Breaking Up Big Banks Is a Severely Conservative Project

Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The columnist George F. Will recently shocked his fellow conservatives by endorsing Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, to be Treasury secretary in a Mitt Romney administration.

Fisher’s appeal, in Will’s eyes, is that he wants to break up the largest U.S. banks, arguing that this is essential to re-establish a free market for financial services. Big banks get big implicit government subsidies and this should stop.

Will’s endorsement was on target: The true conservative agenda should be to take government out of banking by making all financial institutions small enough and simple enough to fail. As Will asks, “Should the government be complicit in protecting -- and by doing so, enlarging -- huge economic interests?”

But Will could have gone further -- much of what Fisher recommends also is appealing to people on the left of the political spectrum. Fisher should be considered for a top administration post regardless of who wins the presidency on Nov. 6. He also should be a strong candidate to become chairman of the Federal Reserve Board when Ben Bernanke’s second term ends Jan. 31, 2014.

Unfortunately, Fisher’s views on “too big to fail” banks draw the ire of powerful people on Wall Street, and he almost certainly will remain in Dallas. That is, until the next crisis.

Policy Rethink

Fisher and Harvey Rosenblum, executive vice president and director of research at the Dallas Fed, have laid the groundwork for a comprehensive reassessment of finance and banking -- and the effects on monetary policy. The closest parallel is the rethink that happened during the 1930s, as the gold standard broke down and the world descended into depression followed by chaos. But their approach is also reminiscent of the way that monetary policy was reoriented in the early 1980s, as Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and others brought down inflation.

The world and the U.S. economy have changed profoundly. We need to alter the way we think about the financial system and monetary policy.

Fisher and Rosenblum have expressed, separately and together, three deep ideas since the financial crisis erupted in 2008.

First, very large banks are too complex to manage. “Not just for top bank executives, but too complex as well for creditors and shareholders to exert market discipline,” they wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in April. “And too big and complex for bank supervisors to exert regulatory discipline when internal management discipline and market discipline are lacking.”

Complexity, they say, magnifies “the opportunities for opacity, obfuscation and mismanaged risk.” This is a problem in other industries, too, though market forces compel U.S. businesses to reconfigure their organizational structures all the time, including through divestitures and by becoming smaller in other ways.

Banking is different. There are large implicit government subsidies available if your financial institution is perceived as too big to fail. These subsidies -- in the form of implicit downside protection or guarantees for creditors -- drive up size and exacerbate complexity.

Second, too-big-to-fail banks do actually fail, in the sense that they require bailouts and other forms of government support. This is exactly what happened in the U.S. in 2007 through 2009, and it is what is occurring in Europe today.

Breaking Up

For anyone who finds the phrase “break up” hard to swallow -- for example because you believe the government shouldn’t take on this role -- Fisher and Rosenblum argue: “Though it sounds radical, restructuring is a far less drastic solution than quasi-nationalization, as happened in 2008-09.”

Third, monetary policy cannot function properly when a country’s biggest banks are allowed to become too complex to manage and prone to failure.

In “The Blob That Ate Monetary Policy,” a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in September 2009, Fisher and Rosenblum pointed out that cutting interest rates doesn’t work when systemically important banks are close to insolvency. The funding costs for banks go up, not down, as a crisis develops. So pulling the classic policy lever, the federal funds rate, becomes less than effective in such an environment. (For more, see this essay and this article.)

As banks come under pressure, the Fed may cut its policy rate but the interest rates charged by banks to customers may actually go up, and it becomes harder to get a loan. This is what happened in 2008 and 2009.

Or think about what happens during any attempted economic recovery -- such as the one we are in now.

“Well-capitalized banks can expand credit to the private sector in concert with monetary policy easing,” Rosenblum wrote with his colleagues Jessica J. Renier and Richard Alm in the Dallas Fed’s “Economic Letter” of April 2010. “Undercapitalized banks are in no position to lend money to the private sector, sapping the effectiveness of monetary policy.”

If you want monetary policy to become effective again, you need the largest banks to be broken up. Equity capital also must increase, relative to debt, throughout the financial system.

(Simon Johnson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is co-author of “White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on agriculture policy and climate change and on how to fight terror in Mali; William D. Cohan on the SEC protecting Citigroup’s secrets; Albert R. Hunt on the policy implications of this presidential election; A. Gary Shilling series on the perils of low interest rates; Shikha Dalmia on how Republicans must root out hatred of immigrants.

To contact the writer of this article: Simon Johnson at

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