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Brown Reintroduces Safe Banking Act

The big protest today in North Carolina had nothing to do with marriage equality. It was against Bank of America. While the issue of civil rights is incredibly important, so too is the issue of a runaway financial sector controlling the US economy and running it into the ground. And it tends to get Americans of all stripes animated.

The legislation that’s truly needed, what was missing from the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, is a measure to bring these behemoth banks down in size, to reduce risk throughout the economy as well as the political influence and power that leads to bad outcomes and toothless regulation. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the risk has only increased. The nation’s six largest banks now control 64% of US GDP in assets. Sen. Sherrod Brown has reintroduced his bill to restrict the size and leverage of the largest financial institutions.

In a bill called the Safe, Accountable, Fair & Efficient (SAFE) Banking Act of 2012, Brown, who authored similar legislation with former Sen. Ted Kaufman during the Dodd-Frank debate, would impose a 10% cap on any individual bank’s share of overall US deposits. There would also be limits on the liabilities that any one company can hold (10% of the financial sector), limits on non-depository liabilities of bank holding companies (2% of GDP, under $1.3 trillion) and non-bank financial companies (3% of GDP, and total assets of $436 billion), and limits to leverage to bank and non-bank financial institutions of 10%. The previous legislation got 33 votes in 2010, including the support of Republican ranking member on the Banking Committee, Richard Shelby. There’s also similar though less specific legislation to this effect in the House, from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA).

Brown released this statement:

“As our nation’s economy begins to recover, we must ensure that megabanks cannot take the same kind of risks that hurt so many of our nation’s families and small businesses,” Brown said. “That’s why we need to place sensible size limits on our nation’s large financial institutions and ensure that if banks gamble, they have the resources to cover their losses. The SAFE Banking Act would not only prevent bailouts and protect against economic collapse, it will help Main Street community banks compete with Wall Street megabanks. This will enhance lending to small businesses so that our economy can grow and unemployed Americans can find jobs.”

Brown chaired a subcommittee hearing in the Senate Banking Committee today on bank size and leverage that included two supporters of his position: former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and current FDIC Board member Thomas Hoenig. In addition, Fed regional Presidents like the Dallas Fed’s Richard Fisher have come out in favor of cutting banks down to size.

It’s simply common sense – having megabanks with trillions in assets that cannot fail without taking down the entire economy is unnecessarily reckless and dangerous. And that implicit subsidy, the knowledge that they are too big to fail, gives big banks a major competitive advantage over community banks. That’s why we’ve seen the consolidation in the sector. And that hasn’t been good for consumers or the economy at large, either, leading to more risk and more probability of catastrophe.

“Too Big to Fail is simply too big,” Brown said in the hearing today. He’s absolutely right.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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