The Too Big to Fail Problem

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Date added: 17-06-26

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"Too big to fail" was a very regular term we all heard during the Great Recession of 2008, but did we truly understand the term? To understand this overused term, we must first define what it means to be a firm that is "Too Big to Fail". According to Stern and Fieldman, " 'too big to fail'(TBTF), a term describes the receipt of discretionary government support by a bank's uninsured creditors who are not automatically entitled to government support." (8). Citi Group is an example of this term that easily comes to mind; the government never considered that a firm as large as them would ever be on the verge of collapse. It was only after their announcement to the US government in August of 2008 stating their bankruptcy, the government took action guaranteed this mega-firm that they would pay off their bad investments. But why would our very own government consider such action? A reasonable answer would be that the government considered the perceived dangers of letting a bank of this size collapse and the repercussions that the economy would experience if they allowed this to happen. The main concern is, how did government regulations become so lax? Why do they allow a bank to become so large and overleveraged, that if they were to fail, it would resonate throughout the global economy. What can the government do to solve this problem at hand? To understand how we fell into the Great Recession, we have understand how these firms were able to get so oversized. In 1932 Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act; which "banned commercial banks from underwriting securities. Banks were forced to choose between being commercial banks, that held deposits and made loans, and investment banks that conducted securities transactions"(Crawford,128). However in November of 1999,a new regulation, supported by the banking industry, called the Gramn-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the Glass-Steagall Act.  What made Congress go back into regulations and repeal the act? In the boom of the 90's, the feeling of financial sector was that the Glass-Steagall Act hampered America's financial companies from being competitive globally.  An ambitious CEO, Sandy Weill of Traveler's Group(one of the largest insurance companies), had a dream in which his corporation would merge with Salomon Smith Barney(one of the largest investment banks at the time) and Citicorp(the largest commercial bank) to form a super conglomerate. However, at the time, this deal was illegal because the Glass-Steagal Act was still in effect. The size of Citicorp and Travelers were so big that they were able to go to Congress and demand action, and Congress folded. Weill was able to convince Alan Greenspan(Chairmen of the Federal Reserve), Paul Rubin(Secretary of Treasury), and  President Clinton to allow the merger with the expectation that Congress would repeal the Glass-Steagall Act. Citicorp and Travelers had their lobbyist push their merger so hard that "the legislation, HR10, House Resolution 10, which became the Financial Services Modernization Act, was referred to as "the Citi-Travelers Act" on Capitol Hill"(Bill Clinton). Not only was this act passed with a dominate 90-8 vote in the Senate, but also an overwhelming 362-57 vote in the House. This repeal would serve as the key corner stone that allowed bank to perform mergers of this nature, and allow them to get so oversized.                 After the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act these new conglomerate became so large and interconnected that once the Great Recession started, the failure of one bank would mean the failure of the entire financial system. American International Group(AIG), an insurance company, is a example of this. With the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, AIG suddenly transformed into a company with "General insurance, Life insurance & retirement services, Financial Services, and Asset Management" (Sjostrom 946). AIG was able to use premiums paid for life insurance to leverage creation of credit default swaps; "A CDS is a privately negotiated contract where one party(" the protection seller"),in exchange for a fee, agrees to compensate another party("The protection buyer") if a specified "credit event"(Such as bankruptcy or failure to pay) occurs with respect to a company( the "reference entity") or debt obligation(the "reference obligation"). CDS are used for a variety of purposes including hedging, speculation , and arbitrage" (Sjostrom 948). For example, if a company like Goldman Sachs wants to hedge on mortgage defaults; they would go to AIG, and enter into a credit default swap with them. They would then pay AIG a fee upfront, and if the mortgage was to default, AIG would agree to pay the defaulted value thus limiting the risk to Goldman Sachs. Problem is rather than AIG setting aside the value, they would need to pay Goldman Sachs if the mortgage was to default. AIG would instead use the fee they received for the credit default swap to leverage the fee into creating more credit default swaps. Goldman Sachs, viewing that they had protection on their mortgages, would go out and buy more mortgages using future interest and principles payments on those mortgages. However, once the crisis occurred, foreclosures went through the roof. AIG faced a mountain of credit default swaps that they had to pay out to. Since they were so overleveraged they didn't have enough cash on hand to pay out all the credit default swaps. If AIG defaulted, Goldman Sachs would then not receive the money they were expecting from the credit default swaps, and would also not be receive the monthly payment on the mortgage thus creating a short-fall for them as well, since mortgage were usually re-packaged and resold. An AIG default would have not only affected companies in the U.S, it would have also caused a catastrophic ripple throughout the global banking sector. However, AIG was deemed "too big to fail" and the U.S government stepped in to pay all of AIG's credit default swaps thus preventing wide spread chaos. As the chaos subsided, various economists have presented solutions to the "Too Big to Fail" problem, including ending securitization, lowering leverage level, enforcing more transparency, create morally defensible incentives, and breaking up companies deemed too big to fail. By ending securitization, we would face higher interest rates for borrowers but, as Cohan states " If financial engineers can find a way to bundle loans into securities that are guaranteed not to lose money for investors, then securitization should continue" (Cohan). However this is a pipe dream and facing the possibilities of another global recession or higher interest rates the later, should be preferred. If we enforce lower leverage levels on "all actors in the financial system-- including banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, businesses and households-- to set clear targets for maximum leverage and to ensure that none of them is able to exceed those targets." (Cohan) This will bring balance not only to Wall Street, but also to America. For far too long Americans have lived beyond their means and the growth of credit card debt is a clear example of this. If all leverage were to be scaled back the environment for future growth rather than present day payoff would be much brighter. Transparency in the financial market is also very lacking as witnessed by the Bernie Madoff scandal; in which Madoff scammed his investors out of 65 billion dollars. Wall Street firms are still not held to a high enough level of transparency to provide consumers with a true picture of a firm's strength. Another big problem is how bankers are compensated for their work. Their bonuses are tied to the size and amount of deals they perform in the year and it would serve no purpose to them to be cautious in making deals. A clear solution to this is one suggested by Cohan, rather than bankers receiving all bonuses that year they put all the money into an escrow account, and wait "five years, if the investment were still valuable, the banker would receive the money out of escrow, otherwise, the escrow would pay the losses that the investor incurred from the bad deal. This kind of structure could reduce the moral hazard in the current incentive system." (Cohan) This would provide bankers the incentive to perform deals that are more likely to make money for investors rather than for their own selfish purpose. Finally, the one solution that might make the most sense to the average consumer, would be to just break up companies deemed "too big to fail" by the government. Cohan believes that there should be a limit on how big a bank could get, "we shouldn't be rewarding managers for building big companies that can't earn profits that exceed their cost of capital. And we should not require taxpayers to pay for the cost of such failures." Although all five of these steps would be necessary to prevent systemic risk it will still, also require the diligence and regulation from the federal government to avert a financial crisis we've had. The United States Government has listened to the economists and the first of the financial reform regulations had finally been passed on June 29th , 2010 . The passing of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act incorporated many of the solution that have been mentioned above. To deal with the issues of lowering leverage levels and enforcing better transparency, the Dodd-Frank Act created a Financial Stability Oversight Council in which it's made up of expert members of the financial community, headed by the Treasury Secretary and includes the Chairmen of the Federal Reserve and other government financial agencies. What this new council will do is make "recommendations to the Federal Reserve for increasingly strict rules for capital, leverage, liquidity, risk management, and other requirement as companies grow in size and complexity, with significant requirement on companies that pose risks to the financial system" (US Senate). This council will make changes to regulations depending on the size and complexity of the bank and prevent "too big to fail" banks from getting over leveraged and investing in questionable investments. This council will also solve the issue of breaking up a bank if it's deemed too large or complex, they are "able to approve, with a 2/3 vote and vote of the chair, a Federal Reserve decision to require a large, complex company, to divest some of its holdings if it poses a grave threat to the financial stability of the United States- but only as a last resort." (US Senate) This gives the power to this council to essentially force a bank deemed too large, to sell some of its assets to be reduced to a more manageable size. The act also brings back some of the components of the Glass-Steagall Act in the form of the Volcker Rule, which "requires regulators implement regulation for banks, their affiliates and holding companies, to prohibit proprietary trading, investments in and sponsorship of hedge funds and private equity funds, and to limit relationships with hedge funds, and private equity funds" (US Senate). By separating savings and loan banks from proprietary trading and other risky investments, this will significantly lower the risk a bank will be willing to take. Bank used to be faced with the decision to either make very modest returns on mortgages and loans or high returns from hedge funds and proprietary trading and faced with that decision greed over takes all reasoning. On the last point of incentives, large banks have realized that the public now views incentive based bonuses very negatively, instead they are moving away from giving record bonuses every year, and instead started to double or triple salary in some cases. In the past, banks have preferred to keep salaries low and use bonuses as a way to drive performance. Now instead investment banks such as "Credit Suisse, UBS and Morgan Stanley have also added so-called clawback provisions to bankers' pay, allowing the banks to take back some pay from employees who fail to meet certain performance goals. " (Werdigier) Rather than having set performance based incentives, these more flat salary increase might allow the bankers a bit of a wiggle room to make deals that are more financial sound. This Dodd-Franks act is a step in the right direction, but there is still much to do in order to prevent this from happening again. Vigilance and patience is what we need now, to rebuild and recuperate from this fiasco. There is no point in going back to the age of the Glass-Steagall Act since the complexity and size of global financial organization have grown. All the act would do now is hamper U.S firms. With these new government regulation and with good self-regulation, financial firms from this point forward should be able to maintain a leverage level where a failure of one firm, wouldn't cause a systemic collapse of the entire sector. However, greed is everlasting, and only through persistence can we prevent the financial firms from getting so close to the edge of collapse again.
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