Wall St. line on too-big-to-fail is too good to be true

You have to hand it to Wall Street and the rest of the global megabanks. They really know how to make the best of bad situations—especially the ones they’ve created.

Not only did the largest banks bring about a global financial crisis that still haunts us and then benefit from trillions of dollars in taxpayer-funded assistance. They also fought tooth and nail against regulatory reforms and then for their complete repeal. Now, the organization representing the very largest of the megabanks says these financial reforms have worked—the world is safe from too-big-to-fail.

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According to the Financial Services Forum, we no longer have to worry about taxpayer dollars propping up systemically risky megabanks. Why? Because even though the largest institutions are even larger than they were before the crisis they created, their growth has begun to slow.

Hallelujah! Doesn’t that make you feel so much better? I’m sure the Government Accountability Office, which is preparing its own report on large bank assistance, will be totally convinced.

It takes a lot of optimism, and cherry picking of data, to jump to that conclusion, especially when the fact is that the assets of the six largest financial institutions have increased every year since the end of 2009.  In fact, the assets of the Big Six—which alone control nearly 50 percent of the nation’s banking assets—grew by approximately $800 billion since 2009. This means they are responsible for more than half of the total growth in banking assets in that time.

Wall Street also appears to have completely discounted recent studies measuring the tangible funding advantage of the megabanks’ too-big-to-fail status. The New York Fed found that the megabank funding advantage suggests that investors believe the largest banks are likely to be classified as too big to fail and to be rescued if they run into financial trouble. In a separate study, the IMF estimated the 2012 value of the too-big-to-fail subsidy at up to $70 billion in the United States and up to $300 billion in the euro area.

Apparently, the Financial Services Forum disagrees. And if there’s anyone that can objectively determine that Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail funding advantage is ancient history, I’m sure it’s an organization that represents the nation’s 18 largest financial institutions. After all, what’s the worst that can happen if they’re wrong?

Finally, it was particularly courageous of the megabanks to mark the end of too-big-to-fail on the same day that one of the world’s largest financial firms was penalized for doing business with nations that harbor terrorists. The $9 billion BNP Paribas settlement doesn’t just affect people’s livelihoods—it does, in fact, involve matters of life and death. As The New York Times reported, prosecutors eventually caught on to BNP’s illegal deals with Iran and Sudan following a New Jersey father’s quest for justice in the bus bombing that claimed the life of his 20-year-old daughter. Further, while BNP was raking in cash doing business with the genocidal Sudanese regime, the whistleblower who approached prosecutors on the megabank’s ties to Iran won’t receive a dime in compensation.

Wall Street has to know that the plea bargain of a French megabank does not erase concerns that the largest financial firms are above the law. No one from that bank was criminally prosecuted, just as there have been no major criminal cases against top Wall Street executives in the wake of the financial crisis. This case is not going to eliminate public fears that some megabanks are simply too big to jail.

Like I said, Wall Street is showing courage and optimism. I guess a comfortable, taxpayer-funded safety net will do that for anyone. But as we see in the BNP case, which follows sanctions-related penalties on HSBC, ING, Credit Suisse and others, criminal behavior will not be deterred until we hold those who commit these crimes personally responsible.

Similarly, we cannot eliminate our too-big-to-fail problem without directly addressing its cause. We could achieve that by requiring the largest and riskiest banks to hold more capital, as the Brown-Vitter TBTF Act (S. 798) would do, or even breaking up the largest institutions altogether. Downsizing and restructuring the systemically dangerous megabanks would free us from government-subsidized too-big-to-fail advantages, ease the regulatory crush on us all, and help to restore free financial markets in the United States and across the globe.

Otherwise, we’re just going to get more of the same. And I don’t think anyone—outside of Wall Street, perhaps—has the courage for that.

Fine is president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America.