Saturday, January 7, 2012

Market failure in the US Banking sector

NYT has an excellent graphic that illustrates the enormity of the huge concentration of market power in the US banking industry. Of the more than 8000 banks in the US, the top 3 have 44% of market share while the top 20 take 92%.

The Times article is spot on its assessment of the US banking sector in the aftermath of the sub-prime mortgage crisis,

Failure is as important to healthy capitalism as success. The nation’s handful of huge banks, however, are spared the indignity of failure... It’s extremely likely that all of the nation’s largest banks would have collapsed over the past three years without enormous help from the Federal Reserve. In any normally functioning market, they would have subsequently had trouble making huge profits. Instead, they’ve gotten bigger and richer.

In this context, more often than not, regulatory expansion will favor the existing entrenched big firms. In fact, even the current credit squeeze, by hurting the smaller firms disproportionately and also subsidizing the bigger firms, will only amplify the market power of the latter. This is a classic market failure, with potentially catastrophic systemic risk consequences (the TBTF moral hazard), crying out for policy intervention. The only way out of this systemic risk gridlock is to break-up the larger firms and disaggregate the concentration of market power and thereby risk.

In light of both the obvious danger of systemic risk caused by a few large firms and the fresh memory of the banking sector trends in the aftermath of the sub-prime crisis, one can only assume that policy makers are being deliberately obtuse if they can't get round to pulling the plug on the banking behemoths.

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