Last month, the Federal Reserve announced that 31 out of 33 U.S. banks had passed its latest “stress test,” designed to ensure that the largest financial institutions have enough capital to withstand a severe economic shock.
Passing the test amounts to being given a clean bill of health by the Fed. So are taxpayers – who were on the hook for the initial US$700 billion TARP bill to bail out the banks in 2008 – now safe?
After nearly a decade of crisis, bailout and reform in the United States and the European Union, the financial system — both in those countries and globally — is remarkably similar to the one we had in 2006. Many financial reforms have been attempted since 2010, but the overall effects have been limited. Some big banks have struggled, but others have risen to take their place. Both before the 2008 global financial crisis and today, just over a dozen big banks dominate the world’s financial landscape. And yet the ground is shifting beneath the financial sector, and big banks could soon become a thing of the past.
Few officials privately express satisfaction with the progress of financial reform. In public, most of them are more polite, but the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Neel Kashkari, struck a chord recently when he called for a reevaluation of how much progress has been made on addressing the problem of financial institutions that are “too big to fail” (TBTF).
Bitcoin heralds a new age more disruptive than that of today’s Internet. Disruption can be a good thing, especially when it affects banking, a failing set of business models which, for all the tweaks, have been virtually unchanged for millennia. Paradoxically, some banks are afraid of Bitcoin because it would force them to innovate.
Bitcoin is but the most famous example of an emerging technology network with the potential to improve banking. It belongs to the new type of financial animal called crypto currencies, i.e. decentralized, secure money storage and money transfer enabled by the Internet. What Bitcoin, and the even more promising Ripple network do, is not to poke a hole in banking’s basic business models—lending, deposits, trading, and money exchange—but to create the embryos for entirely new markets typically referred to as the Internet of Value. That is, a way for regular folks, as well as specialists, to potentially monetize everything, regardless of location, traditional market access and jurisdiction.
Cryptocurrencies have been with us for over five years, an eternity by Internet time. Using the elegance of mathematics they enable almost instant transfer of value at almost no cost between two parties without the need for a trusted third party. The disruption lies exactly there: in disrupting the intermediaries.
For a few years already, we have been talking about the sharing economy. Companies like AirBnb and Uber have enabled previously untapped, idle assets such as your empty bedroom or your second car to be mobilized for financial gain. Liquidizing such stale assets has added convenience in the utterly inefficient markets of room rentals and transportation services.
This year is ending the way it began for taxpayers without any sign of relief from the repeated burden of bailing out the banks during the financial crises and continued pressure to modify the Dodd-Frank Act in ways that favor bankers and lessen protections for taxpayers.
A year of continued concessions to the financial industry included: delaying a Dodd-Frank mandate that financial firms sell off bundled debt, known as collateralized loan obligations; exempting some private equity firms from registering with the Securities and Exchange Commission; and loosening regulations on derivatives. The recent requirement that banks increase their capital ratio to 16% or 18% in the next few years still leaves the taxpayer responsible for the remaining 80% of the losses.
During the financial crisis and its aftermath, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) sold nearly 500 failed banks in the United States.
These hurried sales of institutions seized by the agency reverberated throughout local and regional economies and had serious consequences nationally. The FDIC lost US$90 billion in the deals, and at the height of the crisis in 2009, the agency’s deposit insurance fund was $21 billion underwater.
I have been exploring this extraordinary episode in US banking history with two other researchers, Gregor Matvos and Amit Seru, both of the University of Chicago. We wanted to find out what happened to banks when they were sold, who bought them and why, and what the implications might be for public policy. To do this, we compiled information on all FDIC bank sales from 2007 to 2013 and analyzed the data using probability models and other methods.
More broadly, our study focused on understanding the nature and efficiency of allocation outcomes when failed assets are sold. These findings have direct implications for the design of the bank resolution process – how to deal with the death of a financial firm – an issue that is confronting policymakers and researchers both in the US and the EU.
In this study, we tried to understand the costs associated with failed bank sales in the US. We hope that these facts will help policymakers to weigh the costs of selling banks against the costs of supporting them outright during future financial crises. Understanding these trade-offs should help policymakers reduce the taxpayer costs associated with reorganizing a banking system in distress.