With Banks 'Still Too Big to Fail,' Another Financial Meltdown Looms

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With Banks 'Still Too Big to Fail,' Another Financial Meltdown Looms

'Should one of these giant banking firms fail again, it appears that the damage will not be contained.'

"The top six bank holding companies are considerably larger than before, and are still permitted to borrow excessively relative to the assets they hold," the report states. "They are dangerously interconnected and remain vulnerable to sudden runs, because they borrow billions of dollars from wholesale lenders who can often demand their cash back each and every day." (Photo: Butz.2013/flickr/cc)

Seven years after the financial crisis began, many of the conditions that helped cause the near collapse of the U.S. banking system—and that were used to justify the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. government bailout of mammoth financial institutions—endure, warns a new report from the Corporate Reform Coalition (CRC).

Titled Still Too Big to Fail (pdf), Thursday's report charges that since the meltdown began in 2008, regulators have failed to make sufficient progress on key components of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or to boost transparency in political spending.

According to the CRC, which is made up of more than 75 good governance, organized labor, and environmental groups, action on both these fronts is necessary in order to prevent another financial disaster.

"The top six bank holding companies are considerably larger than before, and are still permitted to borrow excessively relative to the assets they hold," the report states. "They are dangerously interconnected and remain vulnerable to sudden runs, because they borrow billions of dollars from wholesale lenders who can often demand their cash back each and every day."

It goes on: "Banks can still use taxpayer-backed insured deposits to engage in high-risk derivative transactions here and overseas. Compensation incentives fail to discourage mismanagement and illegality, given that when legal fees, settlements, and fines mount, it is usually the shareholders, not the corporate executives who pay."

And, the report warns, "[s]hould one of these giant banking firms fail again, it appears that the damage will not be contained."

"Avoiding another meltdown depends on the will of federal regulators to use the new powers they were granted in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act," said Jennifer Taub, author of the report and professor of law at Vermont Law School. "If they behave as if they are beholden to the banks, we will likely face a more severe crisis in the future."

Taub, also the author of the financial crisis book Other People’s Houses, highlights—"in plain language"—key regulatory reforms necessary to avert another crisis, including:

  • ending bailouts by requiring the largest banks to provide credible "living wills" that show how they can file for bankruptcy or be resolved by the FDIC without triggering a financial crisis;
  • further reducing excessive borrowing by the top six banks;
  • reducing dependence by banks and other financial firms on overnight and other short-term borrowing;
  • prohibiting banks from evading derivatives regulation through use of foreign subsidiaries;
  • improving bankers' accountability through rules around incentive pay and bonuses;
  • requiring corporate political spending disclosure "so as to begin to deal with the influence peddling that impacts Congress and regulators"

In a statement, Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, lauded that final recommendation. Public Citizen, a CRC member, points out that the report's call for corporate political spending disclosure adds to increasing pressure on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to act on a 2011 rulemaking petition—which has garnerd 1.2 million signatures in support—calling on the agency to require publicly held companies to disclose political spending. 

"More transparency on the part of Wall Street would better serve both our economy and our democracy," Gilbert said. "Shareholders deserve to know how companies are spending their money to influence financial policy. Without transparency there can be no accountability."

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