Tag: Simon Johnson

Bill Daley and ‘Too Big To Fail’

MIT Professor Simon Johnson recently argued that Bill Daley’s appointment as Obama’s Chief of Staff signals that “too big to fail,” as it relates to our largest financial institutions, is here to stay.  Personally I never thought it was in doubt.  With Geithner at Treasury and Dodd-Frank further codifiying “too big to fail,” its been clear for some time that the bailout net is larger than it’s ever been, and is not being pulled back. 

That said, Professor Johnson’s focus on Daley distracts from the real issue, which is changing our bank regulatory structure to end bailouts.  The focus on Daley has the potential to lead us down that path of “if we just had the right people in government…”  We shouldn’t be designing our regulatory structures with the “right” people in mind, but rather with the rule of law in mind.  In fact, one of the benefits of the Obama administration is that it serves as a great test of the “right people” hypothesis of government.  One is unlikely to see a more left-leaning White House than this one, so if this one gets captured by special interests, including Wall Street, than it’s a safe bet that any future administration will as well. 

Since I believe most of us actually want to end “too big to fail,” the real question is how to do it.  It strikes me that we have three options:  regulate the largest institutions to death (or competitive disadvantage), break them up, or credibly impose losses on their creditors.  Ultimately I think the regulation approach is bound to fail, if for no other reason than regulatory capture.   (Even Elizabeth Warren seems to get this: “Regulations, over time, fail. I want to see Congress focus more on a credible system for liquidating the banks that are considered too big to fail.”)  Breaking them up might sound attractive in theory, but I have a hard time seeing how it truly works in practice.  After all, few in Washington viewed Bear Stearns as “too big to fail.”  Accordingly, I believe the best approach would be to force creditors to take losses or be converted into equity.  To make this credible, we must bind the hands of the regulators.  As long as the Fed, Treasury, or the FDIC can inject money, then bailouts are always on the table.    

Sadly, what the Daley appointment reminds us is that any attempt to end “too big to fail” will likely have to wait until the next administration.  Not only is this one wed to bailouts, the President would likely veto any bill that really tied the hands of the Fed.

Lehman’s Failure Taught Us Nothing

Several commentators have reacted to Senator McConnell’s floor statement regarding the Dodd bill as a defense of “doing nothing”.  And accordingly argue that such a position would be, in the words of Simon Johnson, both dangerous and irresponsible.  This familiar canard is based upon the oft repeated assertion that the failure of Lehman proved that we cannot simply let large financial companies enter bankruptcy.

The simple, but important, fact is that we have no idea what would have happened had we let AIG and Bear go into bankruptcy proceedings.  Nor do we know what would have happened if Lehman had been saved.  Macroeconomics does not have the luxury of running natural experiments to determine the impact of a corporate failure.   Scholars have an obligation to accurately reflect the uncertainties in the debate.  Those that assert Lehman proved anything, are being at best disingenuous, and at worst, dishonest.

Let us, however, put forth a few things we do know:

  1. We know none of Lehman’s counterparties failed as a result of Lehman’s failures.  Just as we know none of AIG”s counterparties would have failed if they did not get 100 cents on the dollar from their CDS positions.  So where exactly is the proof of contagion?
  2. We know we had a nasty housing bubble.  We were going to lose millions of jobs in construction and real estate regardless of what we did.  We knew financial institutions heavily invested in housing would suffer.  How exactly would saving Lehman have prevented any of that?

The debate over ending bailouts and too-big-to-fail will not progress, we will not learn a thing, if we let simple, empty assertion pass as fact.  Much of the public remains angry at Washington because those responsible, such as Bernanke and Geithner, have never laid out a believable or plausible narrative for the bailouts.  It always comes back to “panic.”  If we are ever to hope to return to being a country governed by the rule of law, rather than the whims of men, then we need a lot more of an explanation than “panic.”

A Libertarian Dilemma

What is to be done with the nation’s largest financial institutions, 19 of which have been officially designated as “too big to fail?” When thus guaranteed government protection, such institutions can be expected to take excessive risk and generally operate recklessly. Profits on risky ventures remain privatized, while losses become socialized. That is what happens when you bet with other people’s (that is, taxpayers’) money. I have called the system “casino capitalism.”

The solution, of course, is to end the policy of “too big to fail.” That will not happen soon, however, and we will likely see the government’s safety net extended to more institutions before there is any prospect for its withdrawal. In the interim, the risk-taking appetite of the large banks must be constrained, that is, regulated. What should the classical liberal response be?

MIT’s Simon Johnson has argued, “Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.” He favors breaking these institutions up. Chicago’s Gary Becker has suggested imposing progressive capital requirements as a disincentive for financial services firms to grow large enough to become too big to fail. The larger the institution, the higher the required capital ratio.

What cannot in conscience be done is to apply presumptive free-market arguments to such entities. They are not being constrained by market forces. The market’s invisible hand has been replaced by the state’s protective embrace.