The Myth of “Too Big to Fail”

John Hussman exploding the myth that even our biggest banks are too big to (let) fail, in his weekly letter today. This gets past basic employment numbers to the core of the Occupy gatherings should be about. This is the as yet mostly unstated battle, between bondholders and budget cuts.

Look at Bank of America’s balance sheet, for example. Reported assets are $2.261 trillion. Against that, liabilities to depositors amount to less than half that, at $1.038 trillion. Add in $239 billion for securities that they are obligated to repurchase, $129 billion in trading account and derivative liabilities, and $155 billion for accrued expenses. Now you’ve covered counterparties, as well as vendors or others who might have invoices outstanding. Even then, and you’re still only up to $1.561 trillion of the liabilities. The remaining 31% of Bank of America’s liabilities represent obligations to its own bondholders and equity of its own shareholders. This is well beyond what is sufficient to buffer any loss that the company might take on its assets, while still leaving customers and counterparties completely whole. To say that Bank of America can’t be allowed to “fail” is really simply to say that Bank of America’s bondholders can’t be allowed to experience a loss.

What “failure” really means is that bondholders lose money, and the operating part of the institution is taken into receivership, sold for the difference between assets and non-bondholder liabilities, and recapitalized under different ownership. Often the only thing that customers and depositors notice is that there is a new logo on top of their statements.

Now take a look at Citigroup’s balance sheet. Reported assets are $1.956 trillion. Against that, liabilities to depositors again amount to less than half of that, at $866 billion. Add in $204 billion in repurchase obligations, $209 billion in trading and brokerage liabilities, and $73 billion in other liabilities, and you’re still only up to $1.352 trillion. The remaining 31% of Citigroup’s liabilities, again, represent obligations to its own bondholders and equity of its own shareholders. Again, to say that Citigroup can’t be allowed to “fail” is really simply to say that Bank of Citigroup’s bondholders can’t be allowed to experience a loss.

You can do the same calculations for nearly every major financial institution in the world. The amount of bondholders and equity coverage varies somewhat, but in virtually every case, bondholder and shareholder capital of these institutions are more than sufficient to absorb any losses without the need for public funds, provided that the objective of government policy is to protect the people and the long-term viability of the economy, rather than defending the existing owners, bondholders, and managements of these institutions. Make no mistake – that choice is what the oncoming crisis is going to be about (See An Imminent Downturn – Whom Will Our Leaders Defend? ).

But who are those bondholders? They include corporate investors, pension funds, endowments, mutual funds and ordinary investors. And all of them willingly take a risk in order to reach for return. As do stock market investors. And if the risk doesn’t work out, none of them should look to the government to fire teachers, lay off social workers, underfund the National Institutes of Health, cut Medicaid, and print money (because until the Fed sells its Treasury and GSE holdings, it has indeed printed money), just because they take their risk in a different type of security.