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A Check On U.S. Banks

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 23, 2012 1:03 pm

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It was four years ago - almost to the day - that American taxpayers bailed out America's big banks, as the nation faced its worst financial crisis in decades. In the past several days, we've been given a look at how the banks are doing - their latest quarterly profit reports.

And to talk about that, we turn, as we often do, to David Wessel. He's economics editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Morning, David.

DAVID WESSEL: Good morning.

GREENE: So it sounds like we got a pretty mixed picture here. Which banks are doing better than others?

WESSEL: That's right. It is mixed. JP Morgan - a big one - did very well, despite the lingering effects of these huge and embarrassing losses it had in an investment operations based in London. Wells Fargo did pretty well. And both said the favorable turn in housing was a big plus for them. Citigroup's report was mixed: it has some lingering write-offs from the crisis, its profits in Asia were down, but its basic banking business is doing well, so the markets were generally impressed. And importantly, all three said they were lending at last. Each of them said loans were up over last year, at least three percent. But Bank of America did not do so well. After some accounting adjustments and the cost of settling a shareholder suit, it managed to make money, but its third quarter profits were 95 percent below last year's and its lending was down four percent from last year.

GREENE: Well, could we dig a little deeper with one of those banks, Citigroup? I mean it sounds like things didn't look all that bad in the numbers, but the big news there was that its CEO and number two both announced suddenly that they were resigning. Why would that happen at a bank when the numbers don't look too terrible?

WESSEL: Well, we don't have all the details yet, but Vikram Pandit, the CEO, who'd taken over the bank just before the financial crisis, had weathered the storm and handled repeated infusions of taxpayer money, and who had weathered calls from some in Washington for his head, had held on till now. In the end, it was apparently it was a clash over strategy and executive with the Citibank board of directors - which has been reshaped to have more bankers than it used to have, at the urging of regulators. It was a clash with the directors that led to his resignation. He'd had to deal with a shareholder revolt over executive pay, by the Federal Reserve's rejection of the bank's plan to buy back some of its stock and a huge write-off - nearly $3 billion - of a joint venture it had, a brokerage joint venture called Smith Barney, with Morgan Stanley. So I guess all the old problems there just finally got him in the end.

GREENE: You know, David, one of the phrases we heard so much back during the crisis was that it was so dangerous to let banks become too big to fail. And, I mean, we're talking about institutions that some of them have more than $2 trillion in assets. I mean, what's happened since we heard about these dangers? Have they become smaller? Are they still too big to fail, so to speak?

WESSEL: Well, the big banks are actually bigger today than they were before the crisis, in part because of the mergers that the government encouraged. The assets of the five largest bank holding companies in the U.S. accounted for about a quarter of all bank assets back in 2001. Today, they're more than half of all bank assets in these five companies.

Now, the laws and the various international agreements have provisions that, over time, will reduce the incentive for these banks to get really big. Big banks, for instance, will be required to hold much more capital than smaller banks. That should make them safer, less likely to fail, and will create some strong incentives for them not to grow so big. But too big to fail is still with us, I'm afraid.

GREENE: Some people wonder why can't someone just break them up if they're too big to fail.

WESSEL: Well, that's a good question. You're right. Bankers and some economists say that big banks are a plus in international competition with bigger companies, always. But Sandy Weill, the father of Citigroup, has suggested that maybe Citigroup would be better off in pieces. Big-time investor Wilbur Ross said this week they're too big to manage.

And one of the Federal Reserve governors, Dan Tarullo, who is a big advocate of tougher banking oversight, this week, said Congress should consider putting a cap on them. So this is going to go on. This debate is going to go on as we try and avoid a repeat of that devastating financial crisis that you mentioned at the beginning.

GREENE: All right. David Wessel, economics editor of The Wall Street Journal, thanks as always.

WESSEL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.