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Robert Reich

Want to avoid bailouts? Break up the big banks.

It's time to limit the size of banks and break up the biggest ones on Wall Street, Reich writes.

By Guest blogger / January 8, 2013

A flag is seen outside the New York Stock Exchange in New York in this January 2013 file photo. Big banks can borrow more cheaply than smaller banks, Reich writes, because investors believe the government will bail them out if they get into trouble.

Eric Thayer/Reuters/File

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TARP – the infamous Troubled Assets Relief Program that bailed out Wall Street in 2008 – is over. The Treasury Department announced it will be completing the sale of the remaining shares it owns of the banks and of General Motors.

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Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His new movie, "Inequality for All," is available on Netflix. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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But in reality it’s not over. The biggest Wall Street banks are now far bigger than they were four years ago when they were considered too big to fail. The five largest have almost 44 percent of all US bank deposits.

That’s up from 37 percent in 2007, just before the crash. A decade ago they had just 28 percent.

The biggest banks keep getting bigger because they can borrow more cheaply than smaller banks. That’s because investors believe the government will bail them out if they get into trouble, rather than force them into a form of bankruptcy (as the new Dodd-Frank law makes possible). 

That’s why it’s necessary to limit their size and break up the biggest.

Washington may be getting the message. A few months ago Dan Tarullo, the Fed governor who specializes in bank regulation, proposed capping the size of the banks’ balance sheets.

Some former titans of Wall Street are saying much the same thing. Even Sandy Weill, who created Citigroup (which required $445 billion in TARP loans and asset guarantees) is proposing the biggest banks be broken up. 

The new Congress may also be supportive. The new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, has been a strong ally of small banks in their push to rein in their bigger rivals, and has expressed concern about the largest being too big to fail.

It’s not irrelevant that the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve Board, in Hensarling’s home district, has also proposed breaking up the biggest.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, is a strong advocate for breaking up the big banks and is now on the Senate Finance Committee. And Elizabeth Warren, scourge of Wall Street, will sit on the Senate Banking Committee.

In other words, the timing is right. The oven is ready. All we need is another multi-billion dollar banking loss – like JP Morgan Chase’s last year – and the biggest banks are cooked.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. This post originally ran on www.robertreich.org.

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