Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fed's Tarullo on "Too Big to Fail"

by Bill McBride on 10/21/2009 01:30:00 PM

Yesterday both former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and BofE Governor Mervyn King argued to break up the big banks. Fed Governor Tarullo disagrees.

From Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo: Confronting Too Big to Fail
One approach suggested by a number of commentators is to reverse the 30-year trend that allowed progressively more financial activities within commercial banks and more affiliations with non-bank financial firms. The idea is presumably to insulate insured depository institutions from trading or other capital market activities that are thought riskier than traditional lending functions. There are, however, at least two reasons why this strategy seems unlikely to limit the too-big-to-fail problem to a significant degree. One is that, historically at least, some very large institutions got themselves into a good deal of trouble through risky lending alone. Moreover, as we have already seen in the experience with Bear Stearns and Lehman, firms without commercial banking operations can now also pose a too-big-to-fail threat.

Another approach would be to attack the bigness problem head-on by limiting the size or interconnectedness of financial institutions. Some observers have even suggested that existing large firms should be split up into smaller, not-too-big-to-fail entities, in a manner a bit reminiscent of the break-up of AT&T in the early 1980s. Of course, the conceptual and practical challenges in breaking up the nation’s largest financial institutions would be considerably more daunting than those faced by Judge Greene in creating four regional operating companies and a long distance carrier out of the old AT&T. Indeed, to my knowledge, no one has offered anything like standards for undertaking this task, much less a blueprint for how it would be accomplished. This is, in other words, more a provocative idea than a proposal. Like many a provocative idea, though, even in an unelaborated form it can focus attention on the relative effectiveness of alternative policy proposals.

The fact that the largest financial firms will account for a significantly larger share of total industry assets after the crisis than they did before can only add to the uneasiness of those worried about the too-big-to-fail phenomenon. It is notable that current law provides very little in the way of structural means to limit systemic risk and the too-big-to-fail problem. The statutory prohibition on interstate acquisitions that would result in a commercial bank and its affiliates holding more than 10 percent of insured deposits nationwide is the closest thing to such an instrument. Policymakers and policy commentators alike might usefully attempt to develop similarly discrete mechanisms that could be beneficial in containing the too-big-to-fail problem. As must be apparent from my remarks today, my strong suspicion is that an effective response to the problem will likely require multiple, mutually reinforcing instruments.
emphasis added
Tarullo suggests:
A regulatory response for the too-big-to-fail problem would enhance the safety and soundness of large financial institutions and thereby reduce the likelihood of severe financial distress that could raise the prospect of systemic effects. Such a response consists of three elements.

First, the shortcomings of the regulations that failed to protect the stability of the firms and the financial system need to be rectified. Regulatory capital requirements can balance the incentive to excessive risk-taking that may arise when there is believed to be government support for a firm, or at least some of its liabilities. There is little doubt that capital levels prior to the crisis were insufficient to serve their functions as an adequate constraint on leverage and a buffer against loss. The Federal Reserve has worked with other U.S. and foreign supervisors to strengthen capital, liquidity, and risk-management requirements for banking organizations. In particular, higher capital requirements for trading activities and securitization exposures have already been agreed. Work continues on improving the quality of capital and counteracting the procyclical tendencies of important areas of financial regulation, such as capital and accounting standards.

These regulatory changes are surely a necessary part of a response to the too-big-to-fail problem, but there is good reason to doubt that they are sufficient. Generally applicable capital and other regulatory requirements do not take account of the specifically systemic consequences of the failure of a large institution. It is for this reason that many have proposed a second kind of regulatory response--a special charge, possibly a special capital requirement, based on the systemic importance of a firm. Ideally, this requirement would be calibrated so as to begin to bite gradually as a firm’s systemic importance increased, so as to avoid the need for identifying which firms are considered too-big-to-fail and, thereby, perhaps increasing moral hazard.
A third regulatory change is in some respects the most obvious and straightforward: Any firm whose failure could have serious systemic consequences ought to be subject to regulatory requirements such as those I have just described.