Breaking The Bank

My problem with Monday’s expected announcement from Mr Geithner doesn’t have much to do with the details of the public-private partnership.  I doubt this will work, because I don’t see the incentive for banks to sell assets at less than the value currently on their books.  Right now, they have the government right where they want it – look at the body language and words of leading CEOs.

The government feels that it cannot take over large banks, there is no bankruptcy-type procedure that would work, and only deference to the CEOs of major financial institutions can get us out of this mess.  This is a conscious strategy decision from the very highest levels.

I’d like to say: OK, but this is absolutely the last time we will try for a solution to our banking problems involving a private sector-led approach.  Of course this would not be credible and bank CEOs know this.  Instead, I propose the following.

If Secretary Geithner’s scheme works, we draw the lesson that our banks became too big and we aim to make them smaller relative to the economy moving forward.  The regulatory agenda currently in progress – including for discussion at the G20 next week – would do essentially nothing to reduce the political power of big banks.  We need simple caps on bank size, leverage relative to the economy and – this is harder – measures of interconnected tail risk (i.e., is everyone making the same kind of crazy loans?).  Design a system with this in mind: regulators get captured and super-regulators get super-captured.

If the scheme doesn’t work, we draw the exact same lesson.  And, of course, we should expect Chairman Bernanke to move forward with his Plan B (or is it Plan Z?): inflation.

In any case, our top political leadership needs to really sell some version of the following message.  We let the banks get out of control and the cost will be enormous; our debt/GDP ratio will in all likelihood rise from around 40% to over 80%.  We cannot afford to have the same problem again.  We must break the power of banks before they break us all.  And if you don’t think banks can do that much damage to economies, just look around outside the United States – the world is full of countries where growth is slowed or distorted by a financial system that becomes too powerful.  This is not about tweaking the existing U.S. regulatory system; it is about complete change and – in many senses – turning back the clock to a financial system that was simpler, smaller, and much less dangerous.

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.