In addition to being a jaw-droppingly superficial idea overall, here’s another reason why breaking up the banks and capping their size would be a titanic mistake. Everyone seems to agree that normal, non-TBTF banks can be resolved without causing a meltdown in financial markets. This is, in fact, the justification given for capping bank size — it would make all banks “small enough” to be resolved smoothly, which means that no single bank failure would pose systemic risks. Mission accomplished! Of course, this argument quickly breaks down when you think for more than 15 minutes about how the FDIC resolves failed banks.
The FDIC resolves the vast majority of failed banks through what’s known as “purchase and assumption” agreements, or P&As. P&As are transactions in which a healthy bank purchases some or all of the assets of a failed bank and assumes some or all of the liabilities, including all insured deposits. P&As are much less disruptive to both communities and financial markets than straight deposit-payoffs by the FDIC. The FDIC has used P&As to resolve 163 of the 187 failed banks since the beginning of 2008. The JPMorgan/Bear Stearns deal was also a form of P&A (which was entirely intentional), with the Fed playing the role of the FDIC.
Now imagine that we cap bank size at, say, $100bn in assets. What happens if a bank with $99bn in assets fails? The way the FDIC resolves failed banks smoothly is through P&As, but the only banks big enough to buy the $99bn failed bank would surely be over the $100bn cap if they agreed to the purchase. So the choice is effectively between (1) a disorderly liquidation by the FDIC, which would pose exactly the kind of systemic risks that proponents of capping bank size are trying to avoid; or (2) granting an acquiring bank (or banks) a waiver from the $100bn cap and proceeding with a P&A. (The FDIC could technically use a conservatorship, but these are extremely rare, and no regulator has the capacity to manage a $99bn conservatorship.)
But think about how potential acquiring banks would respond if the FDIC approached them and offered them a waiver on the $100bn cap in exchange for agreeing to a P&A. They would think:
“Well, the government begged JPMorgan to buy Bear and begged BofA to buy Merrill, but then the government turned around and forced JPM and BofA to break themselves up a few years later! So thanks but no thanks, Sheila, we’re not interested in buying a bank that you’re just going to force us to divest in a couple years.”So with a cap on bank size, P&As would likely be off-the-table for the largest bank failures. But if the FDIC can’t use P&As, then it can’t ensure that the largest banks will be resolved smoothly—and thus pose no systemic risks—even with a cap on bank size in place! And if the FDIC can’t ensure that the failure of the largest banks won’t pose systemic risks, then what was the point of the cap on bank size in the first place?
See how easy it is to knock down this silly “break up the banks” idea?