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Are we headed towards banks too big to save? Check out Simon Johnson on “Geithner’s Gamble” (below, emphasis added.)

Big banks seem like Mr. Magoo of the old cartoons, blindly careening from one crack up to another, leaving ruin in their wake. Now they are headed back into the emerging countries. Anyone remember the last emerging market craze, when Walter Wriston, Citibank, recycled petrodollars to “developing” nations, repeating the mantra that sovereign states never default? That blew up in 1982, and Citi had to be bailed out once more. (Citi’s history from the start is one folly after another, requiring rescue).

And now as the biggest banks are bigger and more concentrated than ever, Geithner has decided to defend financialization of our economy. Obama began his administration with the common sense proposition that we couldn’t go back to an economy where banks made 40% of the corporate profits. Geithner now suggests this isn’t a problem. Ready for the next calamity? Chase’s Jamie Dimon says they come every five years.

Geithner’s Gamble
by Simon Johnson

LOS ANGELES – In a recent interview, United States Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner laid out his view of the nature of world economic growth and the role of the US financial sector. It is a deeply disturbing vision, one that amounts to a huge, uninformed gamble with the future of the American economy – and that suggests that Geithner remains the senior public official worldwide who is most in thrall to the self-serving ideology of big banks.

Geithner argues that the world will now experience a major “financial deepening,” owing to growing demand in emerging markets for financial products and services. He is thinking, of course, of “middle-income” countries like India, China, and Brazil. And he is right to emphasize that all have made terrific progress and now offer great opportunities for the rising middle class, which wants to accumulate savings, borrow more easily (for productive investment, home purchases, education, etc), and, more generally, smooth out consumption.

But then Geithner takes a leap. He wants US banks to take the lead in these countries’ financial development. His words are worth quoting at length:

“I don’t have any enthusiasm for…trying to shrink the relative importance of the financial system in our economy as a test of reform, because we have to think about the fact that we operate in the broader world…It’s the same thing for Microsoft or anything else. We want US firms to benefit from that…Now, financial firms are different because of the risk, but you can contain that through regulation.”

There are three serious problems with this view. First, Geithner ignores everything that we know about the pattern of financial development around the world. It is very rare for financial systems to develop without major crises. In fact, experience in recent decades confirms what should have been obvious from previous centuries: as countries grow and accumulate savings, they become increasingly prone to financial collapse. Given Geithner’s extensive international crisis-fighting experience at the US Treasury, the International Monetary Fund, and the New York Federal Reserve, his current naiveté on this point is simply stunning.

Second, Geithner assumes that risks at the largest US firms can be contained through regulation, when all our knowledge points directly to the contrary. Even the strongest supporters of the Dodd-Frank reform legislation emphasize that it only went part way towards reducing the incentives for major financial institutions to take big risks. Looking at the combined effect of the new law, plus the weak additional capital requirements agreed under Basel III and the hands-off approach already signaled by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (which Mr. Geithner chairs), it is hard to believe that anything has really improved.

In fact, given that our largest banks are now undoubtedly too big to fail, they have even more incentive to increase their debt levels relative to their equity. Higher leverage increases their payoffs when times are good – as executives and traders are paid based on their “return on equity.” And when times are bad, for example in a crisis episode, losses are transferred to creditors. If those creditor losses are large and spread so as to undermine the broader financial system, pressure for a government bailout will mount. Bankers get the upside and taxpayers (and people laid off as credit is disrupted) get the downside.

The US financial sector went mad for high-risk loans to emerging markets during 1970s – arguing that this was the new frontier. This loan portfolio blew up in the debt crisis of 1982. A version of same thoughtless cross-border lending is again underway, extolled by leading financial sector executives (e.g., Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan Chase) – who have apparently persuaded Mr. Geithner to tag along intellectually.

And third, Geithner completely overlooks what has brought significant parts of Europe to its economic knees. He should spend more time with the authorities in Iceland or Ireland or Switzerland, countries where “financial globalization” allowed banks to become big relative to the economy. In Iceland, the three largest banks built global balance sheets that were between 11 and 13 times the size of the economy. And then they collapsed.

In Ireland, the three largest banks went crazy for commercial real estate – financed by large-scale borrowing from other eurozone countries (including Germany). The politicians looked the other way – or were paid off, some claim – while these banks built balance sheets valued at two times Irish GDP. And then they collapsed, causing enormous damage to the government’s own solvency.

In Switzerland, the two largest banks (UBS and Credit Suisse) had a combined balance sheet in fall 2008 of around 8 times Swiss GDP – mostly based on their global activities. Mortgage traders in London – not many of whom were Swiss – took on enormous risks that almost brought down UBS. The Swiss government could afford the bailout, just. And now the Swiss National Bank is moving in the exact opposite direction to Geithner – they are pushing these big banks to become smaller and to finance more of their activities with equity, rather than debt.

Geithner is a very smart and experienced public servant. His views concerning the future of finance will help shape what happens. And that is why we are headed for trouble.

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