Winning the Too-Big-to-Fail Battle

CAMBRIDGE – Headlines about banks’ risks to the financial system continue to dominate the financial news. Bank of America performed poorly on the US Federal Reserve’s financial stress tests, and regulators criticized Goldman Sachs’ and JPMorgan Chase’s financing plans, leading both to lower their planned dividends and share buybacks. And Citibank’s hefty buildup of its financial trading business raises doubts about whether it is controlling risk properly.

These results suggest that some of the biggest banks remain at risk. And yet bankers are insisting that the post-crisis task of strengthening regulation and building a safer financial system has nearly been completed, with some citing recent studies of bank safety to support this argument. So which is it: Are banks still at risk? Or has post-crisis regulatory reform done its job?

The 2008 financial crisis highlighted two dangerous features of today’s financial system. First, governments will bail out the largest banks rather than let them collapse and damage the economy. Second, and worse, being too big to fail helps large banks grow even larger, as creditors and trading partners prefer to work with banks that have an implicit government guarantee.

Too-big-to-fail banks enjoy lower interest rates on debt than their mid-size counterparts, because lenders know that the bonds or trading contracts that such banks issue will be paid, even if the bank itself fails. Before, during, and just after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, this provided an advantage equivalent to more than one-third of the largest US banks’ equity value.