What Gives?

Common sense would suggest that a stream of media leaks showing just how undercapitalized some of America’s largest banks are would cause the value of bank shares to fall and financial markets to slide. Yet leaks of the results of the federal “stress tests” have had the opposite effects: the values of bank shares and financial markets have rallied this week.

What gives? And what does it mean for the public?

One explanation comes from the blog The Baseline Scenario:

In rejecting “nationalization” (regulatory takeover and conservatorship), the government has not ensured a private, properly functioning banking system. Instead, it has muddled into a broken-down, undercapitalized system that is nominally in private hands, but is able to tap the state for apparently limitless support. And to date, that support has flowed on one-sided terms, with the taxpayer accepting downside risk but limited upside potential. No wonder bank shareholders are comfortable with this outcome.

As a result, the banks have largely preserved their existing management teams and bonus plans: on Wall Street, first-quarter accruals for bonuses returned to the levels of the glory years of 2006 and 2007. Creditors and counterparties have been kept whole, most notably through the AIG bailout. And shareholders have seen their share prices supported by the promise of sustained government support. The incentives we have ended up with are more similar to those of a nationalized system than those of a free market. Instead of state-owned coal mines run for the benefit of miners (the U.K. in the 1970s) or state-owned oil and gas companies run for the benefit of bureaucrats (the Soviet Union in the 1980s), we have state-backed banks in the U.S. run for the benefit of bankers and their creditors.

The smart economists in the Obama administration must know what is going on. But having insisted that large bank takeovers are tantamount to nationalization and therefore off the table, the administration is betting that the financial system will repair itself ….

This is possible. With the competition in both investment banking (Bear Stearns, Lehman) and mortgage lending (most of the specialist mortgage lenders) gone, the survivors all enjoy larger market shares and higher prices, contributing to their somewhat healthy profits in the first quarter. Even the large banks that receive the lowest grades in the stress tests will be given relatively cheap capital by the government; Treasury will use its resulting stakes to apply behind-the-scenes pressure to the banks (more government influence), but without taking decisive steps to clean up bank balance sheets ….

But success is by no means certain….

In the end, when a financial system is dominated by banks that are too big to fail – and they do fail – the only options are an FDIC-style takeover or the kind of public-private co-dependency that we see today. As far as the current crisis is concerned, the die is cast and the big banks won.

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