Dallas, we have a problem.
How to Cut Megabanks Down to Size
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON
Published: January 19, 2013
On Wednesday, in a speech in Washington, Mr. (Richard W.) Fisher (the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas) laid out a compelling proposal for shrinking financial giants in order to protect taxpayers. He suggested that megabanks be chopped into pieces, so that no one of them could endanger the financial system if it ran into trouble.
Why? Mr. Fisher argued that megabanks not only threaten taxpayers with bailouts, but that their continuing failure to lend is also thwarting the Fed’s efforts to jump-start the economy by keeping interest rates low. “I submit that these institutions, as a result of their privileged status, exact an unfair tax upon the American people,” he told his audience. “Moreover, they interfere with the transmission of monetary policy and inhibit the advancement of our nation’s economic prosperity.”
Smaller institutions, by contrast, have continued to lend in the post-crisis years, especially to the kinds of modest-size businesses that create so many jobs across the country. According to figures compiled by Mr. Fisher’s colleagues at the Dallas Fed, community banks – defined as those with no more than $10 billion in assets – hold less than one-fifth of the nation’s banking assets. Nevertheless, they hold more than half of the industry’s small-business loans.
There are roughly 5,600 commercial banking institutions in the country, Mr. Fisher noted. Some 5,500 of them are community banks. While these organizations account for 98.6 percent of all banks, they hold only 12 percent of total industry assets. They are routinely allowed to fail if they get into trouble. Few of them did during the crisis.
Contrast these figures with those of the nation’s 12 largest banks, whose assets range from $250 billion to $2.3 trillion. They account for 0.2 percent of all banks but hold 69 percent of industry assets. These are the banks that enjoy all the perquisites of the federal safety net: significantly lower borrowing costs and a taxpayer backstop, for example.
Understanding that it will be a tough battle to break up the megabanks, Mr. Fisher suggests that in the meantime, only commercial banking operations receive protection from the federal safety net in the form of federal deposit insurance. An institution’s other activities – securities trading, insurance operations and real estate, for example – should fall outside any backstop. Furthermore, he recommends that these banks require customers and trading partners to sign an agreement stating that they understand the business they are conducting is not covered by any federal protection or guarantees. That would begin to reduce the perception that all of these institutions’ counterparties would be protected in a disaster.