Using Anti-Trust Law to Break Up Banks that are Too Big to Fail

Simon Johnson wants to apply anti-trust laws to financial markets and use it to break up banks that are too big too fail. More vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws is something I’ve been pushing here for a long time, and as I explain below I agree with this idea, but as I understand it, current anti-trust law is inadequate for this task (particularly on dimensions such as connectedness and systemic risk). So it will likely take Congressional action before we can proceed.

The reason for bringing this up is that I want to amend remarks I made in the past. I have said that there is no single villain in this crisis, no one person, not one change in the law, etc., that caused this. It was a combination of things. But as I think about it more and more, I’m not so sure. The reason? According to the story I’ve been telling about why the crisis happened, there were incentive failures at just about every step in the process. Homeowners had no recourse loans giving them one way bets on home values, real estate agents are paid in a way that causes them to maximize the value of sales, mortgage brokers faced no long-run consequences from bad loans, real estate appraisers had incentives to validate sales, ratings agencies were paid by the people whose assets were being rated, CEOs and upper level management had incentives to maximize something other than shareholder value, there was a lack of transparency giving insiders an advantage, it goes on and on.There is not a single step in the process that wasn’t compromised by an incentive or market failure of some type.

Looking at this at first, I concluded that it was all of these things, and more, that caused the crisis, and that it could have been stopped at any one of these steps. Had anyone at any one of the steps from the sale of the house to the complex securities traded in the shadow banking system said no, we’re not doing that, the money could not have kept flowing through the system and blowing up the bubble. For example, if the mortgage brokers would have taken personal losses on mortgages that later went bad, they might have refused to finance them, and the money could not have been passed upwards to the shadow banking system where it caused such big problems. But instead, the brokers simply passed the contracts along, sliced and diced as necessary, to the next person in the finance chain.

But what should we make of the fact that every singe step in the process is compromised? Every market that was supposed to self-regulate failed? Does every single market in the chain fail at the same time through some highly unlikely coincidence? What are the chances that, on their own, independently, each and every step in the chain would have been subject to a market failure that just happened to let the bubble keep inflating? Whatever it took to keep the money flowing through the system seems to have come to pass.

So more and more I’m starting to thing there may be a single explanation after all, that the regulators of these markets were captured by powerful forces that wanted the game to continue. The power of regulators, and the will to enforce the regulations, must match – in fact exceed – the will and power of those being regulated to resist having constraints placed on their behavior. I’ve talked about why ideology may have eroded the will of regulators, but their will is partly a function of their power. So long as we allow huge, clearly over-sized financial institutions to exist, this problem will potentially be present.

Therefore, if the current anti-trust legislation is adequate to the task, then yes, let’s give regulators the power to enforce it, and ensure we have people in place with the will to do so. But as I said above, I think current law may have glaring legal holes that need to be closed before we can use this section of the law effectively. If so, then it’s time to get started crafting new legislation that is up to the task, and I hope Simon Johnson is successful in getting movement in this direction. He has my support.

About Mark Thoma 243 Articles

Affiliation: University of Oregon

Mark Thoma is a member of the Economics Department at the University of Oregon. He joined the UO faculty in 1987 and served as head of the Economics Department for five years. His research examines the effects that changes in monetary policy have on inflation, output, unemployment, interest rates and other macroeconomic variables with a focus on asymmetries in the response of these variables to policy changes, and on changes in the relationship between policy and the economy over time. He has also conducted research in other areas such as the relationship between the political party in power, and macroeconomic outcomes and using macroeconomic tools to predict transportation flows. He received his doctorate from Washington State University.

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