As the rolling bailout ball gathers momentum, it is hard not to notice one financial segment is doing OK. [And in case you haven't been paying attention, OK is the front of the pack these days.]
You know - those guys who take in deposits and pay interest and then loan it to guys like me who pay a little more interest. Dull, boring banking. No securitized anything. No swaps or merger deals. Just green eyeshade banking.
Some people have noticed and the idea of lots of small banks instead of a few big ones is gaining traction.
The concentration of power—political as well as economic—that resided in these few institutions has made it impossible so far for this crisis to be used as an evolutionary step in confronting the true economic issues before us. But imagine if instead of merging more and more banks together, we had broken them apart and forced them to compete in a genuine manner. Or, alternatively, imagine if we had never placed ourselves in a position in which so many institutions were too big to fail. The bailouts might have been unnecessary.
In that case, vast sums now being spent on rescue packages might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the next generation, or to support basic research and development that could give us true competitive advantage, or to restructure our bloated health care sector, or to build the type of physical infrastructure we need to be competitive.
It is time we permitted the market to work: This means true competition with winners and losers; companies that disappear; shareholders and CEOs who can lose as well as win; and government investment in the long-range competitiveness of our nation, not in a failed business model of financial concentration and failed risk management that holds nobody accountable. [ More - and don't look at the author's name]
Jeez - I told you not to look.
Anyhoo, other voices have come to a similar conclusion.
If we can identify such banks, why not try to make a rule preventing banks from becoming that big? As a tradeoff, banks that rested in the small-enough-to-fail category could be allowed to operate with much, much laxer oversight and regulation since everyone would understand that if they fail they’re going to sink. Presumably, there are some efficiency gains associated with the economies of scale involved in big financial institutions. But there would also be efficiency gains associated with relaxing the regulations on financial institutions. And the only reasonable way to seriously relax those regulations would be to commit to a no-bailouts scenario. But to do that, we need to make sure the banks aren’t too big to fail. So why not focus the regulatory effort on that — on making sure that institutions don’t get so big that they need bailing out? [More]This gets even more interesting. At this point, I need to make my own prejudices clear: I favor small banks, for several reasons.
- They are 5 minutes away, and a force for good in my community.
- They've been berra, berra good to me. At least, my bank has.
- I can deal with lifelong friends.
- They protect my identity. The woman who processes checks, along with eveyone else in the bank, knows I don't (or shouldn't) write checks for cash in Las Vegas or Singapore. I'll trade a little financial privacy for help protecting my small pile of money any day.
- I like knowing my loan interest gets paid back out to senior citizens I know who deposit their SS checks and need the income. My farm supports more than our two local families, in a sense.
Meanwhile small banks are failing, to be sure, and nobody is wailing to Congress for them. Just as battleships are compartmentalized into individual watertight spaces, I think lots more small financial institutions would not decrease our financial efficiency and would go a long way toward increasing our financial system security.
Meanwhile, reports of farmers meeting with their lenders are trickling in, and are not reassuring.
More anon. But if you have not spoken with your lender about what the right answer is for 2009, do it tomorrow.