I can get behind any piece of writing that includes the line “James Pethokoukis doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Nine times out of ten, that’s the case. This bill of particulars is accurate. But let’s call this that tenth time.
Pethokoukis, a columnist for the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the pages of the Weekly Standard in favor of a breakup of the big banks. He doesn’t get to that conclusion the way I would get to that conclusion; his first paragraph in the piece reads as a defense of the financial industry as just a collection of hard-working allocators of capital rather than those who spin profits out of greed and fraud. But I don’t really care how you arrive here, just that you do:
America doesn’t need 20 banks with combined assets equal to nearly 90 percent of the U.S. economy, or five mega-banks—JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs—with combined assets equal to almost 60 percent of national output, three times what they were in the 1990s. That amount of complexity and financial concentration—which has grown worse since the passage of Dodd-Frank—is a current and continuing threat to the health of the U.S. economy [...]
It’s little wonder, then, that the preponderance of the evidence is that all the supposed benefits from supersized banks and their economies of scale are outweighed by the risks of disaster they generate. Take this 2011 study from the University of Minnesota: “Our calculations indicate that the cost to the economy as a whole due to increased systemic risk is of an order of magnitude larger than the potential benefits due to any economies of scale when banks are allowed to be large. . . . This suggests that the link between TBTF banks and financial crises needs to be broken. One way to achieve that is to break the largest banks into much smaller pieces.”
What we see in Pethokoukis’ article is the germ of a possibility for a transpartisan coalition around these Big Finance issues. That’s a real sign of hope, in my view. A conservative or a liberal can see that JPMorgan Chase’s dismissal of risk warnings is predicated on the clear belief that they have an implicit guarantee from the government to bail them out if they get into trouble. It’s as clear a form of socializing risks as we have. A conservative or a liberal can see that this implicit guarantee inspires more and more risks and more and more danger spilling over into the non-finance economy. And we know well the impact of such a financial meltdown on both jobs and deficits. A conservative or a liberal can see that oversight agencies armed with complex rules and impenetrable financial instruments, along with a healthy dollop of regulatory capture, cannot possibly hope to monitor this industry in any meaningful way. Pethokoukis quotes Hayek saying basically that. Whether you come at it from the angle of crony capitalism or income inequality, there’s something for everyone here.
There really is a potential for a meeting of the minds here. Thomas Hoenig of the FDIC, Richard Fisher of the Dallas Fed, and plenty other conservative policymakers have stated their preference for ending too big to fail by breaking up the banks, often in great detail. We can make banking boring again, says Hoenig, by focusing commercial banks with access to the discount window and deposit insurance on ordinary activities with long-term customer relationships: consumer lending, deposits, asset management. We can leave the market-making and the derivative trading to the investment houses, outside any government guarantee.
The banks are legitimately worried about this prospect, especially in the wake of JPMorgan Chase’s Fail Whale trade.
Banking analyst Jaret Seiberg of Guggenheim Securities’ Washington Research Group calls a bipartisan bank breakup movement along the lines Hoenig outlines both a “serious threat” and the top issue facing the sector for the rest of the year. “The Republican response to Dodd-Frank’s overkill is to break up the banks. The far left also wants to break up the big banks. The issue with the JPMorgan hedging mess is that it empowers the far left and the far right to pursue their agendas while the silent majority in the middle ducks for political cover.” In fact, what banking analysts call a “serious threat” should strike those outside the management of big banks—left, right, and center—as a “serious opportunity.”
I hope in the coming months to see more outreach on building this transpartisan coalition. Yes, you’re talking about chipping away at the most powerful industry in the world and all their lobbying money. But the more the circle can be squared, with the left and the right coming together on the policy, the more it can become a reality. At any rate, thinking along these lines is a good enough start.