Protecting taxpayers from the collapse of banks that are too big to fail is Neel Kashkari’s signature issue in his first year as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and he will announce a plan for doing that in New York this week.
A lot of work has gone into it — the full power of the Minneapolis Fed’s research staff, four symposiums attended by economists from around the world and dozens of town hall meetings with Kashkari at the microphone.
But the hardest job may lie ahead: making sure the proposal is not ignored.
“I’m hoping that what we end up putting out next week is clear enough, it just lays it out there for you to understand and make some decisions,” Kashkari told a business audience in Eau Claire, Wis., on Wednesday. “Ultimately it’s going to be the public’s call.”
Alan Simpson, the former GOP senator from Wyoming, knows something about tackling a difficult problem, proposing a solution, and having it ignored.
He was one of the chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and a namesake of what became known as the Simpson-Bowles plan to cut the U.S. deficit by $4 trillion.
The plan, commissioned by President Obama, was released in 2010, lauded by many and then never received a hearing in Congress.
Simpson said last week he sympathizes with the challenge Kashkari faces.
“Out here in the Wild West in Wyoming, we say grab a tight rein and hang on tight, because they’ll tear your butt off,” Simpson said on the phone, from his home in Cody. “We did a report, it was 67 pages, it was in English. We used phrases like ‘going broke’ and ‘shared sacrifice.’ There’s been no shared sacrifice in this country since World War II, and there won’t be any. It’s a very greedy generation, my generation.”
The problem that Kashkari is trying to solve is different, and he, unlike Simpson, will not be proposing to raise the Social Security age or cut Medicare benefits. But there are parallels.
Simpson and the rest of the Obama-appointed commission first met in April 2010 and announced their draft plan on Nov. 10 of that year. Kashkari’s self-appointed commission is working on a similar timeline.
Both problems are massive, and solving them will exact a price. A smaller deficit means either higher taxes or lower spending, or both. A safer banking system means a higher cost of doing business and probably some drag on economic growth, Kashkari said.
“You all have to decide how much safety do we want against a future financial crisis, and what are you willing to pay to achieve that safety,” Kashkari said on Wednesday.
Kashkari, who said he had been a free-market ideologue before the crisis, ended up overseeing the bank bailout as a senior Treasury official in 2008. Early this year, newly installed as president of the Minneapolis Fed, he said he believed taxpayers would once again be on the hook if a financial crisis struck.
Hoping to spark a renewed national conversation, in February he floated some of the most extreme options for ending the too-big-to-fail problem: breaking large banks into smaller, less connected entities; turning them into public utilities by forcing them to hold so much capital that they can’t fail, and taxing leverage throughout the financial system to reduce systemic risk across the board.
More complicated ways to unwind failing banks came up in panel discussions in April, May and September.
Kashkari has not released any details ahead of his announcement, but he has signaled since February a deep skepticism for mechanisms that promise to “resolve” failing banks in a crisis safely. One of those is a Federal Reserve rule announced a year ago that tries to force creditors to take losses when a bank they lend money to fails, a measure meant to inspire more prudence in the financial industry.
“We’ve come up with this very clever, delicate mousetrap, and if we wind this one lever 90 degrees, and we pull this back, and we tap three times, and we close our eyes and pray, then we’re not going to need the balance sheet of the federal government,” Kashkari said in May. “So I don’t know. Call me a big skeptic, but in a time of major crisis, this type of complexity just terrifies me. I think it’s going to have almost no shot of working if we ever face something like we faced in 2008.”
His comments about imposing higher capital requirements on banks have been less skeptical.
Whatever he proposes this week, the odds of it gaining traction among regulators and lawmakers were always slim.
Many economists and politicians in Washington have said the Dodd-Frank Act — financial reform legislation passed in 2010 — is sufficient to prevent a repeat of the 2008 bank-led crisis. President-elect Donald Trump thinks even that law goes too far and has promised to dismantle it.
Bankers lined up against Kashkari’s effort from the start, arguing more stringent regulation of U.S. banks would put them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy. Other Federal Reserve officials have promoted rules such as the one announced last year.
Amid all that, getting the public to pay attention to arcane bank regulation aimed at solving a problem that comes along two or three times a century is difficult, even for a skillful communicator like Kashkari, who employs metaphors like nuclear reactors, terrorism and Luke Skywalker’s attack on the Death Star to illustrate his concerns about large banks and their risks.
Kashkari should not worry too much if his proposal is ignored, said Simpson, because trying to solve an important problem is worthwhile work on its own.
“You try to tell people the truth, and if nobody’s listening, you’ve done your share,” Simpson said.
And public enthusiasm to solve problems such as the national deficit, or a vulnerable financial system, comes back around, said Simpson, who is 85 and served three terms as U.S. senator.
“You put something on the books and it was ignored, but it’s out there,” Simpson said. “It’s maybe on the bottom shelf there, but it hasn’t gone away.”