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Bill Schmick: The game has changed in bank rescues — for the better

The present banking crisis has brought back memories of the 2008-09 global financial crisis. So far, the financial contagion has been corralled, thanks to swift government action. The winners and losers, however, have changed.

Most readers are familiar with the term "too big to fail." It refers to the financial theory that asserts that certain corporations, particularly banks, and some other financial institutions, are so large and so interconnected that their failure would be disastrous to the greater economic system. As such, these entities must be supported by governments when they face potential failure.

Back in the day, when Britain ruled the world, the government had a hands-off attitude toward failing banks. Over time, Parliament began to realize that the cost of bank failures in the commonwealth was far greater than supporting them.

Through the years (and many successive financial crises later), more and more governments worldwide began to get involved earlier and with more aggressiveness to avert bank failures.

Here in the U.S., we learned our own lessons during the Great Depression, when 9,000 banks failed — taking with them $7 billion in depositors' assets. In the 1930s, remember, there was no such thing as a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The life savings of millions of Americans were wiped out by these bank failures. Years later, the ‘New Deal’ legislation reformed and bolstered the framework of the financial sector in America.

While we still pride ourselves in believing in free markets and private capitalism, the reality is that a great many industries in the U.S. are private-public partnerships. A case in point is the banking industry. In the U.S., the government needs banks to create money and foster economic growth. The banks need the government to prevent bank runs and act as a lender of last resort. It is a symbiotic relationship.

The financial crisis almost tipped us into a second, worldwide depression. The government's actions, or should I say reactions, to the crisis were ad hoc at best. Lehman Brothers went through a chaotic bankruptcy. JP Morgan was arm-twisted into buying a rival for an amount that kept its bondholders intact. Other institutions were kept alive through huge capital injections that left both shareholders and bondholders intact.

None of these public actions truly solved the problems that got the banks into hot water in the first place. It required many years, and cost billions of extra dollars, before those issues were solved. At the same time, there was an enormous backlash by the tax-paying public against the bank bailouts and the government's actions to protect shareholders and bondholders. Since then, both banks and governments have learned several lessons.

The intervention in Europe to save Credit Suisse, and the U.S. actions in the case of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank were aimed at strengthening the overall financial system rather than leaving it weaker. Signature Bank was shut down. At Credit Suisse and SVB, senior executives were fired, while both bondholders and shareholders lost money.

On the other hand, the banks that acquired these troubled banks are ending up with hefty gains on their balance sheets. Both banks were effectively sold at a negative sale price, which was the difference between the amount that the acquiring bank is paying for its new assets and the book value of those assets.

It seems clear that the lessons learned from the financial crisis are that in the event of a bank failure, bond and shareholders' risk capital can, and in this case, did go to zero. Protecting depositors and the financial system has now become the top priority of the government and the banking system. And that is as it should be.

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