The nation's six largest banks are in the spotlight right now, as the Fed-induced doomsday scenario reveals whether Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Citigroup (NYSE:C), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), Morgan Stanley(NYSE:MS), and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) can return capital to investors without causing an economic meltdown. They must endure these extra-stringent tests because of their immense size, which has weaved them so inextricably into the economic fabric that if they wobble, we all fall down.
That, of course, is the crux of the too-big-to-fail (TBTF) argument, which contends that these banks must be split into manageable pieces before it's too late. So far, these banks are still intact. Why? Because it's a wonderful thing to be so immense, and privy to so many agreeable perks. Here, for your amusement, are a couple of the most recently reported benefits of being a TBTF bank.
The government is afraid to mess with you
On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney General testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee,and said, in a nutshell, that the biggest banks have become so large that even the government is loath to charge them with criminal wrongdoing, lest the entire economy become a shambles. And not only the domestic economy, mind you, but the entire world economy.
Although I'm not surprised to hear this, it's still a stunning declaration. While some congresspersons have spoken out against the fact that no criminal prosecutions have gone forward against big banks for their part in the financial meltdown, nothing has changed. Even the producer of PBS's Frontline noted, in a recent interview with the Consumerist, that the government is understandably concerned about carrying out a criminal prosecution against a huge financial institution, particularly if there was a chance that the enterprise would be closed down. He saw no problem with individuals being charged, however -- though that hasn't happened very often, either.
Special financing for the big boys
I recently talked about some especially interesting computations by Bloomberg, which point to the fact that the largest banks in this country enjoy a discounted financing scheme, simply because they are deemed too big to fail. Because these banks are assumed to be in line to be rescued if things go topsy-turvy again, the top five banks receive an implicit taxpayer subsidy of $64 billion a year.
Not bad, but the worst part is that without this subsidy, banks like B of A and Citi would make essentially no profit, and other banks, like JPMorgan and Goldman, would make a much teensier one. Wells Fargo, possibly because of its gung-ho mortgage business, would fare a bit better.
TBTF banks: Here to stay?
Is it likely that the calls to break up the banks will be heeded? Probably not, even though it seems as if their ability to bring down the whole house of cards is an outsized threat that needs addressing. Even conservative columnist George Will has pointed out how dangerous it is to have the five biggest banks holding more than half of all bank assets.
For now, at least, it's great to be TBTF. And every day, it's getting better.