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Break Up the Megabanks Already

Photo: Dollar bill with "In Greed We Trust" printed on it.

For the past few months at the Alternative Banking Working Group we’ve been focusing more and more on having a single message and goal. That has been to break up the big banks.

What’s great about this goal is that it’s a non-partisan issue; there is growing consensus (among non-bankers) from the left and the right that the current situation is outrageous and untenable. What’s not great, of course, is that the situation is so easy to spot because it’s so heinous.

Last week another voice joined the Break-Up-The-Big-Banks chorus in the form of an editorial at Bloomberg (hat tip Hannah Appel). They wrote a persuasive piece on breaking up the big banks based on simple arithmetic involving bank profits and taxpayer subsidy. Even the title fits that description: “Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?” Here’s an excerpt from the editorial (emphasis mine):

"Banks have a powerful incentive to get big and unwieldy. The larger they are, the more disastrous their failure would be and the more certain they can be of a government bailout in an emergency. The result is an implicit subsidy: The banks that are potentially the most dangerous can borrow at lower rates, because creditors perceive them as too big to fail.

Lately, economists have tried to pin down exactly how much the subsidy lowers big banks’ borrowing costs. In one relatively thorough effort, two researchers — Kenichi Ueda of the International Monetary Fund and Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the University of Mainz — put the number at about 0.8 percentage point. The discount applies to all their liabilities, including bonds and customer deposits.

Big Difference

Small as it might sound, 0.8 percentage point makes a big difference. Multiplied by the total liabilities of the 10 largest U.S. banks by assets, it amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion a year. To put the figure in perspective, it’s tantamount to the government giving the banks about 3 cents of every tax dollar collected.

The top five banks — JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. – account for $64 billion of the total subsidy, an amount roughly equal to their typical annual profits (see tables for data on individual banks). In other words, the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry – with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy – would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders."

Next time someone tells me I want to take money out of rich people’s pockets (and that makes me a free market hater), I’m going to remind them that every time I pay taxes, 3 cents out of every dollar (that I know of) goes directly to the banks for no good reason whatsoever except the fact that they have the lobbyists to support this system. They’re bullies, and I hate bullies.

So no, I’m not suggesting we take honestly earned money out of the pockets of those who deserve it, I’m suggesting we stop stuffing insiders’ pockets with our money. Big difference.

But it’s not just money I object to – it’s future liability. There’s now an established track record of discovered criminal acts that don’t get anyone at the big banks in trouble. We are setting ourselves up for an even bigger bailout of some form soon, one that we taxpayers really may not be able to afford.

I think of the too-big-to-fail problem as like having an alcoholic brother-in-law who not only sleeps on your couch every night but also knows the PIN code on your ATM card. The money is irksome, no doubt, but what if that guy fell asleep smoking a cigarette and me and my kids die in the resulting fiery inferno? And it’s not that I think all addicts could be magically cured, but I don’t want them to have access to my personal stuff. Get them out of my house.

So can we break up the megabanks already? I’d really like to stop worrying about them because I have better things to do.

Click here if you are interested in learning more about Occupy's Alternative Banking Group.

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