Audit Notes: TBTF, Billionaire’s Free Pass(ing), Poverty Profiteers in Paris

The Journal’s David Wessel looks at the divide over what to do about too big to fail.

Even mainstream economists thing the administration’s efforts on TBTF are a joke:

By a 37-7 margin, economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal this week, many from Wall Street, said the pending bill doesn’t do enough to address too-big-to-fail, sometimes abbreviated TBTF. “It doesn’t end it, it institutionalizes it,” said Stephen Stanley of Pierpont Securities, a young broker-dealer that is too small to save.

Here’s what Tim Geithner et al say:

The Geithner camp doesn’t believe that big banks are actually more prone to collapse and does believe that scale and scope bring economic benefits to the U.S. in a global economy marked by ever-bigger companies, though it allows that a big-bank collapse can do a lot of damage to others.

These big banks clearly are more prone to collapse and the economic benefits of scale peter out at about one-twentieth the size of our current goliaths. Run down the top 10 banks from 2007, see how many of them failed, were forced into cheap buyouts, or had to be bailed out to prevent a failure—and then compare that to the number for the other several thousand banks. It’s not even close.

For more on that, see my posts here: Small Banks Did Not Perform Worst in the Crisis and All the Banks in Georgia.

The New York Times looks at how billionaires who die this year will get to pass on their accumulated wealth to their heirs tax-free:

Had his life ended three months earlier, Mr. Duncan’s riches — Forbes magazine estimated his worth at $9 billion, ranking him as the 74th wealthiest in the world — would have been subject to a federal tax of at least 45 percent. If he had lived past Jan. 1, 2011, the rate would be even higher — 55 percent.

Again, it’s worth remembering, as the NYT does here, that despite all the Frank Luntz “death tax” propaganda, only about 5,000 people a year end up paying the estate tax, which only applies to the truly wealthy. At a time when the budget is deep in the red, the government is letting a few billion dollars slip through the loophole—and that’s just in this one case.

Good for the Times for putting it in the spotlight.

— I was in Paris, Texas, last night and noticed one of the worst shopping-centers I’ve ever seen. If there are any East Texas or Dallas-based reporters looking to do a story on the poverty industry, I’ll bet you can find one or ten at the Williamsburg Center in Paris.

I’ve seen a lot of depressing strip malls (I used to cover them. Jealous much?), but this one may be tops. It had an EZ Pawn, Cash AdvantEdge, Toledo Finance, Rent A Center, City Finance, EZ Loan, Liberty TV & Appliance (rent-to-own) among its dozen or so stores and nearly as many empty storefronts.

All that was missing was a subprime mortgage lender, though I’d bet they were there in 2007.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.