Measuring the Costs of “Too Big To Fail”

CAMBRIDGE – The idea that some banks are “too big to fail” has emerged from the obscurity of regulatory and academic debate into the broader public discourse on finance. Bloomberg News started the most recent public discussion, criticizing the benefit that such banks receive – a benefit that a study released by the International Monetary Fund has shown to be quite large.

Bankers’ lobbyists and representatives dismissed the Bloomberg editorial for citing a single study, and for relying on rating agencies’ rankings for the big banks, which showed that several would have to pay more for their long-term funding if financial markets didn’t expect government support in case of trouble.

In fact, though, there are about ten recent studies, not just one, concerning the benefit that too-big-to-fail banks receive from the government. Nearly every study points in the same direction: a large boost in the too-big-to-fail subsidy during and after the financial crisis, making it cheaper for big banks to borrow.

But a recent research report released by Goldman Sachs argues the contrary – and deserves to be taken more seriously than previous efforts to dismiss the problem. The report concludes that, over time, big banks’ advantage in long-term funding costs relative to smaller banks has been one-third of one percentage point; that this advantage is small; that it has narrowed recently (and may be reversing); that it comes from the big banks’ efficiency and their bonds’ liquidity; and that historically it has been mostly small banks, not big ones, that have failed.