Breaking up the big banks might not be the whole solution, but it could make resolution authority more credible.
Before we start talking about the advantages and disadvantages of introducing size caps and restricting business lines through a new Glass-Steagall, it is important to understand how very big the five biggest banks are. If you need a sense of how big JP Morgan is and why it is hard for it to "hedge" without moving the market, the graph below gives you a sense. This is a graph I put together during Dodd-Frank based on data that was floating around at the time:
When bills restricting size of a large financial institution have been introduced they usually put size in the context of deposit liabilities (what we provide a backstop for and what reflects consumer savings, expressed as a percent of all deposits) and non-deposit liabilities (what reflects a blunt measure of size and potential for shadow banking runs, expressed as a percentage of GDP). The SAFE Banking Act, which has been reintroduced, mostly impacts the six firms listed above. The original SAFE Banking Act had a cap of 3 percent of GDP for non-deposit liabilities for financial firms (2 percent for actual banks) -- a space that ignores over 8,000 banks to just focus on the biggest six.
Yesterday Elizabeth Warren sent out an email with PCCC calling for a new Glass-Steagall. Let's back up: what kind of regulation do we have in the financial sector? First, there's the background regulation that structures and forms the financial markets. How are derivatives treated in bankruptcy? How is capital income and debt taxed? How are contracts and corporations set up and enforced? And so on.
The second level of regulation is "prudential" regulation. Prudential regulation of financial institutions is the various ways regulators regulate banks. Capital requirements are one example. So is prompt corrective action, restricting dividends for troubled firms, etc. One reason to do this for regular banks is to act as a coordinator for dispersed depositors who are unable or unwilling to perform these functions. Another is that financial firms have serious macroeconomic effects on the economy. And another is to intervene in issues of asymmetric information. The everyday libertarian case against regulating a restaurant is "who would want to poison their customers?" As we saw in the last 20 years, Wall Street is comfortable not only selling their customers poison at a high margin, but taking out life insurance on them through the credit swaps market.
The third level is blunter, and that's strict prohibitions, either on businesses or on size. What are the advantages and disadvantages of adding prohibitions? One factor is simplicity compared to other forms of prudential regulations, but what else is there?
Adding prohibitions can help ensure the end of Too Big To Fail. In this sense it works to amplify, rather than replace, Dodd-Frank's resolution authority.
A common response is that the problem with Too Big To Fail isn't that the firms are too big or too complex, but too interconnected. Matt Yglesias notes that in the context of resolution, prohibitions aren't that important: "we can't put investment banks through the bankruptcy process because it's too systemically chaotic. In that case, Glass-Steagall is irrelevant and what we really need is a new legislative mechanism for the resolution of investment banking enterprises. That's what Dodd-Frank is supposed to do. This all just backs in to the point that even though the phrase 'too big to fail' has caught the public imagination, it's never been clear that size is relevant."
But here's Martin J. Gruenberg, Acting Chairman of the FDIC, in a big speech last Thursday:
While there are numerous differences between a typical bank resolution and what the FDIC would face in resolving a SIFI, I want to focus on a few key differences...In addition, the resolution of a large U.S. financial firm involves a more complex corporate structure than the resolution of a single insured bank. Large financial companies conduct business through multiple subsidiary legal entities with many interconnections owned by a parent holding company. A resolution of the individual subsidiaries of the financial company would increase the likelihood of disruption and loss of franchise value by disrupting the interrelationships among the subsidiary companies. A much more promising approach from the FDIC's point of view is to place into receivership only the parent holding company while maintaining the subsidiary interconnections.Another difference arises from sheer size alone. In the typical bank failure, there are a number of banks capable of quickly handling the financial, managerial, and operational requirements of an acquisition. This is unlikely to be the case when a large financial firm fails. Even if it were the case, it may not be desirable to pursue a resolution that would result in an even larger, more complex institution. This suggests both the need to create a bridge financial institution and the means of returning control and ownership to private hands.