Opinions about how to correct the too-big-to-fail problem range from downsizing the big banks to leaving them intact, but the questions lie in exactly how to accomplish that.
Breaking up the big banks, treating too-big-to-fail companies like utilities with heavy regulation and capital requirements, taxing debt across the financial system, or putting a size cap on banks were a few solutions discussed during the first "Ending Too Big to Fail" symposium spearheaded by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari.
Kashkari is leading a series of meetings in his too-big-to-fail initiative to discuss, analyze, research and examine "transformational" solutions for fixing the too-big-to-fail problem to try to prevent another financial crisis from happening in the future.
"These transformational options, in my view, were taken off the table in 2010 because they were so transformational it made people nervous," he said. "It's time we give those transformational options serious consideration."
At a second symposium to be held Monday, experts will focus on two proposals to solve the too-big-to-fail problem, including taxing leverage in the financial system and finding alternatives or enhancements to the Dodd-Frank Act Resolution. Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, will serve on a symposium panel.
Following the first symposium, Rafferty Capital Markets analyst Richard Bove in his "Weekly Financial Comment," expressed skepticism about how dismantling big banks would affect the economy and questioned whether Kashkari's motive behind the "Ending Too Big to Fail" symposium was to support small banks, which are important in Minneapolis, and have been failing nationwide at one per day since 1985, he added.
"Presumably tens of thousands of loans would have to be called," Bove said when questioning how banks would reduce their assets. "Assuming this were to be done over a five- to 10-year period, it is likely that it would create chaos leading to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs being lost."
During a public town hall meeting at the symposium, Kashkari focused on solutions while weighing the costs, benefits, and potential risks of each option. While the benefits of a safe financial system may prevent another crisis and foreclosures and reduce loss of income, jobs, and savings, Kashari says, the costs could lower economic growth and increase borrowing costs.
Kashkari says that the public needs to determine how much safety we want in a financial system vs. what costs we are willing to impose on the economy. The higher costs may result in increases in the amount paid for home, car and business loans, which could impeded economic growth, he notes.
The too-big-to-fail designation is applied to "systemically important financial institutions" that are deemed so important to the economy that the government would have to step in to save those companies from failure. The Financial Stability Board (FSB), lists 30 global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) that are mandated to hold additional capital because, if those companies fail, there could be global economic distress and a potential taxpayer bailout.
Topping the list is Britain-based HSBC (HSBC) and U.S.-based JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report) . Other U.S. banks on the list included Citigroup (C - Get Report) , Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) , Goldman Sachs (GS - Get Report) , Morgan Stanley (MS - Get Report) , Bank of New York Mellon (BK - Get Report) , State Street (STT - Get Report) , and Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report) .
Ron Feldman, executive vice president and senior policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis says that taxing leverage across the entire financial system could prevent risks from moving to other nonbank institutions.
"It's basically like having capital requirements in many parts of the financial system at the same time," he says. "So we would raise it for banks, but we would also be taxing leverage at other institutions and therefore trying to protect against the idea that risk would leave banks and go some place else and be undetected. It does seem like banks and firms that are acting like banks are often really at the center of these sort of crises."
Bove suggests that an idea to increase the bank's equity-to-asset ratios to 40% would almost be unreasonable, while investors currently complain that banks stocks "do not earn their cost of capital."
"Demanding banks to increase their equity-to-asset ratios to 40% would roughly be forcing these companies to triple to quadruple their common equity," Bove says. "It would cause their return on capital to plummet. And, it would meaningfully dilute existing holders of these stocks."
After the financial crisis hit in 2007, Kashkari ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, program at the Treasury Department, when Congress authorized the use of $700 billion to purchase equity and assets from financial institutions struggling to pay their debts.
Kashkari says that he wants the big banks to be involved in his too-big-to-fail initiatives, and he wants everyone to have a seat at the table.
"They're not enthused with this process," Kashkari says when asked about the feedback he's received from the big banks.
While the TARP program ended up earning revenue for the government and the government enacted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that was implemented to stop taxpayer bailouts, enforce stress-tests and living wills, and increase capital requirements for banks. Kashkari says he still doesn't believe that those laws went far enough.
"Unfortunately, as I look at the laws that have been implemented and the regulations, I'm afraid the biggest banks are still too big to fail," he says.
Joseph Hughes, professor of economics at Rutgers University, who was a panelist at the symposium, says that to fix the problem, there needs to be a reduction of "risk-taking" incentives of large banks and a credible resolution mechanism for how critical operations are recapitalized.
"The total loss-absorbing capacity (TLAC) proposals are promising," he says. "Requiring debt that converts to equity in financial distress introduces the market discipline of debt holders (who cannot run), which is different from that of equity holders."
And the too-big-to-fail topic, which has been a major theme in Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, got him in some hot water during an interview with the New York Daily News editorial board when he was asked specifically how he would break up the big banks.
"That's not my decision," Sanders said during the interview. "That is their decision as to what they want to do and how they want to reconfigure themselves."
Sanders' solution, as he proposed in a May 2015 bill titled the "Too Big To Fail, Too Big to Exist Act," would allow the Secretary of the Treasury, under the Dodd-Frank Act, to determine whether the banks were too big to fail and allows the banks, and not the Federal Reserve, to determine how they would downsize their business.
In November, the Federal Reserve Board adopted a rule that stops bailouts to individual firms or insolvent companies and requires approval of the Treasury Secretary for emergency lending to limited "broad based" programs.
Opponent Hillary Clinton slammed Sanders, saying that he has had plenty of time to research how he would break up the big banks, and she didn't think his answers were clear.
"The core of his campaign has been breaking up the banks, and it didn't seem in reading his answers that he would understand exactly how that would work under Dodd-Frank," Clinton said during an interview on MSNBC. "I think he hasn't done his homework."
At the Minneapolis town hall, people questioned whether corporate executives who knowingly deceived investors, or loan officers making fraudulent loans, should be held accountable or prosecuted for their actions.
"I think there's real merit to making sure that management of banks are on the hook for their own actions," Kashkari says. He notes that he also was frustrated that no one was prosecuted or held accountable and that, as part of his research, he plans to look at incentive structures for performance.
Another solution mentioned by an audience member was to re-enact the Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed in 1999 and separates commercial and investment banking. Kashari says that is one option that a lot of people are proposing.
"Glass-Steagall did not limit the size of banks, only their scope," says Hughes. "Combining commercial and investment banking has improved diversification and provided other economies of scope."
Some professors and leading economists at the symposium question whether systemic risk would be escalated by breaking up the big banks, others say the current laws are addressing the problems, while some argue the big banks are needed for multinational corporations.
"If every entity can fail then I'm less concerned with size," says Aaron Klein, Brookings Institution fellow and policy director.
Klein says that people should assess the problem by examining two separate concepts: first, the size of the entity, and then the ability of any entity to fail.
"I wish that the culture of bank regulation tolerated more failure," Klein says. "America has roughly 6,000 banks. A couple of them should go under in normal circumstances, that's competition."
And Bove asks, who will the U.S. government use as a primary dealer for it $19.2 trillion debt? Foreign banks, if all of the multinational banks are broken up into smaller banks?
As the search continues for a solution, Klein says, the decision makers must keep in mind how end users will be impacted -- will consumers, small business, and state and local governments continue to use their same bank, brokerage, or stock accounts?
With all those unanswered questions, at the end of the year, Kashkari hopes to have a set of policy proposals addressing how to end too-big-to-fail companies and eventually, this research will assist in laws being created or adjusted based on their findings.
"I feel that we have a moral obligation to the country to speak up and to make sure that the public, you, and all of our elected representatives understand the risks that remain today," he says.