Since September 2008, thoughtful free-market economists – one should never associate automatically all those who agree with one’s policies with sound thinking – understand that capitalism in the United States confronts a potentially disastrous threat. If key institutions at the nerve-center of the system are deemed to be too- big- to- fail, then the engine of capitalism seizes up. That is the situation currently afflicting capitalism in the United States.
The six financial institutions that are now deemed to be too big to fail – as a consequence of actions taken and actions avoided by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama – are J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo. Together, these six financial institutions control assets valued at 60 per cent of the gross domestic product of the United States. Although there are some 6,000 banks in the United States, those six institutions account for more than 50 per cent of commercial banking assets- up from 26 per cent in 1992.
Policy responses that followed from the 2008 crisis consolidated the grip of these six institutions over the financial nerve-center of the U.S. economy. The bailouts protected them from the adverse consequences of their dysfunctional behavior and Dodd-Frank regulations now completely insulate them from any threat of insolvency in the future. These consequences provided Occupy Wall Street with its legitimate grievance against a capitalist system that serves all Americans well when it offers a comprehensive threat of insolvency over institutions that perform badly in the competitive market-place:
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, has outlined a simple proposition that Mitt Romney is well-advised to adopt before the November 6, 2012 elections:
“Systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs), meaning too-big-to-fail (TBTF) banks are ‘too dangerous to permit.”
In formulating this judgment Fisher relies on two points. First, the assumption that certain banks have implicit TBTF status gives them preferential access to investment capital. In 2009, these silent subsidies enjoyed by TBTFs worldwide approached $2.3 trillion in value. Second, the sheer size of the TBTFs carries with it dis-economies of large scale that were evident in 2008. Specifically, the TBTFs are so sprawling and so complex that their own management signally failed to understand risk exposures, and demonstrated an exceptional ability for unintended incompetence.
“The problems posed by ‘super-sized and hyper-complex banks’ require anti-obesity policies equivalent to irreversible lap-band or gastric bypass surgery.” Richard Fisher
George Will summarizes the policy implications of the Fisher hypothesis in terms that Mitt Romney might well deploy in the second presidential debate:
Capitalism – which is, as Milton Friedman tirelessly insisted a profit and loss system – is subverted by TBTF, which socializes losses while leaving profits private. And which enhances the profits of those whose losses it socializes. TBTF is a double moral hazard by encouraging risky behavior, and it delegitimizes capitalism by validating public cynicism about its risk-reward ratios.” George F.Will, ‘Break up the banks’, The Washington Post, October 14, 2012
Of course, it is open to Barack Obama as well as to Mitt Romney to respond positively to this clarion call for true capitalism. But who is the more likely to do so - a one-time community organizer from the mean streets of Chicago, or a former CEO of Bain Capital, experienced in recovering assets that are worth retrieving from the detritus of insolvent or near-insolvent capitalist institutions?