Experts Say Bills Won't End 'Too Big To Fail' President Obama called on Wall Street to back his proposals to rewrite the rules of the financial system. But an informal survey of economists and regulatory experts finds no one convinced that the reforms being proposed can solve the problem.
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Experts Say Bills Won't End 'Too Big To Fail'

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Experts Say Bills Won't End 'Too Big To Fail'

Experts Say Bills Won't End 'Too Big To Fail'

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Two different contests may determine the shape of new financial rules. There's the public game and the private game. In a moment, we'll talk with a reporter covering the private game. She's following congressional negotiations over a bill.

We start with reaction to a public speech by President Obama. In New York City, the president told bankers, consumer advocates and elected officials the country needs reform. The people listening include NPR's Adam Davidson of the Planet Money team.

ADAM DAVIDSON: It's really nice, actually, in the first few seconds of a serious policy speech to realize that everyone in the audience, as well as the guy talking, is in on the same joke.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's also good to be back in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Wall Street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIDSON: The joke, of course, is that after spending a year focusing more on health care, President Obama has turned much of his attention to Wall Street, and Wall Street hasn't been all that happy about it. Very few of Wall Street's leading figures were at the speech. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was, but the other big players in town, like the heads of JPMorgan Chase and Citibank, sat this one out.

Here's what they missed.

President OBAMA: When we read - in the past, and sometimes in the present -about enormous executive bonuses at firms, even as they're relying on assistance from tax payers or they're taking huge risks that threaten the system as a whole or their company is doing badly, it offends our fundamental values.

DAVIDSON: Or this...

President OBAMA: We have seen battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill, firms spending millions to influence the outcome of this debate.

DAVIDSON: We at Planet Money did an informal survey of economists and regulatory experts on the left and the right and in the center, and found most of them to be pretty unimpressed. It's not what you expect - the left thinking it's too soft, the right thinking it's too hard. No, both sides think it's just not enough to solve the problem.

Take the big one, the core issue: eliminating what people call too big to fail - the idea that if one of the largest banks in the country or several of them get in trouble, the government will bail them out with taxpayer money.

Here's President Obama yesterday.

President OBAMA: A vote for reform is a vote to put a stop to taxpayer-funded bailouts. That's the truth.

(Soundbite of applause)

DAVIDSON: This has gotten a lot of attention lately. And I have to say, I cannot find any experts who are willing to agree with the president on this one. Take this expert, Carmen Reinhart, an economist at University of Maryland.

Professor CARMEN REINHART (Economist, director, International Economics, University of Maryland): We're not seeing a very forceful step on the too-big-to-fail problem.

DAVIDSON: So, under this regulation, if five years from now, 20 years from now there's some big crisis, some of the largest banks in the country are telling us, oh, we're on the verge of collapse, the government basically will bail them out just like they bailed out, you know, Citibank, Bank of America.

Prof. REINHART: That would be my expectation. If there's any doubt that the crisis may be systemic, we will bail out again.

DAVIDSON: She means that no matter what the Congress or the president say today, if a major bank says hey, save us or the economy will go under, they're going to save the bank. Full stop.

The closest we could find to a fan was Doug Elliott with the Brookings Institution. He says the president and Democrats in Congress created a bill that does a lot to make our economy safer. So, does it do the big one? Does it end too-big-to-fail?

Mr. DOUG ELLIOTT (Researcher, Brookings Institution): No. No. There is no way to stop too-big-to-fail other than to cut them down to size so they're so small that we don't care.

DAVIDSON: This is what we keep hearing, it's close to a consensus view: If you have huge banks, then you have too-big-to-fail. You have bailouts. Some, like Elliott, say that's okay. It's a tradeoff and we need big banks. Others say no. Break them up.

The president and the leaders in Congress have made clear they're not going there, though it is fun to imagine how the bankers in the audience would've reacted if President Obama proposed taking their big companies apart. What the audience did make clear is that they can handle ribbing about lobbyists and high pay. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and the other bankers there gave the speech a standing ovation.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.

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