The financial-overhaul bill that will be signed into law by President Barack Obama on Wednesday won’t address one of the most far-reaching consequences of the recent crisis: Market power is concentrating in the hands of the nation’s largest banks.
Fortified by infusions of taxpayer capital and takeovers of other large institutions killed or wounded in the crisis, a handful of hulking banks is emerging from the mess to dominate everything from mortgages to checking accounts to small-business loans. The financial-regulation law will bring new shackles and oversight, likely to cost the big banks billions in revenue. But their growing supremacy will help them absorb the blow.
Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo now have 33% of all U.S. deposits, up from 21% in mid-2007—the fastest shift of such a large chunk of deposits in U.S. history. Much of the gain came from their acquisitions of Countrywide Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Inc. and Wachovia Corp., respectively.
The three huge banks made 57% of all home mortgages in the first quarter, up from 28% in 2008, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter. In 2008 and 2009, they got $95 billion in capital from the U.S. government, all of which they have repaid.
Measured in loans and other assets, Citigroup Inc. and the three other giants had $7.7 trillion as of March 31, up 56% since the end of 2007. Their combined assets are nearly twice as big as the assets of the next 46 biggest banks, according to SNL Financial, a research firm in Charlottesville, Va.
“Concentration on the national level is something that ought to be of concern to policy makers” because it means “fewer choices and less-competitive pricing” for small businesses and consumers, says William Isaac, the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from 1981 to 1985.
Possibly even worse, the consolidation puts more risk “in fewer and fewer hands, so when mistakes are made, they are doozies.”
– “A City Feels The Squeeze In The Age of Mega-Banks”, The Wall Street Journal, July 20, A1
In finance, as in other realms of business life, social polish doesn’t always go with capitalist success. Often it is the most narrow, intense, awkward people who start the best companies, employ the most people and create the most value.
Sadly, this recovery has been great for princes and horrible for grinds. The people who work at the big corporations are critical of the Obama administration, but the fact is they are doing very well. The big companies are posting excellent earnings. They’re sitting on mountains of cash.
The aspiring grinds, meanwhile, are dead in the water. Small businesses are not growing. They are not hiring. They are struggling to stay alive.
Princes can thrive in a period of slow, steady growth, but grinds need a certain sort of psychological atmosphere. They need a wide-open economy with plenty of creative destruction. They need an atmosphere of general confidence, so bankers will feel secure enough to lend them money, so big companies will feel brave enough to acquire their start-ups, so they themselves will feel the time is ripe to take on their world and show their brilliance to all of humanity.
The princes can thrive while the government intervenes in the private sector. They’ve got the lobbyists and the connections. The grinds, needless to say, don’t.
Over the past decade, professionals — lawyers, regulators and legislators — have inserted themselves into more and more economic realms. The princes are perfectly at home amid these tax breaks, low-interest loans and public-private partnerships. They went to the same schools as the professionals and speak the same language. The grinds try to stay far away and regard the interlocking network of corporate-government schmoozing with undisguised contempt.
– “An Economy Of Grinds”, David Brooks, The New York Times, July 13