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6 Big U.S. Banks Targeted for Breakup

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Second time's the charm, or so hopes the Democratic senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, who is again trying to enact legislation that would forcibly break up America's six biggest banks. If he's successful, it would change the face of U.S. banking. But despite the country's disgust with Wall Street, it's a change that wouldn't necessarily be for the better.

It's not me, it's you. How to break up a bank.
Brown's reasoning is familiar: The 2008 crash demonstrated that America's major banks were too big to fail then and remain so today. And the only way to avoid another taxpayer-funded bailout is to break them up now. If enacted, the law would affect the following banks, the six largest by total assets in the U.S.:

  1. JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  )
  2. Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  )
  3. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  )
  4. Citigroup (NYSE: C  )
  5. Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  )
  6. Morgan Stanley

Brown's legislation would mandate that these banks shed assets and/or exit lines of business as required to meet certain size and leverage limitations as defined in the senator's bill, to wit:

  • No bank could hold more than 10% of the total amount of money deposited in FDIC-insured banks.
  • No bank could possess non-deposit liabilities exceeding 2% of the country's annual GDP.
  • Banks with assets equal to or greater than $50 billion would have to maintain equity of at least 10% of total assets.

In 2010, the first time Brown tried to pass breakup legislation, the vote was 61-33 against when the Senate and the House of Representatives were both in Democratic hands. So why try again now, when the House is firmly in Republican hands and memories of the bank bailout have naturally faded from the minds of the American people?

Three lonely senators walk into a bar
Brown recently told the Financial Times he believes there's more sympathy for the idea now. The new bill has two co-sponsors: Tom Harkin, Democrat from Iowa, and Bernie Sanders, independent and self-described "Democratic Socialist" from Vermont.

With two Democrats, one semi-Socialist, and not a single Republican on what is a very short list of co-sponsors, it's not clear there's much left-leaning sympathy in the Senate for the new legislation, let alone the bipartisan sympathy that would be needed for this bill to get to the president's desk. But Brown does have the support of some prominent figures in the financial world:

  • Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, has been quoted as saying: "My personal preference is for an international accord to break up these institutions into ones of more manageable size."
  • James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Fed, concurs: "I do kind of agree that 'too big to fail' is 'too big to exist.' "

Brown has also found sympathy in Brad Miller, a House Democrat who has introduced a bill similar to Brown's in that chamber.

The advantage of small group dynamics
There's certainly merit to the idea that limiting the size of banks will limit their potentially destructive, cascading effect on the economy if one does blow up. It's simple common sense that the smaller the institution, the smaller the effect it can have on other banks. On the other hand, big institutions might be easier to bail out when things do go wrong.

As Lehman Brothers was evaporating before everyone's eyes in September 2008, and it seemed like nothing could be done to stop the contagion from spreading, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was able to get on the phone with the CEOs of nine of the country's biggest financial institutions, corral them into a single room, and, in the course of a night, personally plead, cajole, and threaten them into accepting the bailout deal that would ultimately stabilize the U.S. banking system, and with it the American economy.

If there had been dozens of bank chiefs Paulson had to try and gather to talk into a deal, the deal might not have been done at all, or not done quickly enough to stop all the dominoes from falling.

Evolution, not revolution
Banks have always gone bust, and will continue to do so, no matter their size. There's nothing that says you can't have a banking crisis if all of your banks are small.

And there's a lot of financial regulation still falling into place, including the Dodd-Frank financial reform act (which includes the Volcker Rule, stress testing, and living wills) and the Basel III global regulatory framework. For the moment, maybe it's best to give these reforms the chance to shake out before taking any further measures.

There's something to be said for evolution, rather than revolution. But if the big banks aren't you're cup of tea when it comes to investing, you can find out about some delightfully straightforward bank stocks, including one Warren Buffett could have loved in his earlier years, in our special free report "The Stocks Only the Smartest Investors Are Buying." Take a minute and download your copy while it's still available

Fool contributor John Grgurich thinks an all-expenses-paid junket to New York City to straighten all this out is justifiably in order, but he owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column. Follow John's dispatches from the bloody front lines of capitalism on Twitter, @TMFGrgurich

The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Wells Fargo and The Goldman Sachs Group. 

The Motley Fool has a positively gripping disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (13) | Recommend This Article (10)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 2:54 PM, kkensington wrote:

    What do we have to lose except a few bankers lobbyist being fired, wouldn't need them anyway.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 3:00 PM, Harley117 wrote:

    I am not convinced that bureaucrats know what is best for the banking industry. They will end up destroying the industry and destroying billions of dollars of shareholder wealth.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 3:16 PM, mrdupont2011 wrote:

    But the Motley Fool article written April 28, 2010 contradicts this article:

    "Now's Your Chance to End Too Big to Fail"

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 3:31 PM, coakleywj wrote:

    Sen Brown is a moron it is a scientific fact.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 4:32 PM, rebozo2 wrote:

    This reform won't happen soon if at all. Both parties are steeped in large campaign contributions from the same banks congress bailed out; the banks are in the drivers seat and will contribute even more money to PACS opposing change even though these banks (which have been deregulated to allow a wide variety of financial services which can wind up at cross purposes to themselves) have shown how inept they are at this near-unbridled behaviour. Banks SHOULD be regulated due to the fiascos we've recently seen and CONTINUE to see.

    Ann Rand wrote entertaining books, but her philosophy requires ethical behaviour from all participants: THIS, we have not seen.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 4:35 PM, XMFGrgurich wrote:

    mrdupont201, that article does indeed contradict this one. We are a motley bunch here, hence variations in opinion.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 4:35 PM, XMFGrgurich wrote:

    Whoops. That's mrdupont2011. Sorry.

  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 4:55 PM, StageCoachDriver wrote:

    I just retired from one of those Big Banks (see if you can figure it out from my handle).

    I believe this would be a good piece of legislation, but it needs to be done is steps. Maybe take 5 to 10 years to do.

    The one thing we need to get away from is the new notion of "too big to fail". In the 80's we let ALL of the Savings and Loans fail. First we deregulated them, then they went in to businesses they really didn't know, then they failed.

    Now we've deregulated the banks and they went in to businesses they didn't know a lot about and they almost failed. They would have failed except we decided they were too big to fail.

    Well, we need to take away that excuse. Big Banks need to be smaller, they need to be a size that allows their CEO to know what's going on and not be like JPMorgan's CEO and completely unaware of major financial transactions that could bring down the entire bank.


  • Report this Comment On June 07, 2012, at 11:17 PM, NovaB wrote:

    The right-wing buffoonery will never allow it.

    To them bigger is better and the bigger the kick-back for bad legislation and regulation the better for the most corrupt political mob this country ahs ever seen.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2012, at 5:33 AM, JacksonInVA wrote:

    I think the people who matter the least in the eyes of US politicians, US Citizens are interested in seeing a break up. But we realize it won't happen. Congress won't do anything to actually govern our country. They are too busy stealing our money. I suspect that this pre-election discussion is only to bring more money into the coffers of US politicians. Nothing more.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2012, at 8:29 AM, XMFGortok wrote:

    This sentiment rankles me: "And the only way to avoid another taxpayer-funded bailout is to break them up now. If enacted, the law would affect the following banks, the six largest by total assets in the U.S.:"

    No... The only way to avoid another taxpayer-funded bailout is to LET THEM FAIL.

    That's the essence of capitalism: You screw up, you go bankrupt. Someone else buys up your business (at rock bottom prices, hopefully), and does a better job than you did.

    I'm not sure what these politicians are thinking.

    I've never seen a mortgage *not* get picked up by another company when the first fails. What do they think will happen, consumers will magically be able to stay in their homes because no one will be there to service their mortgages?

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2012, at 9:33 AM, XMFGrgurich wrote:

    In the end, it is probably better to have smaller banks, but I thought forcible break-ups were a bit much at this point, especially with all the other reform still pending.

    Also, I wanted to present the other side of the argument, i.e., there's something to be said for having a small number of CEOs to corral and cajole when things go south. For the definitive account of those couple weeks, read Andrew Ross Sorkin's "Too Big To Fail."

    It's amazing to read how much personal connections and face-to-face meetings mattered in getting things straightened out.


  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2012, at 1:57 PM, JohnCLeven wrote:

    If I recall correctly, shareholders of Standard Oil did fantastic after the Supreme Court split Standard Oil into thirty-something smaller companies. John D Rockefeller became far richer post-break by owning shares of all those companies than he did owning the whole entity. Some of the new companies included what we know today as Exxon, Chevron, Mobil, and parts of BP. Talk about a spinoff.

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