Too-Big-to-Fail Takes Another Body Blow




Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. David Vitter hold a news conference to announce the details of 'Too Big to Fail' legislation.
Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. David Vitter hold a news conference to announce the details of ‘Too Big to Fail’ legislation.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call


Last week, on April 24th, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Louisiana Republican David Vitter introduced legislation called the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act of 2013 Act,” or the “Brown-Vitter TBTF Act” for short. The bill is a gun aimed directly at the head of the Too-Big-To-Fail beast.

During the Dodd-Frank negotiations a few years ago, Brown teamed up with Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman to introduce an amendment that would have physically capped the size of the biggest banks. The amendment was bold and righteous but was slaughtered on the floor by a 61-33 margin, undermined by leaders of both parties – 27 Democrats voted against it.

Brown-Vitter offers a different and, in a way, more elegant solution to the problem than Brown-Kaufman. Rather than impose size limits, it simply insists that banks with over $500 billion in assets maintain higher capital reserves than are currently required. Companies like J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America will have to keep capital reserves of about 15 percent, about twice the current amount.

The bill only has such tough requirements for just those few megabanks, which sounds unfair, except that the aim of the bill, precisely, is to level the playing field. Right now, the biggest U.S. banks enjoy a massive inherent market advantage in that they’re able to borrow money far more cheaply than other banks, because everybody on earth knows the government will never let them fail and will always bail them out in a pinch, making their debt essentially U.S.-government guaranteed. Studies have shown that these banks borrow money at about 0.8 percent more cheaply than other banks, and that this implicit government subsidy is worth about $83 billion a year just to the top 10 banks in America. This bill would essentially wipe out that hidden subsidy and make the banks bailout-proof.

As soon as Brown-Vitter was introduced, a very interesting thing happened. The Independent Community Bankers of America, or ICBA, issued a press release boosting the bill. “ICBA strongly supports this legislation,” the release read, “and urges all community banks to join the association in advocating passage of legislation to end too-big-to-fail.”

This was a big thing. It was the first time since the crisis that a prominent financial industry group opposed the will of the TBTF banks. I remember covering Dodd-Frank and being told by a number of members in the House and the Senate that the sentiment of many community bankers was for breaking up or at least curtailing the power of companies like Chase and Bank of America, but that the community banking lobby was not yet prepared to take that step.

But now, after the London Whale, the LIBOR scandal, the outrageous HSBC settlement and nearly five years of rapacious market-dominating behavior by these state-backed banks, the community banks have finally split off from TBTF.

This is another in a series of defections on this issue that in the past year has included many Republican politicians, numerous important financial regulators (even the New York Fed has taken a semi-stand against TBTF) and, hilariously, the creator of Too-Big-To-Fail himself, former Citigroup CEO and legendary lower-Manhattan raging asshole Sandy Weill. Weill was the man for whom the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed back in the nineties, so that his already-completed Citigroup merger could be legalized. But even he came out last year and said we have to break up the banks.

Naturally, there was going to be a response to Brown-Vitter from Wall Street. And we got it last week, shockingly not from one of the banks or a lobbying firm connected to the banks, but from the Standard and Poor’s ratings agency – supposedly a strict, humorlessly conservative auditor that should always abhor risk and look favorably upon greater safety and security. The very fact that such a company came out against a bill forcing banks to have safer balance sheets is in itself absolute proof of how completely fucked and corrupt our current system is.

The S&P report, entitled “Brown-Vitter Bill: Game-Changing Regulation For U.S. Banks”, is so incredibly hysterical in its tone that, reading it, one cannot help but deduce that people on Wall Street are genuinely afraid of this bill. The paper essentially hints that forcing banks to retain more capital could lead to world financial collapse, the onset of a new Ice Age, mammoths roaming Nebraska, etc. “The ratings implications of the Brown-Vitter bill, if enacted, for all U.S. banks would be neutral to negative,” the report read. In the second paragraph, it reads:

If congress enacts the bill as proposed, Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services would have concerns about the economic impact on banks’ creditworthiness stemming from the transition to substantially higher capital requirements.

Having a ratings agency bent to monopolistic bank influence give a bad rating to a piece of legislation designed to . . . curb monopolistic bank influence is a bad surrealistic joke, like a Rene Magritte take on lobbying – Ceci nest pas une Too-Big-To-Fail!

Remember, one of the primary causes of the financial crisis in the first place was the corruption of the independent ratings agencies. In the crisis years, companies like S&P and Moody’s and Fitch were so desperate to avoid losing business from the big investment banks (who paid the ratings firms to rate products like mortgage-backed securities) that these companies often gave embarrassingly overenthusiastic grades to a generation of toxic assets.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in its final report placed blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of these firms. “The three credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown. The mortgage-related securities at the heart of the crisis could not have been marketed and sold without their seal of approval,” the FCIC report read. “This crisis could not have happened without the rating agencies.”

So intellectually compromised ratings agencies were guilty before, because they were too quick to help Too-Big-To-Fail banks sell bad products into the world marketplace.

Now, an intellectually-compromised ratings agency is helping sell the very Too-Big-To-Fail system in an attempt to beat back a reform bill – an agency that once stated explicitly that it does not take public positions on legislation.

Years ago, Standard and Poor’s was involved a similar situation. In the mid-2000s, the Senate was considering creating a regulatory body with receivership powers that could have oversight over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. S&P, seemingly doing the bidding of Fannie and Freddie (which wanted no part of any new regulatory oversight), warned that such legislation might lead to a downgrade of the so-called Government-Sponsored Entities, or GSEs. In other words, if you pass this bill, we’re going to take a financial axe to Fannie and Freddie.

When then-Senator John Sununu asked then-S&P president Kathleen Corbet if it didn’t seem to her like the ratings agency was meddling in the legislative process by issuing such a dire warning, Corbet testily replied in the negative.

“First of all, Senator,” she said. “Standard & Poor’s does not advocate positions on any legislation.”

With that in mind, here are some of passages from S&P’s new report, “Brown-Vitter Bill: Game-Changing Regulation For U.S. Banks”:

If the requirements force banks to deleverage, a credit crunch could ensue and the U.S. economy might be thrown off course . . . the U.S. banking industry could become less competitive in world financial markets . . . All in all, the bill’s goal of ending TBTF could lead to unintended consequences – a destabilized financial system.

So Standard and Poor’s does not advocate positions on any legislation, mind you. It just thinks the world as we know it will end if this particular bill passes.

In reality, of course, about the only things that would be “destabilized” if TBTF ended would be the compensation packages for a small group of overpaid banking executives like Jamie Dimon. Another consequence might be that ratings agencies would actually have to work for a living, and earn reputations for honesty and integrity in the market, instead of getting endless streams of free money from big banks to give sparkly AAA ratings to every half-baked security or derivative instrument their obese, Fed-fattened clients cranked out.

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