[Wow. I wrote the rest of this post between Tuesday and Thursday, to go up Saturday. Friday’s Wapo has a very long front-page story on the influence of donors on the agenda at the Brookings Institution. Martin Baily and Doug Elliot, listed below, are with Brookings.]
Eric Garcia writes,
Financial regulation experts said Tuesday breaking up large banks could be costly while offering no additional safety-benefits for the economy.
I was on the panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and I argued in favor of breaking up big banks, but I am not mentioned in the story.
The panel was called to discuss a research paper commissioned for the Center and written by Martin Baily, Doug Elliot, and Phillip Swagel. The paper says that (a) we have little reason to worry about too-big-to-fail, because the FDIC is on its way to having enough authority to resolve big bank failures, (b) there are economies of scale in banking at the very highest levels, (c) there are transition costs to breaking up big banks, in that employees and customers would be left hanging waiting to see how the re-org falls out, and (d) breaking up big banks would not get rid of systemic risk, anyway.
I agree entirely with (d). I thought that (c) was a fair point, but there is such a thing in the corporate world as a spin-off, and it can be done. I disagreed with (a) and I was unpersuaded by (b).
I was invited to a pre-panel breakfast. However, when I got there, I soon felt out of place. Part of it was that the breakfast sandwiches were not what I would eat for breakfast (or any time). Another part of it was that the setting was larger and more formal than I had expected. Instead of a few panelists milling around, it was an executive conference table, and Elliot, Swagel, and I were the only panelists there. The rest of the approximately fifteen men (plus one woman) around the table were from trade associations (such as the American Bankers’ Association), except for two from Bank of America.
So I excused myself to go to the bathroom, got back on the elevator, went downstairs to a cafe next door, got a little food and tried to collect my thoughts. I discarded most of my talking points, which had been focused on left-vs.-right issues in narrating the financial crisis and financial regulation. I tried to come up with something appropriate for an audience of bank lobbyists.
When I got back upstairs, the breakfast was still underway. Elliot and Swagel proceeded to give the main points of the paper, with the K street folks nodding in approval. Elliott made a crack about not being able to persuade opponents who refuse to be persuaded by evidence, and I was the only one who didn’t laugh. Meanwhile, I perused a copy of the annual report of the Bipartisan Policy Center, because it happened to be on a shelf behind my seat. I thumbed through the annual report, looking for its list of donors. I cannot say that I was surprised to find in that list Bank of America, the American Bankers’ Association, etc.
A few minutes before 10 AM, the rest of the panelists assembled. I asked Baily, as an expert on productivity statistics, whether he thought that any economist would claim to have a reliable measure of bank output. “Of course not,” he replied, nearly breaking into a laugh. I was glad to hear that response, because it reinforced my view that econometric estimates of scale economies in banking are not reliable. When you measure economies of scale, you are comparing the ratio of output to inputs at different-sized firms. It’s rather difficult to do that if you cannot measure the numerator.
Then came the panel. I was a bit embarrassed to be in a chair with no desk in front of me. I was wearing high-topped gym shoes, in order to lessen a mild but nagging foot injury. Continue reading