A lot of Americans are mad right now. They’re mad at bankers and CEOs for causing such a mess in the financial markets. They’re mad at the government for seemingly throwing good money after bad in bailouts of all sorts. Many are even mad at themselves for living large for so long on borrowed money or the equity in their homes.
I get that.
What’s been bugging me lately, however, is this notion that some of these large banks and financial institutions should be left to fail. I’ve seen this idea repeated in newspapers, on TV news, on blogs. I’ve heard it from my coworkers, on talk radio, and at the coffee shop. Well, the truth of the matter is this: The banks in question here have failed. They’ve failed spectacularly. They’ve lost almost incomprehensible amounts of money. Their stock prices are worth next to nothing.
What they haven’t done, except for Lehman Brothers, is gone bankrupt. We, the people, have been spending hundreds of billions of dollars to keep these institutions afloat. And that’s a good thing. Here’s why:
These institutions all have deposit accounts, brokerage accounts, and other types of custodial accounts. They take your money, pool it together with other peoples’ money, and invest it in various vehicles according to your instructions. People are always adding to the pool and taking away. So normally the pool stays the same size or changes very slowly, and this keeps things on a pretty even keel.
If many people either want to put more money in or take their money out of the pool quickly, the pool is forced to buy or sell stock in large quantities, or to call in debt obligations from others. Buying or selling in very large quantities is ultimately detrimental to customers because it causes the price of the underlying stock or mutual fund to rise or fall very quickly, meaning the you’re either overpaying when you buy in or not getting the full value when you cash out.
If a large financial institution is unable to meet its debt obligations and has to declare bankruptcy, the first thing that is going to happen is that most, if not all, of its customers are going to want to get their money back. This will trigger a run on the money causing a massive drop in share prices for the underlying securities. If this price drop is big enough, the rest of the market could react at the same time, causing the whole market to drop. This is bad news for everyone who has money in the market, not just those who have money in the pool.
This is why it has been necessary for the government to step in to reassure customers of many troubled financial institutions that their money is secure. By keeping the institutions solvent, the government is preventing a massive run on money that could have far reaching effects on the whole economy. This is why some of the largest institutions are being called “too big to fail.”
While I certainly worry about what the long term implications will be with respect to taxes to pay for these bailouts, I don’t see any way around propping up these companies by partially or fully nationalizing them until things calm down for a while. What I would like to see implemented immediately, however, is a plan to put regulations in place to:
- make sure that companies that are “too big to fail” are accountable for their business practices to be sure that they don’t fail
- make sure that companies going forward can never become “too big to fail”
- or some combination of these two.
What are your thoughts? Are you angry about the bailouts? Do you see them as necessary or a waste of taxpayer resources? Do you think we need more or less regulation to prevent these circumstances in the future?