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Too Big to Fail: Four Years Later, Things Are Riskier Than Ever


Even after Dodd-Frank, large institutions are still risky. And we have a government all too willing to intervene.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL The turmoil in Europe, trading losses at JPMorgan (JPM), and recent revelations about naked short-selling by Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC) should be giving every American and every policy maker heartburn because each and every one of these issues has potential to cause systemic financial shocks. It all ultimately comes down to the continuing saga of "Too Big to Fail," or TBTF. TBTF nearly brought the financial system down in '08 and '09. It was supposed to be fixed by the Dodd-Frank legislation. But today, the TBTF institutions are even bigger than they were in '08.

European Worries

On a daily basis, reports indicate that instability is growing in the European Monetary Union's (or EMU) banking system. There have been outright runs on Greek institutions and rumored runs on Spanish banks. In Greece, it's been reported that some businesses will not accept euro notes (i.e., the paper currency) issued by the Greek central bank for fear that if Greece leaves the EMU, those notes will be turned into new drachmas, which will be worth only a fraction of what real euros are worth.

In the US, the paper currency is issued by a Federal Reserve Bank. There is a number on each bill (1 to 12) that shows which Federal Reserve Bank was the issuer. Like the US, each participating central bank in the EMU can issue currency; the first letter of the serial number is coded to indicate which bank issued it. Currency issued by the Greek central bank is coded with a "Y." Some Greeks are demanding currency coded with an "X" ( i.e., Germany).

There are growing worries about European bank solvency, and Moody's recently downgraded a significant number of the larger Spanish and Italian banks. If Greece leaves the EMU, contagion could result. If funding markets for European banks freeze (causing one or several institutions to be unable to meet their daily liquidity requirements), there is a high probability that any contagion would spread to US financial institutions.

At the very least, the interrelationships between large US and European institutions will cause significant issues if a fat tail event occurs on the continent.

In fact, on March 21, Fed Chairman Bernanke warned Congress that the risks of impacts from such events on US banks and money market funds appeared to be significant.

Lack of Internal Controls at TBTF Institutions

On May 11, Jamie Dimon announced that JPMorgan had lost $2 billion or more in a failed "hedge" trade. Since then, the estimates of the loss have escalated; some think it could be as much as $5 billion - $7 billion. This shows that even the best-of-breed bankers, like Mr. Dimon, are unable to place sufficient internal controls over the riskiest of operations.

Over the past several years, we've seen such trading blow-ups at several of the TBTF institutions. The so-called "Volcker Rule," a portion of the Dodd-Frank legislation that is supposedly effective this fall, should prevent "proprietary trading" at the TBTF institutions. But many think that such rules will be easy to get around; Mr. Dimon has indicated that this huge loss was due to a failed "hedge," and not proprietary trading. JPMorgan had $182 billion in capital according to their March 31 filings, so the loss of a few billion isn't going to put this institution in any danger or require any taxpayer assistance.

However, on the Monday after the JPMorgan announcement (May 14), President Obama appeared on ABC's The View and commented that it was a good thing that JPMorgan had plenty of capital, noting that had this happened at a weaker bank, "[W]e could have had to step in."

Think about this statement. The first reaction to stress in the financial system is for the government to step in! Compare that to the first Chrysler bailout in 1979. At that time, Lee Iacocca, Chrysler's Chairman and CEO, had to beg Congress for nearly four months for a loan guarantee (not a direct loan) of $1.5 billion.

In fact, the day before Mr. Dimon announced JPMorgan's large loss problem, the FDIC's acting Chairman, Martin Gruenberg, announced plans and procedures for the FDIC to seize large financial institutions "when the next crisis brings a major financial firm to its knees." Instead of getting rid of TBTF, it is now institutionalized. The FDIC's announced plans are simply in accordance with Dodd-Frank.

During the week of May 14, the lawyers representing Goldman Sachs and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch in a lawsuit filed by filed an unredacted set of documents with the court (i.e., the whole document was submitted instead of only certain parts), thus putting them into the public domain.

Those documents revealed that these TBTF institutions knowingly ignored the laws and regulations against "naked" short-selling. When one sells "short," one must first borrow the stock, or else there is nothing to prevent someone shorting (i.e., selling) so many shares as to significantly and negatively impact the market price for the stock (which is what a short-seller hopes for). "Naked" short-selling occurs when the stock is sold without borrowing it from another owner, and three business days later, the seller "fails" to deliver the stock.

Because of their size and power, the TBTF banks could depress the stock price of any company they choose. If one of their units puts a "sell" recommendation out and the trading department "naked" short-sells, then the "sell" recommendation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, in fact, is what's lawsuit has been about.

So let's review:

1. Bernanke worries that European bank insolvencies or liquidity issues may have significant systemic impacts on US financial institutions – if anyone knows, he should know.

2. JPMorgan's losses elicited a response from the US president about the immediate active role of government with regard to issues at the TBTF banks.

3. The FDIC announced its policies, plans, and procedures to seize TBTF institutions when the next financial crisis occurs.

4. It has come to light that some TBTF institutions have skirted laws and regulations.

If there were no TBTF institutions in the US, then little of the above would be of concern. Instead:

1. While the European contagion would still be a worry, it wouldn't be as much of a worry regarding its risk to our entire financial system because no one institution alone would be a systemic risk.

2. The government shouldn't ever have to "step in" if a bank failed. Sure, there would be market reaction and shareholders and bondholders would have consequences, but as long as the failed institution couldn't cause systemic issues, there would be no need for government (taxpayer) involvement.

3. The expensive and extensive policies and processes now being set up at FDIC would be unnecessary.

4. Without the power that comes with being TBTF, the "naked" short-selling and other abuses would be much less effective or profitable.

5. The TBTF institutions are so complex that even the likes of a Jamie Dimon can't provide effective internal controls and risk management. Smaller institutions that have such issues won't cause systemic risk.

The lessons of the '08-'09 near systemic meltdown were clear: TBTF is a huge policy issue. Unfortunately, after Dodd-Frank, not only are TBTF institutions bigger and systemically more risky, but we now have a government all too willing, and maybe even eager, to "step in."

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert Barone is a Mangaging Partner / Portfolio Manager of Universal Value Advisors.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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