Risk is always two sides. Get rid of one risk and it comes with another. Insurance plans, for example, supposedly reduce risk, but if you pay the insurance premium, you are essentially getting rid of the substantive risk for a financial one. One of the ways we have thought about reducing risk is by making each financial institution insure itself through sheer size. The local pizzeria simple isn’t much of a loan risk to a bank with trillions of dollars. We have offset that risk with the risk of less personal interaction. We have made banking more and more transactional and less and less transformational.
The day-to-day business of a bank is really transactional. But the purpose of all of those transactions are supposed to be both transactional and transformational. Transactional in that the money gets wired, or deposit is recorded, or loan is approved. Transformational in that the money wired could provide someone the funds to get to work that day, or the deposit recorded provides the documentation for a mortgage loan, or loan approved so that the borrower can start a new business.
The question for Americans in regards to the size of financial institutions is whether the transactional efficiency now hinders the economic transformation that it is supposed to foster. More efficient transactions free up funds for other economic activity. But have we gotten to a point where the freed up capital is primarily helping wealthier people who then are equipped to more resources to make them wealthier while leaving the less-wealthy behind?
This is not a new question, of course. And I certainly don’t have the solution for what is the right amount of competition in banking that will foster more economic transformation while keeping risk relatively low. One test that I place to begin my inquiry is this: What percentage of transformational projects have been funded by bank loans versus investment from wealthy people? As a follow up, I would ask, When did these transformational projects get funded? I don’t know the answers to these questions but my feeling is that greater transformational projects have been funded by wealthy people over time. While I don’t know what proportion is the right proportion for the American economy, we are probably in a period where bank loans do not transform much of the economy anymore. If my feelings were on the mark, it would probably also mean that banks play a less important role in transforming the economy than before, and, therefore, might need a shake up of some sort. That shake up could come in the form of bank breakups, which increases the number of leaders in the industry with smaller pockets, forcing them to rely on ideas to have bank loans compete better with equity investments. But then again we are not in the mood to taken on more risk these days, and competing with equity investors to fund projects is a riskier activity.
So, I guess what I’m saying is: We are thinking about risk to the financial system all wrong. Size itself is just one variable but it isn’t big enough of a variable to change the economy in any meaningful way. Our mentality now is that banks simply move money around and store it and lend it to known risks. People used to start business with loans. Now, less people start businesses with loans. We have given debt a bad name. And that won’t change with having smaller banks… after all, banks, regardless of size, are enablers of debt.
Marcus Maltempo is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Fraud Examiner with more than a decade of experience helping banks, law firms and clients manage investigations and regulatory responses.