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Fitch: Too Big to Fail Banks Still Too Big to Fail

Over the past few months, the rating agencies have started to reassess the creditworthiness of US banks, based on the impression that they actually do not have an implicit bailout from the US government, because of the new laws on financial regulation, particularly the ones that give resolution authority to the government on systemically significant financial institutions. I thought this was a bit optimistic, as it didn’t account for political economy, the fact that banks hold enormous power in Washington and have the wherewithal to get want they want.

I think Fitch gets the better of this argument, correctly indicating that financial support for banks may not be universal, but the biggest ones will still get a bailout whenever they need it.

Fitch Ratings says U.S. government financial support for banks is declining and argues that future bailouts will likely be restricted to just eight lenders it regards systematically important.

In a report issued Thursday on the prospect for future government aid to troubled banks, Fitch concludes that only Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp., Bank of New York Mellon Corp., Citigroup Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., State Street Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. are candidates for government financial support.

Fitch has a support rating floor for these banks of “A,” down from “A+.”

Oh, “just” them is all. The problem here is that you add up the net deposits of these eight banks and you get something like 65% of all the deposits in the country. So limiting bailout support to eight banks isn’t that much of a limit.

But I would have made the same analysis as Fitch. Winding down those banks, with all their international arms, will be seen by the powers that be as fairly impossible. Indeed, that’s Fitch’s contention; it was Simon Johnson’s argument as well. They think that the resolution of globally connected banks will both create unintended consequences as well as confusion. The US cannot wind down a French company. So where does the US version of JPM end and the French one begin?

The bigger reason banks of this size have that implicit guarantee is that all the lobbyists and alumnae of these banks inside the government and Wall Street sycophants will whisper in the ears of the policymakers, begging them to just pay out rather than wind down. And the Federal Reserve or the Treasury Department will follow suit.

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David Dayen

David Dayen