Now, back to the regulators. Here is Britain’s main man, Adair Turner of the Financial Services Authority, in The Wall Street Journal:
“Cash is for buffers, not for wallets,” says the headline. Mr. Turner is making the point we have made many times. The US system of capitalism has become a system where the capitalists have no capital. The big banks have too little in savings…not enough ‘buffers’ to protect them from unexpected crises. They made a fortune during the boom years – loading consumers up with debt. But instead of holding onto the money to protect themselves against emergencies, they paid it out in bonuses and salaries. Then, when the crisis came – one they caused – they were without sufficient funds.
What do you do when you’re a major bank and you are insolvent? Hey, you already know the answer. You turn to the government! Which is why Mr. Turner’s comment is both very smart and very dumb at the same time. He’s right; the banks should hold more capital. But the reason they don’t is obvious: they know the government will bail them out. They figure they don’t need much capital; the feds have plenty.
This is the problem economists call “moral hazard.” If you protect people from their own excesses they will become even more excessive. On the other hand, if they have to pay for their errors, they’ll be quicker to correct them.
Okay…well…maybe the banks still wouldn’t save enough. But that would take care of itself. If the feds didn’t intervene, the insolvent banks would go under; those left would – by definition or accident – be better run.
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