Too Big to Be Honest

January 14th, 2016 by Phil Mattera

breakingupFor a long time the big financial institutions of the United States had an unrelenting urge to grow bigger. Acting on the principle that only the big would survive, banks and related entities spent the 1990s and the early 2000s gobbling up one another at a furious pace. The result was a small group of mega-institutions such as Citigroup and Bank of America that nearly brought down the whole financial system in 2008.

Federal regulators declined to break up the giants, which in recent years have grown only larger. But now some of the rules put in place in the wake of the meltdown are having the desired effect. Some major financial players are deciding to split themselves up in the hope of evading the more stringent capital requirements imposed on companies designated as systemically important (SiFi) institutions.

The latest firm to bow to this pressure is insurance behemoth MetLife, which just announced it is exploring a spinoff of its retail life and annuity business in the U.S. into a new presumably non-SiFi company. The move comes in the wake of moves by General Electric to dismantle large parts of its huge GE Capital business. Among the businesses that contributed to GE Capital’s heft was the banking operation it purchased from MetLife in 2011 as part of a previous move by the insurer to reduce its regulatory oversight.

Now other large insurers such as Prudential Financial and American International Group, the latter the recipient of a $180 billion federal bailout, may take similar steps. Apart from the regulatory pressures, AIG has been dealing with breakup calls from investors such as John Paulson and Carl Icahn, who dubbed it “too big to succeed.”

It remains to be seen whether the big banks will succumb to the breakup. For the moment they are resisting, but that’s the stance MetLife had long maintained. Their sagging stock prices make them susceptible to a move by someone like Icahn.

It’s gratifying to see regulation working as designed to make the country less vulnerable to large reckless institutions and a bit less enthralled with financialization. GE’s announcement that it is moving its headquarters to Boston is part of its retreat from finance.

Yet more still needs to be done to get the banks to clean up their act. Stricter capital rules are fine, but the likes of B of A and JPMorgan Chase need to feel more pressure to obey the law. They’ve had to cough up larger and larger financial settlements and in a few cases have even had to plead guilty to criminal charges. Yet they haven’t gotten the message.

Perhaps what’s needed are “honesty requirements” to go along with the more stringent capital requirements. In other words, banks that break the law would have to sell off the businesses involved in the misconduct. This would accelerate the move away from overly large financial institutions and hopefully put more operations in the hands of firms that are willing to play by the rules.

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Note: the Dirt Diggers Digest Enforcement page, which provides links to the compliance data posted by more than 50 federal regulatory agencies, has just been updated and expanded.

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