Perhaps the biggest problem with the Obama plan to “reform” our financial system is the impact it would have on the market perception surrounding “too big to fail” institutions. In identifying some companies as “too big to fail” holders of debt in those companies would assume that they would be made whole if those companies failed. After all, that is what we did for the debt-holders in Fannie, Freddie, AIG, and Bear. Both former Secretary Paulson and Geithner appear under the impression that moral hazard only applies to equity, despite debt constituting more than 90% of the capital structure of the typical financial firm.
Geithner believes he’s found a way to solve this problem - he’ll just tell everyone that there isn’t an implicit subsidy, and there won’t be a list of “too big to fail” companies. Great, why didn’t I think of that. After all, the constant refrain in Washington over the years that Fannie and Freddie weren’t getting an implicit subsidy really prepared the markets for their demise.
Even more bizarre is Geithner’s assertion that the government can force these institutions to hold higher capital, maintain more liquidity and be subjected to greater supervision, all without anyone knowing who exactly these companies are. Does the Secretary truly believe that these companies’ securities disclosures won’t include the amount of capital they are holding? Whether there is an official list or not is besides the question, market participants will be able to infer that list from publicly available information and the actions of regulators.
One has to wonder whether Geithner spent any of his time at the NY Fed actually watching how markets work. Before we continue down the path of financial reform, maybe it would be useful for our Treasury Secretary to take a few weeks off to study what got us into this mess. We’ve already been down this road of denying implicit subsidies and then providing them after the fact. Maybe it’s time to try something different.