Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has an interesting exit interview with Sheila Bair, who until this past Friday served as Chair of Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC). While I haven’t always been her biggest fan, I did find it refreshing to hear a bank regulator state the obvious: we should have let Bear Stearns fail. As she puts it:
Bear Stearns was a second-tier investment bank, with — what? — around $400 billion in assets? I’m a traditionalist. Banks and bank-holding companies are in the safety net. That’s why they have deposit insurance. Investment banks take higher risks, and they are supposed to be outside the safety net. If they make enough mistakes, they are supposed to fail.
I’d be hard-pressed to say it better. Assisting the sale of Bear to JP Morgan created the expectation that anyone larger, like Lehman, would be assisted as well. Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview is that Bair gets right to the heart of the matter: the treatment of bondholders. ”Why did we do the bailouts?” Bair states “It was all about the bondholders.” Again she couldn’t be more correct. If there was anything Dodd-Frank should have fixed it was this, ending the rescue of bondholders and injecting market discipline back into bank. It is also refreshing to hear her admit: ”I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks, we need market discipline. And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”
Where I disagree, besides her misguided take on mortgage re-sets, is whether Dodd-Frank will actually impose losses on bondholders. Bair expresses some optimism that such is the case, but there are just too many holes in Dodd-Frank to make that believable. Plus you pretty much have the same set of rules in place for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, yet the last time I checked the bondholders are still being protected at the expense of the taxpayer. If we don’t impose losses on Fannie creditors, even now after the panic, what makes anyone think we will do so to Citibank. Section 204 of Dodd-Frank is quite clear that the FDIC indeed retains the power to rescue creditors. Something that Bair was willing to do during the crisis, even if pushed to do so by Tim Geithner. Despite some errors, the interview is really a worthwhile read and has some real lessons for avoiding the next financial crisis.