Too Big to Fail: Time for a Controlled Demolition

Shutterstock photo
Dude, where's the Dharma? submits:

If shareholders realized they they are getting the same shaft as depositors a major impediment to true bank reform could be swept away. Senior bank employees are using complexity of operations (which is more myth than reality) to hobble shareholder control and progressive era legislation to hobble depositor control.

Let the senior financiers keep their salaries and bonuses, and let them do with their banks what they will. If, however, their bank fails, let the bankers themselves fail. Let the value of their houses, cars, yachts, paintings, etc. be assigned to the firm's creditors. James Grant: Let the Bankers Fail

As the news of Wall Street's underhanded dealings goes mainstream thanks to the SEC's case against Goldman Sachs ( GS ), the idea of letting the bankers fail never seemed so sweet to so many in recent history. Yet, failure might have nasty consequences. Just as one wouldn't want a skyscraper to topple over in a crowded city, one wouldn't want the TBTF banks to collapse. Better, I think, to effect a controlled demolition.

While he has been opining about finance more wisely and for far longer than I, Mr. Grant's ire may be somewhat misdirected (although the effect of his proposed renewal of the fear of God seems a wise idea) at shareholders, when senior bank employees are those whose behavior must be modified. They take the least risk and benefit the most.

Explaining the problem's emergence, Mr. Grant draws our attention to the FDIC, an institution ostensibly designed to benefit the man on the street whose limited life savings might be lost in a bank failure. An additional effect, however, was to shield bank owners from liability, at state expense.

Another key effect, particularly when the lender of last resort (in the US, the Federal Reserve) supports banks rather than credit markets more generally, was to dampen depositors' desire and hamstring their capacity to demolish a bank. It is no surprise that the vigor with which Big Finance worked to repeal Glass Steagall was not directed at FDIC or Federal Reserve legislation.

Banking is a curious business, as Louis Brandeis noted in Other People's Money : The goose that lays golden eggs has been considered a most valuable possession. But even more profitable is the privilege of taking the golden eggs laid by someone else's goose . Bankers, by which he meant bank shareholders, combined their equity capital with deposits in 1929 at a deposit to equity ratio of roughly 10 to 1 and kept a majority of the profits thereof.

Prior to Fed support of banks, depositors had a significant controlling interest (whether they were aware of this is another issue). A bank run was the means by which they exerted this control. As noted, this control was greatly diminished (but not lost), and obscured by the Fed and FDIC.

Of course, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Bank shareholders had it good for a while, but lately they too have been getting the shaft from senior bank employees, who may not have any investment in the bank. As noted here , ( full article here ) at the Big 4 US Banks (Bank of America ( BAC ), Citigroup ( C ), JPMorgan ( JPM ), Wells Fargo ( WFC )) depositors were paid $25B on their investment of $2.5T, shareholders were paid $18B on their investment of $660B and employees were paid $111B for their time.

If shareholders realized they are getting the same shaft as depositors a major impediment to true bank reform could be swept away. Senior bank employees are using complexity of operations (which is more myth than reality) to hobble shareholder control and progressive era legislation to hobble depositor control. Simon Johnson and James Kwak should take note. Explaining that shareholders' interests are aligned with depositors' might ignite the controlled demolition of TBTF .

Why should senior bank employees with the least "skin in the game" reap the largest benefits?

A controlled demolition of TBTF might proceed something like this:

1) Depositors could begin to reassert their lost control by withdrawing money from the Big Banks ( There already is such a movement underway ).

2) Minimally, shareholders could begin to reassert their lost control by wiser appointments to the Boards of Directors with the view that cost control includes direction as well as magnitude (to wit, why should shareholders pay for lobbying which enriches employees and not them). Preferably, sell the shares and reinvest the capital in various smaller banks, presumably some of whom might be the recipients of moved depositor funds and none of whom have significant derivatives' exposure. In a controlled demolition of TBTF, the numerous banks left standing should benefit significantly.

3) Depositors and shareholders could understand that institution size dilutes control and allows employees to usurp control leaving you (or the state) to deal with the risk.

4) If an aligned group of depositors (aka voters) and shareholders (aka those funding the lobbying) demanded action, change would come. One key change: The Fed would need to stop supporting banks and instead support markets mitigating collateral damage from the demolition. They should open lines of communication with the hundreds of banks with assets between $1B and $100B. They will also need to deal with foreign depositors at the TBTF banks and begin to unravel the nightmare of derivatives (admittedly a task easier said than done).

Instead of a full frontal approach, TBTF should be imploded from within. Those with "skin in the game" need to take back control.

It's your money, and only your wisdom (not the government's or bank employees') will keep it safe and perhaps allow it to grow. Concentration of money occurs when investment is passive. Move Your Money!

See also Is the Stock Market Rolling Over? on

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing , Economy , Stocks
Referenced Symbols: BAC , C , GS , JPM , MS , WFC

More from SeekingAlpha



Market Commentary
Follow on:

Find a Credit Card

Select a credit card product by:
Select an offer:
Data Provided by