MIT's Johnson Says Too-Big-to-Fail Banks Will Spark New Crisis

Alan Greenspan, the master of monetary mumbo jumbo, leaned back in his chair and grew uncharacteristically forthright.

"If they're too big to fail, they're too big," the former Federal Reserve chairman said when asked about the dangers of outsized financial institutions.

It was October 2009, and the man who helped make megabanks possible was sounding more like Teddy Roosevelt than the Maestro as he entertained what he called a radical solution.

"You know, break them up," he told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "In 1911, we broke up Standard Oil. So what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole."

Greenspan the bank buster crops up near the end of "13 Bankers," Simon Johnson and James Kwak's reasoned look at how Wall Street became what they call "the American oligarchy," a group of megabanks whose economic power has given them political power. Unless these too-big-to-fail banks are broken up, they will trigger a second meltdown, the authors write.

"And when that crisis comes," they say, "the government will face the same choice it faced in 2008: to bail out a banking system that has grown even larger and more concentrated, or to let it collapse and risk an economic disaster."

The banks in their sights include Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Though Wall Street may not like "13 Bankers," the authors can't be dismissed as populist rabble-rousers.

Cash for Favors

Johnson is an ex-chief economist for the International Monetary Fund who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kwak is a former McKinsey & Co. consultant. In September 2008, they started the Baseline Scenario, a blog that became essential reading on the crisis. When they call Wall Street an oligarchy, they're not speaking lightly.

Drawing parallels to the U.S. industrial trusts of the late 19th century and Russian businessmen who rose to economic dominance in the 1990s, the authors apply the term to any country where "well-connected business leaders trade cash and political support for favors from the government."

Oligarchies weaken democracy and distort competition. The Wall Street bailouts boosted the clout of the survivors, making them bigger and enlarging their market shares in derivatives, new mortgages and new credit cards, the authors say.

Suicidal Risk-Taking

These megabanks emerged from the meltdown more opposed to regulation than ever, the authors say. If they get their way -- and they will, judging from current congressional maneuvering over President Barack Obama's proposed regulatory overhaul -- Wall Street will retain its license to gamble with the taxpayer's money. This isn't good for anyone, including the banks themselves, which often feel compelled by competitive pressure to take suicidal risks.

"There is another choice," they write: "the choice to finish the job that Roosevelt began a century ago, and to take a stand against concentrated financial power just as he took a stand against concentrated industrial power."

Obama finds himself in the middle of a struggle that has coursed throughout U.S. history -- the struggle between democracy and powerful banking interests. The book's title alludes to one Friday last March when 13 of the nation's most powerful bankers met with Obama at the White House amid a public furor over bailouts and bonuses.

The material that sets this book apart can be found at the beginning and end. Chapters three through six present an all- too-familiar, though meticulously researched, primer on how the economy became "financialized" over the past 30 years.

Regulatory Arbitrage

Crisis buffs won't miss much if they skip ahead to the last chapter, where the authors debunk arguments that curbing the size of banks is too simplistic. A more complex approach, they say, would invite "regulatory arbitrage, such as reshuffling where assets are parked."

They propose that no financial institution should be allowed to control or have an ownership interest in assets worth more than 4 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, or roughly $570 billion in assets today. A lower limit should be imposed on investment banks -- effectively 2 percent of GDP, or roughly $285 billion, they say.

If hard caps sound unreasonable, consider this: These ceilings would affect only six banks, the authors say: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

"Saying that we cannot break up our largest banks is saying that our economic futures depend on these six companies," they say. "That thought should frighten us into action."

Though Jamie Dimon won't like this (any more than John D. Rockefeller did), incremental regulatory changes and populist rhetoric about "banksters" are getting us nowhere. It's time for practical solutions. This might be a place to start.

"13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown" is from Pantheon (304 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: James Pressley in Brussels at jpressley@bloomberg.net.

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