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Consequences of the Crisis

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Banks 'Too Big to Fail' Have Grown Even Bigger

[The Big Get Bigger]

View Full Graphic » | SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

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"To favor one class of financial institutions over another class skews the market. You don't have a free market; you have a government-favored market," he said. "We will never have free markets again if you have the government picking winners and losers."

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Moral Hazard

Before the crisis, many creditors thought that the big institutions were a relatively safe investment because they were diversified and thus unlikely to fail. If one line of business struggled, each bank had other ventures to keep the franchise afloat. And even if the entire house caught fire, wouldn't the government step in to cover the losses?

With executives comforted by that thinking, risk came unhinged from investment decisions. Wall Street borrowed to make money without having enough in reserves to cover potential losses. The pursuit of profit was put ahead of the regard for safety and soundness.

The federal bailouts only reinforced the thought that government would save big banks, no matter how horrible their decisions.

Today, even with the memory of the crisis fresh in their minds, creditors are granting big institutions more favorable treatment because they know the government is backing them, FDIC officials said.

Large banks with more than $100 billion in assets are borrowing at interest rates 0.34 percentage points lower than the rest of the industry. Back in 2007, that advantage was only 0.08 percentage points, according to the FDIC. Such differences can cause huge variance in borrowing costs given the massive amount of money that flows through banks.

Many of the largest banks reported a surge in profit during the most recent quarter, including J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. They are prospering while many regional and community banks are struggling. Nearly three dozen of the smaller institutions have failed since July 1, including Community Bank of Nevada and Alabama-based Colonial Bank just last week.

If the government continues to back big firms over small, regulators worry that reckless behavior could return to Wall Street.

The administration's regulatory reform plan takes aim at this problem by penalizing banks for being big. It would require large institutions to hold more capital and pay higher regulatory fees, as well as allow the government to liquidate them in an orderly way if they begin to fail. The plan also seeks to bolster nontraditional channels of finance to create competition for large banks. If Congress approves the proposal, Geithner said, it would be clear at launch which financial companies would face these measures.

Economists and officials debate whether these steps would address the too-big-to-fail problem. Some say, for instance, that determining the precise amount of capital big financial companies should hold in their reserves will be difficult.

Geithner acknowledged that difficulty but said the administration would probably lean toward being more strict. Taken together, the combination of reforms would be a powerful counterbalance to big banks, he said.

"Our system is not going to be significantly more concentrated than it is today," Geithner said. "And it's important to remember that even now, our system remains much less concentrated and will continue to provide more choice for consumers and businesses than any other major economy in the world."

First in an occasional series of articles.


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