by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
James Pethokoukis of he American Enterprise Institute, a supporter of proposals to break up the nation’s largest banks, nonetheless devotes part of his latest column to exposing readers to an alternative viewpoint.
The argument for breaking up megabanks, restructuring them, or capping their size is this: Bigness plus bailouts have created what British bank regulator Andrew Haldane calls a “self-perpetuating doom loop.” The industry is so large, concentrated, and complex that the failure of any institution could create financial instability and thus major players receive an implicit government guarantee of their debt (a guarantee reinforced by the banks’ extraordinary political influence). The incentive, then, is to become even bigger and more complicated, raising the risk of financial crisis and further taxpayer bailouts.
The counterargument is ably and gamely expressed in a new report from Hamilton Place Strategies, the rising policy and communications consulting firm whose partners include my friend and fellow CNBC contributor Tony Fratto, the former US Treasury Department and Bush White House spokesman. Here are the key points from “Banking On Our Future: The Value Of Big Banks In A Global Economy”:
1. US banks are already smaller and safer than their global competitors.
2. The loan syndication market is no substitute for big, global banks.
3. In the event of a break up, the global competitive landscape will rebalance in favor of foreign banks and the shadow banking sector.
4. Ultimately, breaking up US banks will not improve the safety of the global financial sector and would reduce US influence over the financial sector globally.
For starters, is a relative standard good enough? The US has a more robust economy and job market than France, but is this sufficient? The largest European and US banks are all far bigger, in terms of asset size, than the $100 billion asset level that – some research suggests – may mark the point where economies of scale fade. The HPS study disputes that research but offers no guesstimate of where a ceiling may exist — or if one exists at all.
The HPS study is, I find, too quick to dismiss a) the idea that the size of these institutions may partly reflect government subsidy rather the result of market forces, and b) the idea that a continued funding edge by big banks over small might stem from the TBTF safety net. HPS also places unmerited faith in regulators and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to out think the bankers and stay one step ahead of bank innovation — especially given the political power of Wall Street and the government-lobbyist revolving door.