Let’s Hope the GAO Report Ends the Too-Big-to-Fail Subsidy Distraction

By Mike Konczal |

The GAO just released its long-awaited report on whether Wall Street receives an implicit subsidy for still being seen as Too Big To Fail (TBTF). I’m still working through the report, but the headline conclusion is that “large bank holding companies had lower funding costs than smaller ones during the financial crisis” and that there is “mixed evidence of such advantages in recent years. However, most models suggest that such advantages may have declined or reversed.”

For a variety of reasons, whether this subsidy exists has become a major focal point in the discussion about financial reform. The Obama administration wants the headline that TBTF is over, and the President’s opponents want to argue that Dodd-Frank has institutionalized bailouts. Hopefully this GAO report puts that “permanent bailouts” talking point to rest.

More generally, however, I find that there are three problems with this emphasis on a possible Wall Street subsidy in the financial reform debate:

The first is that it makes it seem like the bailouts were the only problem with the financial sector. Let’s do a thought experiment: imagine that in September 2008, Lehman Brothers went crashing into bankruptcy and…nothing happened. There was no panic in interbank lending or the money market mutual funds. The Federal Reserve didn’t do emergency lending, and nobody suggested that Congress pass TARP. There was nothing but crickets out there in the financial press.

Even if that had happened, we’d still have needed a massive overhaul of the financial system. Think of all the other things that went wrong: Wall Street fueled a massive housing bubble that destroyed household wealth and generated bad debts that have choked the economy for half a decade. Neighborhoods were torn apart by more than 6 million foreclosures while bankers laughed all the way to the bank. A hidden derivatives market radically distorted the price of credit risk and led to the creation of instruments designed to rip off investors. Wall Street failed at its main job — to allocate capital to productive ends in the economy. Instead, it went on a rampage that did serious harm to investors, households, and ultimately our economy. 

TBTF is the most egregious example of the out-of-control financial system, and it’s a major problem that needs to be checked. But if emphasized too much, it makes it seem as if the problem is only how much damage a firm can do to the economy when it fails. In fact, the problem is much broader than that, and solving it requires transparency in the derivatives market, consumer protections, accountability in the securities Wall Street makes and sells, a focus on actual business lines, and regulation of shadow banking as a whole, not just last rites for individual firms.

This is important because the second problem is that some will take this report as evidence that reform is just right, or has even gone too far. And scanning the coverage, I see that the commentators who are applauding the GAO’s conclusions are often the same people who have said that, for instance, liquidity rules in Dodd-Frank have gone too far, or that the Volcker Rule should be tossed out. This is even as the GAO points to these provisions as necessary reforms.

We can debate whether a subsidy for failing banks exists or how big it is, but the goal of regulation should not be to fine-tune that number. The subsidy is only a symptom of much larger problems with the financial system, and the point of regulation is to build a system that works. 

Finally, the third issue is that emphasizing the subsidy makes us think of ending TBTF as a binary, check-yes-or-no, pass-fail kind of test. Again, there are political reasons for this emphasis, but TBTF isn’t a switch that can be flipped on or off. Addressing the problem is an ongoing process that will be carried out through the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), and that process can be either more or less robust.

It’s good that the financial markets have confidence in the OLA, but the FDIC is still crafting the living wills and the details of how they will be implemented. Major questions and challenges still remain. For instance, a rule has not yet been written to determine how much unsecured debt firms are required to carry. And conservatives are already floating the idea that a successful OLA would be a “bailout” anyway

The success of an orderly liquidation process will depend on many different factors, but we should think of it not as a binary, but as a continuum — a continuum on which one end has more capital and slimmer business lines to protect taxpayer dollars and keep the risks contained, and the other end has us crossing our fingers and hoping that the aggregate damage isn’t too bad. [UPDATE: See more on this point from me here.]

The GAO report is welcome news. We’ve made progress on the most outrageous problem with the financial sector. But that doesn’t mean the work is done by any means.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.