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Fed Presidents speak out agains TBTF Banks, saying they are continuous hazard to economies

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Although Richard Fisher, President of the Dallas Federal Reserve, has been an outspoken critic of the TBTF banks, he’s received far less notice on this issue, apparently, than Kansas City Fed. President, Thomas Hoenig. This morning, however, Mr. Fisher spoke out clearly against the existence of Too Big Too Fail Banks.

In the past two decades, the biggest banks have grown significantly bigger. In 1990, the 10 largest U.S. banks had almost 25 percent of the industry’s assets. Their share grew to 44 percent in 2000 and almost 60 percent in 2009.

The existing rules and oversight are not up to the acute regulatory challenge imposed by the biggest banks. First, they are sprawling and complex—so vast that their own management teams may not fully understand their own risk exposures. If that is so, it would be futile to expect that their regulators and creditors could untangle all the threads, especially under rapidly changing market conditions. Second, big banks may believe they can act recklessly without fear of paying the ultimate penalty. They and many of their creditors assume the Fed and other government agencies will cushion the fall and assume the damages, even if their troubles stem from negligence or trickery. They have only to look to recent experience to confirm that assumption.

Some argue that bigness is not bad, per se. Many ask how the U.S. can keep its competitive edge on the global stage if we cede LFI territory to other nations—an argument I consider hollow given the experience of the Japanese and others who came to regret seeking the distinction of having the world’s biggest financial institutions. I know this much: Big banks interact with the economy and financial markets in a multitude of ways, creating connections that transcend the limits of industry and geography. Because of their deep and wide connections to other banks and financial institutions, a few really big banks can send tidal waves of troubles through the financial system if they falter, leading to a downward spiral of bad loans and contracting credit that destroys many jobs and many businesses.

The dangers posed by TBTF banks are too great. To be sure, having a clearly articulated “resolution regime” would represent steps forward, though I fear they might provide false comfort in that a special resolution treatment for large firms might be viewed favorably by creditors, continuing the government-sponsored advantage bestowed upon them. Given the danger these institutions pose to spreading debilitating viruses throughout the financial world, my preference is for a more prophylactic approach: an international accord to break up these institutions into ones of more manageable size—more manageable for both the executives of these institutions and their regulatory supervisors. I align myself closer to Paul Volcker in this argument and would say that if we have to do this unilaterally, we should. I know that will hardly endear me to an audience in New York, but that’s how I see it. Winston Churchill said that “in finance, everything that is agreeable is unsound and everything that is sound is disagreeable.” I think the disagreeable but sound thing to do regarding institutions that are TBTF is to dismantle them over time into institutions that can be prudently managed and regulated across borders. And this should be done before the next financial crisis, because it surely cannot be done in the middle of a crisis.

Clearly, the TBTF banks, as both Hoenig and Fisher state, represent a constant threat not only to the U.S. economy but to the entire world. With international agreement on these banks, global financial transactions – and competitiveness – would not suffer as some contend and greater financial stability would be achieved. The TBTF banks must be dismantled gradually to prevent the excessive risk taking that led to the current financial crisis.

I wonder if Congress – and the voters worldwide – will listen.

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Written by Valerie Curl

March 3, 2010 at 10:01 AM

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