Research Topics

Publications on Too big to fail (TBTF)

There are 6 publications for Too big to fail (TBTF).
  • The Wrong Risks

    Policy Note 2012/6 | June 2012
    What a Hedge Gone Awry at JPMorgan Chase Tells Us about What's Wrong with Dodd-Frank

    What can we learn from JPMorgan Chase’s recent self-proclaimed “stupidity” in attempting to hedge the bank’s global risk position? Clearly, the description of the bank’s trading as “sloppy” and reflecting ”bad judgment” was designed to prevent the press reports of large losses from being used to justify the introduction of more stringent regulation of large, multifunction financial institutions. But the lessons to be drawn are not to be found in the specifics of the hedges that were put on to protect the bank from an anticipated decline in the value of its corporate bond holdings, or in any of its other global portfolio hedging activities. The first lesson is this: despite their acumen in avoiding the worst excesses of the subprime crisis, the bank’s top managers did not have a good idea of its exposure, which serves as evidence that the bank was “too big to manage.” And if it was too big to manage, it was clearly too big to regulate effectively.

    Associated Program:

  • Using Minsky to Simplify Financial Regulation

    Research Project Report, April 10, 2012 | April 2012
    This monograph is part of the Institute’s research program on Financial Instability and the Reregulation of Financial Institutions and Markets, funded by the Ford Foundation. Its purpose is to investigate the causes and development of the recent financial crisis from the point of view of the late financial economist and Levy Distinguished Scholar Hyman Minsky, and to propose “a thorough, integrated approach to our economic problems.”

    The monograph draws on Minsky’s work on financial regulation to assess the efficacy of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, enacted in response to the 2008 subprime crisis and subsequent deep recession. Some two years after its adoption, the implementation of Dodd-Frank is still far from complete. And despite the fact that a principal objective of this legislation was to remove the threat of taxpayer bailouts for banks deemed “too big to fail,” the financial system is now more concentrated than ever and the largest banks even larger. As economic recovery seems somewhat more assured and most financial institutions have regrouped sufficiently to repay the governmental support they received, the specific rules and regulations required to make Dodd-Frank operational are facing increasing resistance from both the financial services industry and from within the US judicial system.

    This suggests that the Dodd-Frank legislation may be too extensive, too complicated, and too concerned with eliminating past abuses to ever be fully implemented, much less met with compliance. Indeed, it has been called a veritable paradise for regulatory arbitrage. The result has been a call for a more fundamental review of the extant financial legislation, with some suggesting a return to a regulatory framework closer to Glass-Steagall’s separation of institutions by function—a cornerstone of Minsky’s extensive work on regulation in the 1990s. For Minsky, the goal of any systemic reform was to ensure that the basic objectives of the financial system—to support the capital development of the economy and to provide a safe and secure payments system—were met. Whether the Dodd-Frank Act can fulfill this aspect of its brief remains an open question.

  • Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis

    Research Project Report, April 9, 2012 | April 2012
    This monograph is part of the Levy Institute’s Research and Policy Dialogue Project on Improving Governance of the Government Safety Net in Financial Crisis, a two-year project funded by the Ford Foundation.

    In the current financial crisis, the United States has relied on two primary methods of extending the government safety net: a stimulus package approved and budgeted by Congress, and a massive and unprecedented response by the Federal Reserve in the fulfillment of its lender-of-last-resort function. This monograph examines the benefits and drawbacks of each method, focusing on questions of accountability, democratic governance and transparency, and mission consistency. The aim is to explore the possibility of reform that would place more responsibility for provision of a safety net on Congress, with a smaller role to be played by the Fed, not only enhancing accountability but also allowing the Fed to focus more closely on its proper mission.

  • Too Big to Fail

    Working Paper No. 709 | February 2012
    Motives, Countermeasures, and the Dodd-Frank Response

    Government forbearance, support, and bailouts of banks and other financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” (TBTF) are widely recognized as encouraging large companies to take excessive risk, placing smaller ones at a competitive disadvantage and influencing banks in general to grow inefficiently to a “protected” size and complexity. During periods of financial stress, with bailouts under way, government officials have promised “never again.” During periods of financial stability and economic growth, they have sanctioned large-bank growth by merger and ignored the ongoing competitive imbalance.

    Repeated efforts to do away with TBTF practices over the last several decades have been unsuccessful. Congress has typically found the underlying problem to be inadequate regulation and/or supervision that has permitted important financial companies to undertake excessive risk. It has responded by strengthening regulation and supervision. Others have located the underlying problem in inadequate regulators, suggesting the need for modifying the incentives that motivate their behavior. A third explanation is that TBTF practices reflect the government’s perception that large financial firms serve a public interest—they constitute a “national resource” to be preserved. In this case, a structural solution would be necessary. Breakups of the largest financial firms would distribute the “public interest” among a larger group than the handful that currently hold a disproportionate concentration of financial resources.

    The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 constitutes the most recent effort to eliminate TBTF practices. Its principal focus is on the extension and augmentation of regulation and supervision, which it envisions as preventing excessive risk taking by large financial companies; Congress has again found the cause for TBTF practices in the inadequacy of regulation and supervision. There is no indication that Congress has given any credence to the contention that regulatory motivations have been at fault. Finally, Dodd-Frank eschews a structural solution, leaving the largest financial companies intact and bank regulatory agencies still with extensive discretion in passing on large bank mergers. As a result, the elimination of TBTF will remain problematic for years to come.

    Associated Program:
    Bernard Shull

  • Minsky on the Reregulation and Restructuring of the Financial System

    Research Project Report, April 12, 2011 | April 2011
    Will Dodd-Frank Prevent "It" from Happening Again? `
    This monograph is part of the Institute's ongoing research program on Financial Instability and the Reregulation of Financial Institutions and Markets, funded by the Ford Foundation. This program's purpose is to investigate the causes and development of the recent financial crisis from the point of view of the late financial economist and Levy Distinguished Scholar Hyman P. Minsky. The monograph draws on Minsky's extensive work on regulation in order to review and analyze the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, enacted in response to the crisis in the US subprime mortgage market, and to assess whether this new regulatory structure will prevent "It"—a debt deflation on the order of the Great Depression—from happening again. It seeks to assess the extent to which the Act will be capable of identifying and responding to the endogenous generation of financial fragility that Minsky believed to be the root cause of financial instability, building on the views expressed in his published work, his official testimony, and his unfinished draft manuscript on the subject. Whether the Dodd-Frank Act will fulfill its brief—in part, "to promote the financial stability in the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end 'too big to fail,' to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, [and] to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices"—is an open question. As Minsky wrote in his landmark 1986 book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, "A new era of reform cannot be simply a series of piecemeal changes. Rather, a thorough, integrated approach to our economic problems must be developed." This has been one of the organizing principles of our project. 

  • Too Big to Fail in Financial Crisis

    Working Paper No. 601 | June 2010
    Motives, Countermeasures, and Prospects
    Regulatory forbearance and government financial support for the largest US financial companies during the crisis of 2007–09 highlighted a "too big to fail" problem that has existed for decades. As in the past, effects on competition and moral hazard were seen as outweighed by the threat of failures that would undermine the financial system and the economy. As in the past, current legislative reforms promise to prevent a reoccurrence.

    This paper proceeds on the view that a better understanding of why too-big-to-fail policies have persisted will provide a stronger basis for developing effective reforms. After a review of experience in the United States over the last 40 years, it considers a number of possible motives. The explicit rationale of regulatory authorities has been to stem a systemic threat to the financial system and the economy resulting from interconnections and contagion, and/or to assure the continuation of financial services in particular localities or regions. It has been contended, however, that such threats have been exaggerated, and that forbearance and bailouts have been motivated by the "career interests" of regulators. Finally, it has been suggested that existing large financial firms are preserved because they serve a public interest independent of the systemic threat of failure they pose—they constitute a "national resource."

    Each of these motives indicates a different type of reform necessary to contain too-big-to-fail policies. They are not, however, mutually exclusive, and may all be operative simultaneously. Concerns about the stability of the financial system dominate current legislative proposals; these would strengthen supervision and regulation. Other kinds of reform, including limits on regulatory discretion, would be needed to contain "career interest" motivations. If, however, existing financial companies are viewed as serving a unique public purpose, then improved supervision and regulation would not effectively preclude bailouts should a large financial company be on the brink of failure. Nor would limits on discretion be binding.

    To address this motivation, a structural solution is necessary. Breakups through divestiture, perhaps encompassing specific lines of activity, would distribute the "public interest" among a larger group of companies than the handful that currently hold a disproportionate and growing concentration of financial resources. The result would be that no one company, or even a few, would appear to be irreplaceable. Neither economies of scale nor scope appear to offset the advantages of size reduction for the largest financial companies. At a minimum, bank merger policy that has, over the last several decades, facilitated their growth should be reformed so as to contain their continued absolute and relative growth. An appendix to the paper provides a review of bank merger policy and proposals for revision.
    Associated Program:
    Bernard Shull

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