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July 11, 2013

A Call to Battle on Bank Leverage

On Tuesday, federal banking regulators opened an important new phase of the debate on how safe very large financial institutions should become. The next round of argument will be intense; the focus has shifted to the specific and high-stakes question of how much leverage big banks can have – i.e., how much of each dollar on their balance sheet they should be allowed to fund with debt rather than with equity.

The people who run global megabanks would rather fund them with relatively more debt and less equity. Equity absorbs losses, but these very large companies are seen as too big to fail – so they benefit from implicit government guarantees. A higher degree of leverage – meaning more debt and less equity – means more upside for the people who run banks, while the greater downside risks are someone else’s problem (the central bank, the taxpayer or, more broadly, you).

A key regulator on this issue is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which was created in 1933 to insure banking deposits – and hence serves as a crucial underpinning for public confidence in the financial system. The F.D.I.C. has a responsibility to financial institutions that pay insurance premiums; the goal is to avoid using federal tax dollars, so any losses are absorbed by the insurance fund.”

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Read Simon Johnson’s full Economix blog post here

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