Big Banks’ Tall Tales

WASHINGTON, DC – There are two competing narratives about recent financial-reform efforts and the dangers that very large banks now pose around the world. One narrative is wrong; the other is scary.

At the center of the first narrative, preferred by financial-sector executives, is the view that all necessary reforms have already been adopted (or soon will be). Banks have less debt relative to their equity levels than they had in 2007. New rules limiting the scope of bank activities are in place in the United States, and soon will become law in the United Kingdom – and continental Europe could follow suit. Proponents of this view also claim that the megabanks are managing risk better than they did before the global financial crisis erupted in 2008.

In the second narrative, the world’s largest banks remain too big to manage and have strong incentives to engage in precisely the kind of excessive risk-taking that can bring down economies. Last year’s “London Whale” trading losses at JPMorgan Chase are a case in point. And, according to this narrative’s advocates, almost all big banks display symptoms of chronic mismanagement.

While the debate over megabanks sometimes sounds technical, in fact it is quite simple. Ask this question: If a humongous financial institution gets into trouble, is this a big deal for economic growth, unemployment, and the like? Or, more bluntly, could Citigroup or a similar-size European firm get into trouble and stumble again toward failure without attracting some form of government and central bank support (whether transparent or somewhat disguised)?