Calling the Big Banks’ Bluff

BERLIN – The G-20’s decision in November 2008 not to let any systemically relevant bank perish may have seemed wise at the time, given the threat of a global financial meltdown. But that decision, and bad policies by central banks and governments since then, has given over-indebted major banks the power to blackmail their rescuers – a power that they have used to create a financial system in which they are effectively exempt from liability.

Big banks’ ability to extort such an arrangement stems from an implicit threat: the financial sector – and with it the economy’s payment system – would collapse if a systemically important bank were ever pushed into insolvency. But it is time to call the bankers’ bluff: maintaining the payment system can and should be separated from the problem of bank insolvency.

Above all, the G-20’s decision to prop up systemically relevant banks must be revisited. And governments must respond to the banks’ threats by declaring their willingness to let insolvent banks be judged accordingly. A market economy must rest on the economic principle of profit and loss. An economy with neither bankruptcies nor a rule of law that applies equally to all is no market economy. The law that is valid for all other companies should apply to banks as well.

Moreover, governments should guarantee insolvent banks’ loans to non-financial companies, as well as private customers’ current, fixed-term, and savings deposits, by reforming insolvency laws. Certainly, governments should not guarantee interbank liabilities that do not affect customer deposits. An insolvency administrator would manage the bank and ensure that all payments for which a state guarantee is given are carried out properly, with refinancing of these payments continuing to take place via the central bank.