The Economy Cannot Recover Until the Big Banks Are Broken Up

A lot of people still haven’t heard that the economy cannot recover until the big banks are broken up.

But virtually all independent economists and financial experts say that it is vital to break up the giant banks, including:

  • Dean and professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, R. Glenn Hubbard
  • The leading monetary economist and co-author with Milton Friedman of the leading treatise on the Great Depression, Anna Schwartz
  • Economics professor and senior regulator during the S & L crisis, William K. Black
  • Professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Luigi Zingales

Why do these experts say the giant banks need to be broken up?

Well, small banks have been lending much more than the big boys. The giant banks which received taxpayer bailouts have been harming the economy by slashing lending, giving higher bonuses, and operating at higher costs than banks which didn’t get bailed out.

As Fortune pointed out, the only reason that smaller banks haven’t been able to expand and thrive is that the too-big-to-fails have decreased competition:

Growth for the nation’s smaller banks represents a reversal of trends from the last twenty years, when the biggest banks got much bigger and many of the smallest players were gobbled up or driven under…

As big banks struggle to find a way forward and rising loan losses threaten to punish poorly run banks of all sizes, smaller but well capitalized institutions have a long-awaited chance to expand.

So the very size of the giants squashes competition, and prevents the small and medium size banks to start lending to Main Street again.

And as I noted in December 2008, the big banks are the major reason why sovereign debt has become a crisis:

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is often called the “central banks’ central bank”, as it coordinates transactions between central banks.

BIS points out in a new report that the bank rescue packages have transferred significant risks onto government balance sheets, which is reflected in the corresponding widening of sovereign credit default swaps:

The scope and magnitude of the bank rescue packages also meant that significant risks had been transferred onto government balance sheets. This was particularly apparent in the market for CDS referencing sovereigns involved either in large individual bank rescues or in broad-based support packages for the financial sector, including the United States. While such CDS were thinly traded prior to the announced rescue packages, spreads widened suddenly on increased demand for credit protection, while corresponding financial sector spreads tightened.

In other words, by assuming huge portions of the risk from banks trading in toxic derivatives, and by spending trillions that they don’t have, central banks have put their countries at risk from default.

A study of 124 banking crises by the International Monetary Fund found that propping banks which are only pretending to be solvent hurts the economy:

Existing empirical research has shown that providing assistance to banks and their borrowers can be counterproductive, resulting in increased losses to banks, which often abuse forbearance to take unproductive risks at government expense. The typical result of forbearance is a deeper hole in the net worth of banks, crippling tax burdens to finance bank bailouts, and even more severe credit supply contraction and economic decline than would have occurred in the absence of forbearance.

Cross-country analysis to date also shows that accommodative policy measures (such as substantial liquidity support, explicit government guarantee on financial institutions’ liabilities and forbearance from prudential regulations) tend to be fiscally costly and that these particular policies do not necessarily accelerate the speed of economic recovery.

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All too often, central banks privilege stability over cost in the heat of the containment phase: if so, they may too liberally extend loans to an illiquid bank which is almost certain to prove insolvent anyway. Also, closure of a nonviable bank is often delayed for too long, even when there are clear signs of insolvency (Lindgren, 2003). Since bank closures face many obstacles, there is a tendency to rely instead on blanket government guarantees which, if the government’s fiscal and political position makes them credible, can work albeit at the cost of placing the burden on the budget, typically squeezing future provision of needed public services.

Now, Greece, Portugal, Spain and many other European countries – as well as the U.S. and Japan – are facing serious debt crises. We are no longer wealthy enough to keep bailing out the bloated banks. See this, this, this, this, this and this.

Indeed, the top independent experts say that the biggest banks are insolvent (see this, for example), as they have been many times before. By failing to break up the giant banks, the government will keep taking emergency measures (see this and this) to try to cover up their insolvency. But those measures drain the life blood out of the real economy.

And by failing to break them up, the government is guaranteeing that they will take crazily risky bets again and again, and the government will wrack up more and more debt bailing them out in the future. (Anyone who thinks that Congress will use the current financial regulation – Dodd-Frank – to break up banks in the middle of an even bigger crisis is dreaming. If the giant banks aren’t broken up now - when they are threatening to take down the world economy – they won’t be broken up next time they become insolvent either. And see this. In other words, there is no better time than today to break them up).

Moreover, Richard Alford – former New York Fed economist, trading floor economist and strategist – recently showed that banks that get too big benefit from “information asymmetry” which disrupts the free market.

Indeed, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted in September that giants like Goldman are using their size to manipulate the market:

“The main problem that Goldman raises is a question of size: ‘too big to fail.’ In some markets, they have a significant fraction of trades. Why is that important? They trade both on their proprietary desk and on behalf of customers. When you do that and you have a significant fraction of all trades, you have a lot of information.”

Further, he says, “That raises the potential of conflicts of interest, problems of front-running, using that inside information for your proprietary desk. And that’s why the Volcker report came out and said that we need to restrict the kinds of activity that these large institutions have. If you’re going to trade on behalf of others, if you’re going to be a commercial bank, you can’t engage in certain kinds of risk-taking behavior.”

The giants (especially Goldman Sachs) have also used high-frequency program trading which not only distorts the markets – making up more than 70% of stock trades – but which also lets the program trading giants take a sneak peak at what the real (that is, human) traders are buying and selling, and then trade on the insider information. See this, this, this, this and this. (This is frontrunning, which is illegal; but it is a lot bigger than garden variety frontrunning, because the program traders are not only trading based on inside knowledge of what their own clients are doing, they are also trading based on knowledge of what all other traders are doing). Goldman also admitted that its proprietary trading program can “manipulate the markets in unfair ways”.

Moreover, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley together hold 80% of the country’s derivatives risk, and 96% of the exposure to credit derivatives. Experts say that derivatives will never be reined in until the mega-banks are broken up – and see this – even though the lack of transparency in derivatives is one of the main risks to the economy.



The giant banks have also allegedly used their Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group (CRMPG) to exchange secret information and formulate coordinated mutually beneficial actions, all with the government’s blessings.

Again, size matters. If a bunch of small banks did this, manipulation by numerous small players would tend to cancel each other out. But with a handful of giants doing it, it can manipulate the entire economy in ways which are not good for the American citizen.

In addition, as everyone from Paul Krugman to Simon Johnson has noted, the banks are so big and politically powerful that they have bought the politicians and captured the regulators. So their very size is preventing the changes needed to fix the economy.

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