Bloomberg Gets a Scoop on a Too Big to Fail Tax

Bloomberg reports today that the Obama administration—or at least parts of it—are planning to levy fees on giant financial institutions to encourage them to slim down.

It interviewed Sheila Bair, the FDIC chairwoman, who gave it some big news on Too Big to Fail:

The FDIC will propose slapping fees on the biggest bank holding companies to the extent that they carry on activities, such as proprietary trading, outside of traditional lending. The idea goes beyond the Obama administration’s regulation-overhaul plan, which would have the Fed adjust capital and liquidity standards for the biggest firms, without any pre-set fees.

It sure does. An added disincentive for gigantism is indeed surprising coming from this administration. Of course, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes Bair’s idea, according to Bloomberg. He would.

More interesting is Bloomberg’s assertion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke favors Bair’s plan. That makes it much more likely that it won’t get bogged down by Geithner and the bankers he talks to.

It’s unclear from Bloomberg’s story how it has sourced its assertion that Bernanke supports Bair’s plan. The headline says “Bair, Bernanke Want Tougher Curbs on Biggest Banks” and the lede says “Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair, with support from Federal Reserve officials, is pushing for tougher measures to curb the size and risk-taking of the nation’s largest financial firms.”

But that’s it. I understand it’s not always possible, but it’s of course always better to have clear sourcing. I’ll give Bloomberg the benefit of the doubt on this, though.

Another bit of weirdness is that its interview with Bair was on July 9 but is only being reported now. There must have been some sort of embargo for Bloomberg not to report this big news for a week.

“What we have suggested is financial disincentives for size and complexity,” Bair said in a July 9 interview.

The Berg reports the Too Big to Fail fees would go into a special reserve fund to pay for bank rescues. Those would have to be some giant fees, though, to effectively insure against a rescue of Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase or Goldman Sachs, which is taking on big-time risks (profitably so far) these days.

This is just a superb quote:

“The benefits to society of economies of scale and economies of scope can’t possibly pay for the costs that we pay when they fail,” said Fed historian and Carnegie Mellon University Professor Allan Meltzer in an interview.

And this is news to me:

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank plans a hearing on the so-called too-big-to-fail issue July 21. “What we want to come out of this with is a substantial diminution at the very least of that problem,” said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.

It seems at long last that the debate on Too Big to Fail is turning. It’s about time.

And, whoo, boy! Watch out for the vicious backlash from Wall Street on this one.

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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.