Friday, March 6, 2009

Too Big Has Failed

Excerpts from Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig: Too Big has Failed

We have been slow to face up to the fundamental problems in our financial system and reluctant to take decisive action with respect to failing institutions. ... We have been quick to provide liquidity and public capital, but we have not defined a consistent plan and not addressed the basic shortcomings and, in some cases, the insolvent position of these institutions.

We understandably would prefer not to "nationalize" these businesses, but in reacting as we are, we nevertheless are drifting into a situation where institutions are being nationalized piecemeal with no resolution of the crisis.

There are several lessons we can draw from these past experiences.

• First, the losses in the financial system won’t go away – they will only fester and increase while impeding our chances for a recovery.

• Second, we must take a consistent, timely, and specific approach to major institutions and their problems if we are to reduce market uncertainty and bring in private investors and market funding.

• Third, if institutions -- no matter what their size -- have lost market confidence and can’t survive on their own, we must be willing to write down their losses, bring in capable management, sell off and reorganize misaligned activities and businesses, and begin the process of restoring them to private ownership.

How should we structure this resolution process? While a number of details would need to be worked out, let me provide a broad outline of how it might be done. First, public authorities would be directed to declare any financial institution insolvent whenever its capital level falls too low to support its ongoing operations and the claims against it, or whenever the market loses confidence in the firm and refuses to provide funding and capital. This directive should be clearly stated and consistently adhered to for all financial institutions that are part of the intermediation process or payments system.

Next, public authorities should use receivership, conservatorship or “bridge bank” powers to take over the failing institution and continue its operations under new management. Following what we have done with banks, a receiver would then take out all or a portion of the bad assets and either sell the remaining operations to one or more sound financial institutions or arrange for the operations to continue on a bridge basis under new management and professional oversight. In the case of larger institutions with complex operations, such bridge operations would need to continue until a plan can be carried out for cleaning up and restructuring the firm and then reprivatizing it. Shareholders would be forced to bear the full risk of the positions they have taken and suffer the resulting losses.

While hardly painless and with much complexity itself, this approach to addressing “too big to fail” strikes me as constructive and as having a proven track record. Moreover, the current path is beset by ad hoc decision making and the potential for much political interference, including efforts to force problem institutions to lend if they accept public funds; operate under other imposed controls; and limit management pay, bonuses and severance. If an institution’s management has failed the test of the marketplace, these managers should be replaced. They should not be given public funds and then micro-managed, as we are now doing under TARP, with a set of political strings attached. Many are now beginning to criticize the idea of public authorities taking over large institutions on the grounds that we would be “nationalizing” our financial system. I believe that this is a misnomer, as we are taking a temporary step that is aimed at cleaning up a limited number of failed institutions and returning them to private ownership as soon as possible. This is something that the banking agencies have done many times before with smaller institutions and, in selected cases, with very large institutions. In many ways, it is also similar to what is typically done in a bankruptcy court, but with an emphasis on ensuring a continuity of services. In contrast, what we have been doing so far is every bit a process that results in a protracted nationalization of “too big to fail” institutions.

Some are now claiming that public authorities do not have the expertise and capacity to take over and run a “too big to fail” institution. They contend that such takeovers would destroy a firm’s inherent value, give talented employees a reason to leave, cause further financial panic and require many years for the restructuring process. We should ask, though, why would anyone assume we are better off leaving an institution under the control of failing managers, dealing with the large volume of “toxic” assets they created and coping with a raft of politically imposed controls that would be placed on their operations? In contrast, a firm resolution process could be placed under the oversight of independent regulatory agencies whenever possible and ideally would be funded through a combination of Treasury and financial industry funds. Furthermore, the experience of the banking agencies in dealing with significant failures indicates that financial regulators are capable of bringing in qualified management and specialized expertise to restore failing institutions to sound health. This rebuilding process thus provides a means of restoring value to an institution, while creating the type of stable environment necessary to maintain and attract talented employees. Regulatory agencies also have a proven track record in handling large volumes of problem assets – a record that helps to ensure that resolutions are handled in a way that best protects public funds. Finally, I would argue that creating a framework that can handle the failure of institutions of any size will restore an important element of market discipline to our financial system, limit moral hazard concerns, and assure the fairness of treatment from the smallest to the largest organizations that that is the hallmark of our economic system.