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CIT Puts "Too Big to Fail" to the Test

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Will small-time lender be allowed to go under?

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We have truly become a bailout nation.

As regulators mull over the possibility of rescuing CIT Group (CIT) -- a small-business lender that counts over 1 million US firms as customers -- analysts debate whether the relatively small firm is deserving of a taxpayer-funded bailout. Or for that matter, a bailout at all.

After converting to a bank holding company last year, CIT received $2.3 billion in TARP money to help solidify its financial footing. Yet even this injection of taxpayer capital couldn't prevent its financial position from deteriorating further, and the company now faces the maturity of over $1 billion in bonds next month. Without government support, CIT doesn't believe it will survive the summer.

The specter for a CIT bailout is a tricky political issue: It pits those that argue Washington must step in wherever necessary to support the reeling US economy, against those who are starting to wonder when the bailouts will stop and when bureaucrats will step back and allow the free market to determine who survives.

Few would argue that CIT presents a systemic risk to the US financial system; with a balance sheet of around $75 billion, the company is one-eighth the size of Lehman Brothers, according to research firm BTIG.

CIT is, however, a key lender to small businesses around the country. This means its failure could threaten salary payments for millions of American workers if the company's customers are unable to get lines of credit with other financial institutions. Under different circumstances, banks like Wells Fargo (WFC), Citigroup (C), and Bank of America (BAC) would be eagerly serving CIT's clients. Instead, they're focused on reining in lending of their own.

If CIT were to fail, it would mark the biggest bank failure since Washington Mutual -- now part of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) -- collapsed last September.

By letting CIT fail and coordinating an orderly shuttering of its operations, the Obama administration has the opportunity to re-establish an old precedent long since forgotten in these turbulent economic times: Firms that should fail actually fail.

If, instead, the government rescues CIT, the yardstick by which we measure "Too Big to Fail" will be severely shortened. This wouldn't be a welcome development.

For the past year, government power brokers -- rather than market forces -- have picked the winners and losers as financial firms have been besieged by a massive deflationary debt unwind. Further, as Washington wades deeper and deeper into the day-to-day operations of American business, companies are starting to compete for government cash, not customers.

Moral hazard is a concept quickly brushed to the side during times of crisis, but it's precisely during these trying times that market principles should be the most firmly upheld. Sadly, over the past 24 months, the opposite has held true.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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