Big bank profits, for instance, still come mostly courtesy of taxpayers. Their trading earnings are financed by more than a trillion dollars’ worth of cheap loans from the Federal Reserve, for which some of their most noxious assets are collateral. They benefit from immense federal loan guarantees, but they are not lending much. Lending to business, notably, is very tight.
What profits the banks make come mostly from trading. Many big banks are happy to depend on the lifeline from the Fed and hang onto their toxic assets hoping for a rebound in prices. And the whole system has grown more concentrated. Bank of America was considered too big to fail before the meltdown. Since then, it has acquired Merrill Lynch. Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. And JPMorgan Chase gobbled up Bear Stearns.
If the goal is to reduce the number of huge banks that taxpayers must rescue at any cost, the nation is moving in the wrong direction. The growth of the biggest banks ensures that the next bailout will have to be even bigger. These banks will be more likely to take on excessive risk because they have the implicit assurance of rescue.
The White House’s proposal to overhaul financial regulation has ideas for banks that are too big to fail. The House passed a bill last week that would require big banks to have bigger capital cushions to absorb losses. It gives the government authority to seize and dismantle big financial firms at imminent risk of failure and mandates banks to pay for a $150 billion fund to cover the costs of any future mess. It grants regulators authority to limit the operations or even break up big banks deemed too risky, even if they appear healthy.
These provisions still seem vulnerable to being gamed.