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Too Big to Jail?

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We are supposed to be a country of laws. The laws should apply to Wall Street as well as everybody else. So I was stunned when our country's top law enforcement official recently suggested it might be difficult to prosecute financial institutions that commit crimes because it may destabilize the financial system of our country and the world.

"I am concerned," Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute -- if we do bring a criminal charge -- it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy."

The attorney general was talking about some of the same financial institutions that received billions, and in some cases trillions, of dollars in taxpayer bailouts after their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior plunged the country into a terrible recession. Over my opposition, Congress approved a $700 billion taxpayer bailout of financial institutions that were on the brink of collapse which some in Congress considered "too big to fail."

In addition, the Federal Reserve provided over $16 trillion in total financial assistance to these same institutions during the financial crisis (which only became public after an amendment I inserted into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requiring the Fed to disclose this information).

The attorney general's view seems to be that if you are just a regular person and you commit a crime, you go to jail. But if you are the head of a Wall Street company, your power is so great that a prosecution could have destabilizing consequences with national or even worldwide implications.

In other words, we have a situation now where Wall Street banks are not only too big to fail, they are too big to jail. That view is unacceptable.

The attorney general's troubling acknowledgement has revived interest in an idea that is drawing more and more support. It is time to break up too big to fail financial institutions.

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The 10 largest banks in the United States are bigger today than they were before a taxpayer bailout following the 2008 financial crisis.

U.S. banks have become so big that the six largest financial institutions in this country (J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) today have assets of nearly $9.6 trillion, a figure equal to about two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product. These six financial institutions issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards, over half of all mortgages, control 95 percent of all derivatives held in financial institutions and hold more than 40 percent of all bank deposits in the United States.

I will soon introduce legislation that would give the Treasury secretary 90 days to compile a list of commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds and insurance companies that the Treasury Department determines are too big to fail. The affected financial institutions would include "any entity that has grown so large that its failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the United States economy without substantial government assistance." Within one year after the legislation becomes law, the Treasury Department would be required to break up those banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions identified by the secretary.

Breaking up the too big to fail financial institutions is a notion that has drawn support from some leading figures in the financial community. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, wrote this: "The safer the individual banks, the safer the financial system. The ultimate destination -- an economy relatively free from financial crises -- won't be reached until we have the fortitude to break up the giant banks." James Bullard, the head of the St. Louis Fed, also weighed in. "I do kind of agree that 'too big to fail' is 'too big to exist.'" Thomas Hoenig, the former Kansas City Fed president, was an early supporter of the idea of breaking up big U.S. banks. "I think [too big to fail banks] should be broken up. And in doing so, I think you'll make the financial system itself more stable. I think you will make it more competitive, and I think you will have long-run benefits over our current system, which leads to bailouts when crises occur."

In my view, no single financial institution should be so large that its failure would cause catastrophic risk to millions of American jobs or to our nation's economic wellbeing. No single financial institution should have holdings so extensive that its failure could send the world economy into crisis. And, perhaps most importantly, no institution in America should be above the law. We need to break up these institutions because of the tremendous damage they have done to our economy.

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If an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.


Bernie Sanders is the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. He is a member of the Senate's Budget, Veterans, Environment, Energy, and H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, (more...)

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