The Atlantic Wire reports that various economists and econo-pundits are applauding Great Britain's decision to break up some of its largest banks, which include Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group and Northern Rock. I think whether banks should be broken up is a complicated question, probably best considered from antitrust and systemic regulation standpoints. With that said, there's something about Britain's actions here that really bother me: discrimination.
For starters, when should regulators break up banks? First, if the banks have price-setting power, then you want to eliminate those monopolistic tendencies. Second, if there's no way to resolve the institutions without also causing catastrophic damage to the financial system. If either of those criteria persists, then regulators should take this action.
But this doesn't appear to be what Britain considered. Which banks did it break up? Those with the most problems. For example, Barclays and HSBC, two completely mammoth British banks, remain intact. If there were antitrust concerns, then surely those two banks would have them too. If the break-up banks couldn't have been easily resolved, then I find it difficult to believe that the other two could have.
I somewhat doubt that big banks in the U.S. will be broken up. I just think there's too much political pressure to let them be. But if regulators did go this route, I certainly hope the action wouldn't be reserved for just Citigroup and Bank of America. Other banking behemoths like JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley pose as much or more risk to the financial system as Citi and BofA if they cannot be resolved without causing another crisis.
Make no mistake: I'm for breaking up banks if it makes sense to do so from an economic standpoint. What I'm not in favor of is breaking up only the banks with a poor track record. That's precisely the kind of reactive policy that utterly fails to prevent future economic meltdowns. Bank breakups need a proactive approach, which is why no bank -- no matter how healthy -- should be immune.
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