“No one should assume that the government will step in to bail them out if their firm fails.”
Talk is cheap, however. And the notion that the plan shows a new aversion to bailouts is not at all supported by its chapter and verse. In fact, there’s precious little in the 88-page document about how the government will eliminate systemic risks posed by financial firms that aren’t allowed to fail because they’re simply too big or to interconnected to other important economic players here and abroad.
Rather than propose ways to shrink these companies and the risks they pose, the Geithner plan argues instead for enhanced regulatory oversight of the behemoths. This suggests the taxpayer safety net will be larger after our national financial train wreck, not smaller.
More than two years after the crisis began, “too big to fail” remains “too problematic to address” with anything other than more souped-up regulation. Given that earlier efforts at policing these entities failed so miserably, why should anyone think that a new-and-improved regulatory approach will fare better?
“The sudden failures of large U.S.-based investment banks and of American International Group were among the most destabilizing events of the financial crisis,” the Geithner proposal said. “These companies were large, highly leveraged, and had significant financial connections to the other major players in our financial system, yet they were ineffectively supervised and regulated.”
All true, of course, with Citigroup — a bank that Mr. Geithner himself regulated — being Exhibit A. But the solution the document proposed is “a new, more robust supervisory regime for any firm whose combination of size, leverage, and interconnectedness could pose a threat to financial stability if it failed.”
Hmmm. Sort of an enhanced status quo, just with a bigger safety net.
That this taxpayer-supported net will be larger and more encompassing when this mess finally ends comes as no surprise to some people. Last August, Edward J. Kane, a finance professor at Boston College, wrote about just this likelihood in a paper titled “Ethical Failures in Regulating and Supervising the Pursuit of Safety-Net Subsidies.”
In the paper, Professor Kane described why the policy responses to financial crises historically had involved expanding the universe of companies eligible for taxpayer support if another mess arose.
“When a substantial portion of the financial sector appears to be at risk, it is far easier to patch up the weaknesses in the system with ad hoc loans and guarantees than to negotiate genuine reform,” he wrote.
PROFESSOR KANE’S paper certainly is prescient. For top regulators to be able to push through larger bailouts, he argued, two conditions must hold. “First they must be able to control the flow of information,” he wrote, “so as to keep taxpayers and the press from convincingly assessing either the magnitude of the implicit capital transfer or the anti-egalitarian character of the subsidization scheme.”
Sound familiar? Recall the months of secrecy surrounding the bailout of A.I.G.’s counterparties and the refusal of the Federal Reserve Board to disclose how it chose BlackRock to oversee three of its rescue programs and what it was paying the firm to do so?
Then there is Professor Kane’s second condition: Regulators’ commitment to these bailout policies “must be continually nourished by praise and other forms of tribute from the bankers, borrowers and investors whose losses are being shifted to less-influential parties.”
We’ve heard a lot of this, of course, in recent weeks. Here is Timothy Ryan, president of the securities industry lobbying group, responding to the Treasury plan on the group’s Web site. “This is an important step forward,” he said. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our regulatory structure so that our financial system is more stable, more resilient and better underpins a dynamic U.S. economy.”
To be sure, the Treasury proposal does hope to curb the growth of large, systemically scary companies by raising their costs of doing business. But entrusting greater responsibilities to the same supervisors who missed the risks at the institutions they oversaw during the mania doesn’t inspire confidence.
And with the exception of merging the Office of Thrift Supervision into the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the plan doesn’t suggest how the regulators who failed will be held accountable for their mistakes.
According to some experts who study systemic risks posed by huge and complex companies, installing a “more robust supervisory regime” isn’t enough.
“I do not think that intensification of traditional supervision and regulation of large financial firms will effectively address the too-big-to-fail problem,” Gary H. Stern, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and an authority on resolving big and troubled institutions, said last month in Congressional testimony.
Mr. Stern declined to comment last week on the Treasury proposal, citing Fed rules against its officials speaking publicly in the days surrounding meetings of its Federal Open Market Committee. But he told Congress that the key to tackling problems posed by financial behemoths is to convince uninsured creditors of these companies that they will not be bailed out by the government. (Rescuing uninsured creditors is exactly what the government did a great deal of in 2008; think Bear Stearns and A.I.G.)
To protect other companies from also becoming unnecessary casualties when a troubled institution founders, regulators must have a quick-response plan in hand, Mr. Stern advised. Reforms that do not materially reduce spillover effects, he warned in his testimony, shouldn’t be relied upon.
There isn’t much in the Treasury plan about such spillovers. Nevertheless, it is candid about the failings of regulatory efforts during the recent credit boom. “It is clear now that the government could have done more to prevent many of these problems from growing out of control and threatening the stability of our financial system,” it says.
It’s beyond disappointing that the Treasury plan offers no way to measure regulators’ effectiveness or hold them accountable for their failures. Neither is there a discussion of mechanisms that could be used to signal regulatory failings well before they put the entire system at peril.
True financial reform should reward efficient regulation and supervision, Professor Kane said in his paper. “Regulators should be made accountable not just for producing a stable financial economy, but for providing this stability fairly and at minimum long-run cost to society,” he wrote. This means creating incentives that encourage regulators to perform in the taxpayers’ interests.
“The public policy problem,” Professor Kane concluded, “is to design employment contracts that would make it in supervisors’ self-interest to invoke ‘market mimicking’ disciplines when and as a country’s important institutions weaken.”
It may be naïve to expect the nation’s top regulators to devise ways to ensure that their dismal performance of late will not occur again. But it’s certainly worth hoping for."