Seven Dumb Things Bankers Say

a | A

April 5 (Bloomberg) -- Many of the arguments used to justify the size of the largest U.S. financial institutions simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. It's important that folks in Washington keep this in mind as the political debate over what to do about too-big-to-fail banks heats up.

A number of the bankers' talking points are encapsulated in a report, issued as part of a Wall Street public-relations campaign, that appears to be getting some attention inside the Beltway. Politico's Morning Money mentioned it in February, and this week Bloomberg View columnist Ezra Klein cited it an article on the state of efforts to rein in too-big-to-fail banks.

Before we dig in, a bit of context: Critics of the big banks -- including the editors of Bloomberg View -- argue that the main advantage of being a JPMorgan-size giant is the ability to extract a subsidy from taxpayers. The larger and more systemically threatening banks are, the more confident they and their creditors can be that the government will bail them out in an emergency. This too-big-to-fail status allows such banks to borrow at lower rates than they otherwise would -- a perverse incentive that undermines market discipline, artificially bloats the financial sector and promotes the kind of credit binges that end in crises.

The report in question, published by the public-affairs consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies, asserts that such reasoning ignores "the value of large banks to the global economy and their growth over time, the dramatic improvements in safety and soundness over the past three years, and the context of international competition." It goes on to say that breaking up the banks -- or, we can assume, other policies that would result in their shrinkage, such as higher capital requirements - - would favor "foreign banks and the nonbank financial sector."

Let's examine the report's points.

* The U.S. banking sector has grown proportionately with the rest

of the economy.To make this point, the report uses a couple

unusual proxies for the U.S. economy: The S&P 500 stock index

and U.S. exports. It provides a chart showing how these two

indicators grew almost exactly as much as the assets of U.S.

commercial banks from 1990 to 2012.The most widely used measure

of the U.S. economy -- gross domestic product -- gives a

different answer. From 1992 (the earliest data from the Federal

Deposit Insurance Corp.) to 2012, the assets of all U.S.

commercial banks grew from about 70 percent of GDP to 91 percent

of GDP. Over the same period, the assets of the five largest

commercial banks (under U.S. accounting rules) went from about 9

percent of GDP to 40 percent of GDP. The picture is even more

striking when using international accounting rules, which

capture more of the derivatives that have become a big part of

the largest banks' businesses over the past decade. By this

measure, the assets of the five largest U.S. banking companies

(a slightly different group than in the FDIC data) equaled about

90 percent of GDP as of mid-2012.In other words, the too-big-to- fail banks have ballooned in relation to the broader economy. * Growth of the largest U.S. banks did not outpace the growth of

the global economy.Here, the report presents data showing that

the global market share of the largest U.S. banks has grown

since 1990, but is lower than it was in 1970. Why global market

share should matter is a mystery: If other countries' taxpayers

want to encourage their banks to threaten the economy, that

doesn’t mean we should follow suit in the name of global

competition.Even so, the report's conclusions on bank size and

the global economy are wrong. The assets of the five largest

U.S. commercial banks (under U.S. accounting rules) grew from

about 2 percent of world GDP in 1992 to about 9 percent in 2012

(with GDP measured at prevailing exchange rates). Under

international accounting rules, the assets of the top five U.S.

banks equaled about 20 percent of global GDP as of mid-2012. * Global banks make a complex world simple.The point here is that

global banks are great because multi-national corporations can

go to one place for all the services they need. This may be

true, but it's an argument for being global, not for being big.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. doesn’t need $4 trillion in assets (under

international accounting rules) to serve global companies. As

the U.S. Senate investigation into JPMorgan's London Whale

trading losses has shown, organizations that combine everything

from retail banking to speculative derivatives trading under one

roof are beyond the comprehension of their own executives, let

alone their boards, clients and investors. They make a complex

world more complex. * Big U.S. banks are significantly safer than

prior to the crisis.The report cites an increase in regulators'

preferred measure of soundness -- the Tier 1 common risk-based

ratio -- as well as an increase in tangible equity as indicators

of banks' safety. It's true that these measures have risen.

Problem is, as Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger demonstrate in a

recent article, the state of accounting in the financial sector

is such that we can’t really know whether such indicators mean

the banks have become safer.Even if the banks have improved,

they're far from safe. Under international accounting standards,

JPMorgan's tangible equity was only 3.1 percent of tangible

assets as of mid-2012. This means a decline of 3.1 percent in

the value of the bank's assets could be enough to render it

insolvent. Research by economists at the Bank of England, and a

new book by financial economists Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig,

suggest banks need at least 20 percent equity if they want to

avoid failures.The report also denies that the largest U.S.

banks enjoy a funding advantage thanks to their too-big-to-fail

status. Bloomberg View has dealt with this argument at length

here and here. * U.S. banks are not the largest among global

players.The report points out that, under U.S. accounting

standards or compared with their local economies, some foreign

banks are even bigger than U.S. banks. It's not clear why this

is good. Again, if other countries have an even bigger too-big- to-fail problem, that doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t be

concerned about its own.Also, under international accounting

standards, U.S. banks are the largest. With about $4 trillion in

assets, JPMorgan is the biggest bank on the planet. Bank of

America is a close second. * Big global companies will turn to

foreign banks -- maybe even Chinese banks -- if the big U.S.

banks are broken up.Again, it's highly doubtful that JPMorgan

needs a $4 trillion balance sheet to attract global business. To

use the report's own example, an $11.8 billion Wal-Mart Stores

Inc. deal was the largest syndicated loan in the U.S. as of the

third quarter of 2012, with six banks involved. Beyond that,

most large corporations get their debt financing in the bond

markets.That said, if foreign governments want to subsidize bank

credit to U.S. multi-nationals, the U.S. gets the benefit while

other countries' taxpayers bear the cost. Trying to compete by

maintaining subsidies to our own banks would be like trying to

match China's growth in global share of pollution. It's a race

to the bottom.Conversely, reining in the biggest U.S. banks, and

making them easier to understand, might actually enhance the

global position of the U.S. financial industry. The share prices

of U.S. banks are suffering in part because investors find the

banks' finances incomprehensible (see that article by Partnoy

and Eisinger). In a world of opacity, demonstrable safety and

soundness could be a good selling point. * Breaking up the big

banks will cause more financial activity to go into the

unregulated world of shadow banking.Alternative financing

channels such as money-market mutual funds, conduits and

structured investment vehicles proved to be a weak link during

the financial crisis. It's not clear, however, why making banks

smaller and more transparent would cause more shadow activity.

Even if it did, it's not a point in favor of big banks. Rather,

it suggests regulators should pay more attention to the shadowy

areas -- for example, by forbidding the unsupported dollar-a- share guarantees that make money-market accounts seem as safe as

insured bank deposits. Regulators should also take advantage of

the powers the Dodd-Frank financial reform law granted them to

oversee systemically important non-bank financiers.

Total good points: zero.

(Mark Whitehouse is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)