A Simple Solution For Too Big To Fail Banks

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One of the unfortunate corollaries to my enforced absence from regular blogging has been little time to carefully follow the threads of discussion on various topics among the blogs. Curiously, I find that when I do have time to devote to a bit of reading much of the discussion has changed very little.

A case in point is banks and the “Too Big To Fail” issue. Reading a couple articles today I was struck by how much the discussion seems to be mired in the same old arguments. Though it’s well written and contains some highly pertinent comments, an article that appeared in Clusterstock today by Henry Liu illustrates the point.

Mr. Liu does an admirable job of noting that the crisis has actually enhanced the market power of TBTF banks and opines, properly I think, that the various schemes being floated about to address the problem fall short of what is most likely needed.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t propose anything concrete as a solution, preferring to talk about the need for firebreaks and the necessity of stemming systemic contagion. I suspect he has some ideas about how to do that and I also suspect that they are going to sound an awful lot like the other technocratic proposals to solve the problem.

There is no dearth of that sort of thinking about. From debt securities that convert to equity in the event of a firestorm, to taxes on financial transactions, to breaking up the banks, to elaborate plans for super-regulators and higher capital standards for TBTF fail banks or those that engage in casino banking we are not at a loss for ideas. And as each has been advanced we have also not been short of pundits who point out the obvious flaws in the proposals.

The very real fact is that the more you try and impose a complex regulatory framework on a complex financial system, the more likely it becomes that those regulated will find a way around the rules. Complexity tends to breed loopholes and lawyers tend to be quite adept at discovering them and developing means of avoidance. Moreover, time tends to favor the regulated as they know very well how to chip away at the ties that bind them and regulators and politicians quickly lose the missionary zeal that prompted them to rein in their friends.

Given all of this, I find myself more and more drawn to a proposal from John Hempton. It’s simple, has been proven to work in the real world and probably has as good or better a chance of being enacted as anything else floating about.

His idea is to copy the Australian and Canadian banking systems. Make the banks big, profitable and boring. Regulate the hell out of them but leave them fat and rich. A quick look at both countries and the way they have fared in this meltdown provides a pretty good argument for similar banking systems. Neither has seen any sort of real crisis in their systems and their economies have largely been spared the slings and arrows that those of the U.S. and Europe have endured.

Will it happen? Most certainly not, just as any other sort of reform is not going to come to pass. Lots of new rules and probably some sort of new regime that involves those technocratic solutions so beloved by bureaucrats will no doubt be visited upon the banks. The banks will make the appropriate noises about free markets and then set to work finding their way around roadblocks standing between them and profit. Much will be written and spoken about the new world and little will have changed.

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