COLUMN - Big banks still hold regulators hostage: Rolfe Winkler

-- Rolfe Winkler is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own --

A woman uses an ATM inside a Citi bank branch in New York August 12, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sheila Bair has moved with impressive alacrity to shutter failed small and medium-sized banks. But she is still held hostage by the too-big-to-fail four.

Over the last eight days, her agency has been particularly busy, handling the two largest bank failures of the year. Last Friday it was Colonial Bank, today it will be Guaranty Bank.

With $25 billion and $14 billion of assets respectively, Colonial and Guaranty are the sixth- and 10th-largest failures in the history of the FDIC. Still, they pale in comparison to the big four.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which had $2.3 trillion of assets at the end of the second quarter, is nearly 100 times larger than Colonial. JPMorgan Chase, with $2.1 trillion, and Citigroup, with $1.8 trillion, are nearly as big. Wells Fargo had $1.3 trillion, 100 times more than Guaranty. These amounts don’t include hundreds of billions of dollars of off-balance sheet assets.

Yet even Colonial and Guaranty are large enough to give the FDIC indigestion. Its deposit insurance fund had just $13 billion as of March 31. The 56 failures since then will cost it an estimated $16 billion, including nearly $3 billion for Colonial. (That amount excludes Guaranty -- the FDIC should provide an estimate for those losses later today.)

It’s an unsettling thought if you have money in a bank. Officially, FDIC backs $4.8 trillion worth of deposits. If you include “temporarily” insured deposits, the total is $6.3 trillion. Yet the insurance fund protecting these deposits is going broke. Soon, the FDIC may have to draw on its credit line at Treasury.

It’s not surprising, given the sorry state of the Deposit Insurance Fund and the gargantuan heft of the big four, that FDIC is taking a bifurcated approach to bank resolutions.

Bair has moved decisively to close small and medium-sized banks. With the monsters, she not only assisted in their bailouts -- providing federal insurance for their debt even as she already insures their deposits -- she also sponsored their continued growth -- putting WaMu in the hands of JPMorgan and pushing Wachovia into the arms of Wells Fargo.

Not that she had much choice. The biggest banks are far too big for her to resolve. One way to measure this is deposits in failed banks as a percentage of GDP. (For a chart, click on

In 1934, the worst year for bank failures during the Depression, the total was 6.4 percent. In 1989, the most expensive year for the FDIC during the S&L scandal, it was 2.5 percent. Last year, the figure was 1.6 percent.

But the 2008 figure excludes Citi, BofA and Wachovia, which properly should be dumped in the failure bucket. Citi and BofA were goners without bailouts and Wachovia failed and fell into the arms of bailout recipient Wells Fargo. When you include those three, deposits in failed banks jump to 15.7 percent of GDP for 2008.

The FDIC, which was created to protect society from deposit runs, is no longer able to fulfill its mission because the biggest banks have grown far beyond its grasp.

That’s why these banks need to be downsized dramatically. A tax on assets is a good idea, but not enough. To break them up, Washington should limit the deposits in any single bank to a threshold far below what the big four currently hold.

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