Top Federal Reserve Official: Let ‘Too Big’ Insolvent Financial Firms Fail

By Alister Bull | April 21, 2009

Insolvent financial firms must be allowed to fail regardless of their size, and sheltering such “too big to fail” institutions risks making the financial crisis worse, a top Federal Reserve official said Tuesday.

In blunt criticism of the government and his fellow central bankers, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City President Thomas Hoenig also said that the design of a $700 billion bank bailout last year had created uncertainty and slowed recovery.

“The United States currently faces economic turmoil related directly to a loss of confidence in our largest financial institutions because policymakers accepted the idea that some firms are just ‘too big to fail.’ I do not,” Hoenig told the Joint Economic Committee of the Congress in prepared remarks.

“Yes, these institutions are systemically important, but we all know that in a market system, insolvent firms must be allowed to fail regardless of their size, market position or the complexity of operations,” said Hoenig, who will be a voter on the Fed’s policy-setting committee next year.

The biggest 19 U.S. banks are being subjected to a battery of so-called stress tests to restore confidence in their soundness, with guidelines on the process due on Friday and the results on May 4.

Stocks fell sharply on Monday amid fear that some of them still face massive losses, as the severe U.S. recession forces loan default rates to continue rising.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has signaled that no firms will “fail” the stress tests, but Hoenig said this would be a mistake.

“Actions that strive to protect our largest institutions from failure risk prolonging the crisis and increasing its cost,” Hoenig said.

“Of particular concern to me is the fact that the financial support provided to firms considered “too big to fail” provides them a competitive advantage over other firms and subsidizes their growth and profit with taxpayer funds,” he said.

Nodding to anger among ordinary Americans over multi-billion dollar bailouts for rich bankers, Hoenig said some of these firms were simply too complicated, and too well-connected in Washington, for the good of the country.

“These ‘too big to fail’ institutions are not only too big, they are too complex and too politically influential to supervise on a sustained basis without a clear set of rules constraining their actions. When the recession ends, old habits will reemerge,” he said.

(Reporting by Alister Bull; editing by Neil Stempleman)

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