This Year’s Subsidy to Wall Street = the Amount of This Year’s Sequester Cuts
On February 20th, Bloomberg News editors headlined, “Why Should Taxpayers Give Big Banks $83 Billion a Year?” and issued the first-ever thorough and current analysis of the taxpayer-subsidy to the Wall Street mega-banks. They found that this subsidy is $83 billion this year, but they made no note of the fact that this amount is only $2 billion less than this year’s sequester cuts are estimated to be, so that all that would need to be done, in order to avoid those cuts, would be to have those mega-banks that we bail out every year forego their subsidy from taxpayers, for just one year. Unfortunately, this would be easier said than done.
The taxpayer-funded annual subsidy to these TBTF banks has never before been calculated as to its actual annual dollar-value, but this rigorous IMF study finally provided the means for doing that. Bloomberg’s summarizes: “What if we told you that, by our calculations, the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all? What if the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders were almost entirely a gift from U.S. taxpayers?”
“The top five banks – JP Morgan, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. – account for $64 billion of the total subsidy, an amount roughly equal to their typical annual profits.”
This $83 billion, in other words, is the current value of the annual subsidy received by America’s 10 mega-banks, from our Government’s special treatment of them as “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” (i.e., fully guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers, irrespective of the normal $250,000-per-account limit in savings and checking accounts), or TBTF institutions, which the other 7,053 (out of the total 7,063 FDIC-insured) banks are not – other banks can fail without destroying the U.S. economy. In a certain sense, these are the banks where the super-rich can enjoy FDIC protection without that $250,000-per-account limit, and can even gamble under the protection of that comforting umbrella.
The amount of the Sequestration cuts is almost EXACTLY the amount of US subsidies for the BIG BANKS!,
Neither bank executives nor shareholders have much incentive to change the situation. On the contrary, the financial industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle on campaign donations and lobbying, much of which is aimed at maintaining the subsidy. The result is a bloated financial sector and recurring credit gluts. Left unchecked, the superbanks could ultimately require bailouts that exceed the government’s resources. Picture a meltdown in which the Treasury is helpless to step in as it did in 2008 and 2009.
Regulators can change the game by paring down the subsidy. One option is to make banks fund their activities with more equity from shareholders, a measure that would make them less likely to need bailouts (we recommend $1 of equity for each $5 of assets, far more than the 1-to-33 ratio that new global rules require). Another idea is to shock creditors out of complacency by making some of them take losses when banks run into trouble. A third is to prevent banks from using the subsidy to finance speculative trading, the aim of the Volcker rule in the U.S. and financial ring-fencing in the U.K.
Once shareholders fully recognized how poorly the biggest banks perform without government support, they would be motivated to demand better. This could entail anything from cutting pay packages to breaking down financial juggernauts into more manageable units. The market discipline might not please executives, but it would certainly be an improvement over paying banks to put us in danger.