Should Bondholders be Bailed Out?

The general rule of thumb that has emerged from the past year’s turmoil seems to be that when a financial institution is deemed “too big to fail,” governments should and will intervene if it gets into trouble. But a better approach may be to protect only some creditors of a bailed-out institution, and never their bondholders.

CAMBRIDGE – A year after the United States government allowed the investment bank Lehman Brothers to fail but then bailed out AIG, and after governments around the world bailed out many other banks, key question remains: when and how should authorities rescue financial institutions?

It is now widely expected that, when a financial institution is deemed “too big to fail,” governments will intervene if it gets into trouble. But how far should such interventions go? In contrast to the recent rash of bailouts, future government bailouts should protect only some creditors of a bailed-out institution. In particular, the government’s safety net should never be extended to include the bondholders of such institutions.

In the past, government bailouts have typically protected all contributors of capital of a rescued bank other than shareholders. Shareholders were often required to suffer losses or were even wiped out, but bondholders were generally saved by the government’s infusion of cash.

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