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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Summers Solstice

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November 27, 2008

We are now approaching the winter solstice (December 21 – the time at which the sun is at its most southern distance from the equator during the year – a/k/a:  “the shortest day of the year” for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  President-elect Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council reminds me of another definition of the word “solstice”:  a turning point.  For all his faults (most notably, his infamous remarks as President of Harvard University, about the involvement of women in the study of science) he is no longer considered so much of a “supply sider” as a centrist in the world of economics.  Summers has apparently passed a turning point in his economic philosophy.

For those unfamiliar with Larry Summers, David Leonhardt’s article, “The Return of Larry Summers” in the November 25 New York Times is worth reading. I’ve been hearing reverberations of Leonhardt’s commentary throughout the mainstream media lately.  Here is an important observation from Mr. Leonhardt’s piece:

He (Summers) is also the centrist who has made it safe for other centrist Democrats to move to the left.  Both times I’ve interviewed Mr. Obama this year, he has brought up Mr. Summers, unbidden, and pointed out that Mr. Summers was now writing a lot more about the plight of the middle class than about budget deficits.  At Monday’s news conference, Mr. Obama called him “a thought leader.”

The “thought leader” remark came up in the following context when Barack Obama announced his appointment of Summers to the National Economic Council post on November 24.

As a thought leader, Larry has urged us to confront the problems of income inequality and the middle class squeeze, consistently arguing that the key to a strong economy is a strong, vibrant, growing middle class.

This idea is at the core of my own economic philosophy and will be the foundation of all of my economic policies. And as one of the great economic minds of our time, Larry has earned a global reputation for being able to cut to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges.

Looking back to June 10, 2007, we find another article in the New York Times written by David Leonhardt, entitled:  “Larry Summers’s Evolution”.  As we revisit this commentary in light of our current economic crisis, the pronouncements made by Summers seem almost prophetic:

The model that most appeals to Summers is, in fact, the United States — in the decades after World War II.  At the time, this country was opening itself to more global competition, by rebuilding Europe and signing financial agreements like Bretton Woods.  But it was also taking concrete steps to build the modern middle class.  In addition to the G.I. Bill, there were the Federal Housing Administration, the Interstate Highway System and a very different tax code.  The history of progressivism “has been one of the market being protected from its own excesses,” Summers says.  “And I think now the challenge is, again, to protect a basic market system based on open trade and globalization, to make it one that works for everyone or for almost everyone, at a time when market forces are often producing outcomes that seem increasingly problematic to middle-class families.”

That essay inspired The Economist to post a piece on its Free Exchange blog on the following day, entitled “Has Larry Summers Gone Soft?”

Nevertheless, conservative writers such as Kevin Hassett of Forbes still think of Summers as an opponent to increased capital gains taxation and hence, an advocate of “supply side” economics.   Conservative writer, David Harsanyi of the Denver Post exhibited similar enthusiasm about the appointment of Summers.  However, in the November 24 National Review, Larry Kudlow saw Obama’s appointment of Summers as a move to the center:

As for Summers, while he has been mau-maued by Democratic feminists and some of the unions, he is a tough, clear-headed thinker who has for years tried to merge Keynesian and supply-side policies.  No mean feat.

At this point, many pundits are attempting to “read the tea leaves” for hints as to whether President Obama will act to reverse the Bush tax cuts or let them expire in 2011.  The consensus suggests that he may simply let them expire.  This has drawn some anxious criticism from the left.  On the November 25 broadcast of the program, Democracy Now, author Naomi Klein made the following remark about Obama’s appointment of Summers:  “I think this is really troubling.”  However, on that same program, economics professor Robert Kuttner (the chief economics adviser to Rep. Dennis Kucinich) explained that he was “less pessimistic” than Ms. Klein about the Summers appointment:

I think even Larry Summers, because he is such an opportunist, has lately been calling for very large stimulus package, has been calling for tighter regulation of banks.

The influence of Larry Summers on the Obama Administration’s economic policy will be a continuing saga for the next few years.  At this point, the “change you can believe in” seems to absorb more than a little input from the center.