Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Bernanke, Summers and Geithner say that we can't let the giant banks fail, because - without them - the economy will be starved of credit and we will be plunged into a depression.
This isn't true.
If we really needed the giant banks, the following top economists and financial experts wouldn't have said that the economy can only recover if the insolvent "too big to fails" are broken up:
- Nobel prize-winning economist Jospeph Stiglitz, MIT economics professor Simon Johnson and Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Thomas Hoenig (and see this)
- The head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair
- The leading monetary economist and co-author with Milton Friedman of the leading treatise on the Great Depression, Anna Schwartz
- Economics professor and senior regulator during the S & L crisis, William K. Black
- Leading economist, Nouriel Roubini
- Well-known economist, Marc Faber
- Nobel economist, Ed Prescott
- Dean and professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School, and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, R. Glenn Hubbard, and Professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Luigi Zingales
- Economics professor Thomas F. Cooley
The above-described leading economists wouldn't have recommended breaking up the banking giants if they thought that their survival was necessary for an economic recovery. Other lending institutions can step up to the plate to make loans.
Small Banks Can Fill Big Shoes
Fortune pointed out in February that smaller banks are stepping in to fill the lending void left by the giant banks' current hesitancy to make loans. Indeed, the article points out that the only reason that smaller banks haven't been able to expand and thrive is that the too-big-to-fails have decreased competition:
Growth for the nation's smaller banks represents a reversal of trends from the last twenty years, when the biggest banks got much bigger and many of the smallest players were gobbled up or driven under...
As big banks struggle to find a way forward and rising loan losses threaten to punish poorly run banks of all sizes, smaller but well capitalized institutions have a long-awaited chance to expand.
BusinessWeek noted in January:
As big banks struggle, community banks are stepping in to offer loans and lines of credit to small business owners...
At a congressional hearing on small business and the economic recovery earlier this month, economist Paul Merski, of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington (D.C.) trade group, told lawmakers that community banks make 20% of all small-business loans, even though they represent only about 12% of all bank assets. Furthermore, he said that about 50% of all small-business loans under $100,000 are made by community banks...
Indeed, for the past two years, small-business lending among community banks has grown at a faster rate than from larger institutions, according to Aite Group, a Boston banking consultancy. "Community banks are quickly taking on more market share not only from the top five banks but from some of the regional banks," says Christine Barry, Aite's research director. "They are focusing more attention on small businesses than before. They are seeing revenue opportunities and deploying the right solutions in place to serve these customers."
And Fed Governor Daniel K. Tarullo said in June:
The importance of traditional financial intermediation services, and hence of the smaller banks that typically specialize in providing those services, tends to increase during times of financial stress. Indeed, the crisis has highlighted the important continuing role of community banks...
For example, while the number of credit unions has declined by 42 percent since 1989, credit union deposits have more than quadrupled, and credit unions have increased their share of national deposits from 4.7 percent to 8.5 percent. In addition, some credit unions have shifted from the traditional membership based on a common interest to membership that encompasses anyone who lives or works within one or more local banking markets. In the last few years, some credit unions have also moved beyond their traditional focus on consumer services to provide services to small businesses, increasing the extent to which they compete with community banks.
Big Banks Aren't Really Focusing On the Lending Business Anyway
Since Glass-Steagal (the law saying banks couldn't use their customer's deposits to make speculative investments) was repealed in 1999, the giant banks have made most of their money in trading assets, securities, derivatives and other speculative bets, the banks' own paper and securities, and in other money-making activities which have nothing to do with traditional depository functions.
Now that the economy has crashed, the big banks are making very few loans to consumers or small businesses because they still have trillions in bad derivatives gambling debts to pay off, and so they are only loaning to the biggest players and those who don't really need credit in the first place. See this and this.
So we don't need these giant gamblers. We don't need JP Morgan, Citi, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. What we need are lenders.
Small Banks Can Do Things Better Than Giants
The above-described Fortune article also points out that the banking giants are not necessarily more efficient than smaller banks:
The largest banks often don't show the greatest efficiency. This now seems unsurprising given the deep problems that the biggest institutions have faced over the past year.
"They actually experience diseconomies of scale," Narter wrote of the biggest banks. "There are so many large autonomous divisions of the bank that the complexity of connecting them overwhelms the advantage of size."
And Governor Tarullo points out some of the benefits of small community banks over the giant banks:
Many community banks have thrived, in large part because their local presence and personal interactions give them an advantage in meeting the financial needs of many households, small businesses, and agricultural firms. Their business model is based on an important economic explanation of the role of financial intermediaries--to develop and apply expertise that allows a lender to make better judgments about the creditworthiness of potential borrowers than could be made by a potential lender with less information about the borrowers.A small, but growing, body of research suggests that the financial services provided by large banks are less-than-perfect substitutes for those provided by community banks.
It is simply not true that we need the mega-banks. In fact, as many top economists and financial analysts have said, the "too big to fails" are actually stifling competition from smaller lenders and credit unions, and dragging the entire economy down into a black hole.
Of course, if banks were public utilities, there would be enough credit for everyone.