according to OpenSecrets.org, a research group that tracks money in U.S. politics. Lobbying by the American Bankers Association, a trade organization, increased at about the same rate.
In a rare glimpse of how the banking lobby operates, there is evidence that the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford sent a memo to the American Bankers Association expressing worry that the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement might find common ground and become a potentially potent threat by joining forces. Tellingly, the memo’s writers reveal how even potential threats to big business are relegated: “If we can show they have the same cynical motivation as a political opponent it will undermine their credibility in a profound way.” Using the media outlets, the “messengers” of powers vested in the status quo can quickly discredit others, as if from a popular wave of mass opinion. Meanwhile, the matter of the very existence of the banks too big to fail continued to float below the radar—the media dutifully transmitting the transparent issue of tents and evictions in various cities. In other words, even the occupiers—the anarchists outside the system!—allowed themselves to be played. Perhaps we are all being played.

Sources:

Bob Ivry, Bradley Keoun, and Phil Kuntz, “Secret Fed Loans Gave Banks $13 Billion Undisclosed to Congress,” Bloomberg Markets Magazine, November 27, 2011.

Peter Eavis, “Fed Still Owes Congress a Blueprint on Its Emergency Lending,” The New York Times, April 23, 2013.