Govt response to too-big-to-fail banks: bank mergers and trillions in gifts to our largest banks

I finally finished Matt Taibbi’s superb Rolling Stone article and want to urge everyone to please read every word.

This excerpt points out another dimension of the insanity of government’s response to the banking crisis. Government has refused to seize and restructure the largest (likely) bankrupt banks (Citibank, BofA, etc.) because they’re “too big to fail.” But its “solution” is — ironically — an orgy of mergers and multi-trillion-dollar giveaways to the largest, sickest banks rather than to smaller, healthier banks (which would have already lent out a much higher proportion of that money than the big, sick banks have):

The [lack of transparency] with the first TARP payments grew so absurd that when the Congressional Oversight Panel, charged with monitoring the bailout money, sent a query to Paulson asking how he decided whom to give money to, Treasury responded — and this isn’t a joke — by directing the panel to a copy of the TARP application form on its website. Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, was struck nearly speechless…

Another member of Congress, who asked not to be named, offers his own theory about the TARP process. “I think basically if you knew Hank Paulson, you got the money,” he says.

This cozy arrangement created yet another opportunity for big banks to devour market share at the expense of smaller regional lenders. While all the bigwigs at Citi and Goldman and Bank of America who had Paulson on speed-dial got bailed out right away — remember that TARP was originally passed because money had to be lent right now, that day, that minute, to stave off emergency — many small banks are still waiting for help. Five months into the TARP program, some not only haven’t received any funds, they haven’t even gotten a call back about their applications.

“There’s definitely a feeling among community bankers that no one up there cares much if they make it or not,” says Tanya Wheeless, president of the Arizona Bankers Association.

Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what should be happening, since small, regional banks are far less guilty of the kinds of predatory lending that sank the economy. “They’re not giving out subprime loans or easy credit,” says Wheeless. “At the community level, it’s much more bread-and-butter banking.”

Nonetheless, the lion’s share of the bailout money has gone to the larger, so-called “systemically important” banks. “It’s like Treasury is picking winners and losers,” says one state banking official who asked not to be identified.

This itself is a hugely important political development. In essence, the bailout accelerated the decline of regional community lenders by boosting the political power of their giant national competitors.

Which, when you think about it, is insane: What had brought us to the brink of collapse in the first place was this relentless instinct for building ever-larger megacompanies, passing deregulatory measures to gradually feed all the little fish in the sea to an ever-shrinking pool of Bigger Fish. To fix this problem, the government should have slowly liquidated these monster, too-big-to-fail firms and broken them down to smaller, more manageable companies. Instead, federal regulators closed ranks and used an almost completely secret bailout process to double down on the same faulty, merger-happy thinking that got us here in the first place, creating a constellation of megafirms under government control that are even bigger, more unwieldy and more crammed to the gills with systemic risk.

One last interesting point:

By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future. There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system — transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below.

Posted by James on Monday, March 23, 2009