What catastrophe are we heading towards as the government intrudes more and more into the private sector? Peter Wallison describes clearly how the dumb hand of the government, not the competitve forces of the market, will pick tomorrow's winners.
OPINION MARCH 17, 2009, 7:17 A.M. ET Wall Street Journal
Congress Is the Real Systemic Risk
By PETER J. WALLISON
After their experience with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you'd think that Congress would no longer be interested in creating companies seen by the market as backed by the government. Yet that is exactly what the relevant congressional committees -- the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee -- are now considering.
In the wake of the financial crisis, the idea rapidly gaining strength in Washington is to create a systemic risk regulator. The principal sponsor of the plan is Barney Frank, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. A recent report by the Group of Thirty (a private sector organization of financial regulation specialists), written by a subcommittee headed by Paul Volcker, also endorsed the idea, as has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association.
If implemented, this would give the government the authority to designate and supervise "systemically significant" companies. Presumably, systemically significant companies would be those that are so large, or involved in financial activities of such importance, that their failure would create systemic risk.
There are several serious problems with this plan, beginning with the fact that no one can define a systemic risk or its causes. The Congressional Oversight Panel, which was established to advise Congress on the use of the TARP funds, concluded -- with two Republicans dissenting -- that the current crisis is an example of a systemic risk evolving into a true systemic event. After all, virtually all the world's major financial institutions are seriously weakened, and many have either failed or been rescued. If this is not an example of a systemic risk, what is?
The current financial crisis is certainly systemic. But what caused it? The failure of Lehman Brothers occurred long after the market for mortgage-backed securities (MBS) had shut down, and six months after Bear Stearns had to be rescued because of its losses. In other words, the crisis did not arise from the failure of a particular systemically significant institution. The world's major financial institutions had already been weakened by the realization that losses on trillions of dollars in MBS were going to be much greater than anyone had imagined, and before the major asset write-downs had begun. So if this was a systemic event, it was not caused by the failure of one or more major institutions. In fact, it was the other way around: The weakness or failure of financial institutions was the result of an external event (losses on trillions of dollars of subprime mortgages embedded in MBS).
If this is true, what is the value of regulating systemically significant financial institutions? Financial failures, it seems, can be the result, rather than the cause, of systemic events like the one we are now experiencing. Even if we assume that regulating systemically significant companies will somehow prevent them from failing -- a doubtful proposition, given that the heavily regulated banks have been the most severely affected by the current crisis -- we will not have prevented the collapse of a major oil-supplying country, an earthquake or a pandemic from causing a similar problem in the future. All we will have done is given some government agency more power and imposed more costs on financial institutions and consumers.
But increased government power and higher costs are not the worst elements of the proposal to designate and supervise systemically significant companies. The worst result is that we will create an unlimited number of financial institutions that, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will be seen in the financial markets as backed by the government. This will be especially true if, as Mr. Frank has recommended, the Federal Reserve is given supervisory authority over these institutions. The Fed already has the power -- without a vote of Congress -- to provide financing under "exigent circumstances" to any company, and will no doubt be able to do so for the institutions it supervises.
A company that is designated as systemically significant will inevitably come to be viewed as having government backing. After all, the designation occurs because some government agency believes that the failure of a particular institution will have a highly adverse effect on the rest of the financial system. Accordingly, designation as a systemically significant company will in effect be a government declaration that that company is too big to fail. The market will understand -- as it did with Fannie and Freddie -- that loans to such a company will involve less risk than loans to its competitors. Counterparties and customers will believe that transactions with the company will generally be more secure than transactions with other firms that aren't similarly protected from failure.
As a consequence, the effect on competition will be profound. Financial institutions that are not large enough to be designated as systemically significant will gradually lose out in the marketplace to the larger companies that are perceived to have government backing, just as Fannie and Freddie were able to drive banks and others from the secondary market for prime middle-class mortgages. A small group of government-backed financial institutions will thus come to dominate all sectors of finance in the U.S. And when that happens they shall be called by a special name: winners.
Mr. Wallison is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.