Called "contingent capital bonds", "bail-inable bonds" or "bail-in bonds," these securities say in the fine print that the bondholders agree contractually (rather than being forced statutorily) that if certain conditions occur (notably the bank's insolvency), the lender's money will be turned into bank capital.
However, even 20% of risk-weighted assets may not be enough to prop up a megabank in a major derivatives collapse. And we the people are still the target market for these bonds, this time through our pension funds.
In a policy brief from the Peterson Institute for International Economics titled "Why Bail-In Securities Are Fool's Gold", Avinash Persaud warns, "A key danger is that taxpayers would be saved by pushing pensioners under the bus."
It wouldn't be the first time. As Matt Taibbi noted in a September 2013 article titled "Looting the Pension Funds," "public pension funds were some of the most frequently targeted suckers upon whom Wall Street dumped its fraud-riddled mortgage-backed securities in the pre-crash years."
Wall Street-based pension fund managers, although losing enormous sums in the last crisis, will not necessarily act more prudently going into the next one. All the pension funds are struggling with commitments made when returns were good, and getting those high returns now generally means taking on risk.
Other than the pension funds and insurance companies that are long-term bondholders, it is not clear what market there will be for bail-in bonds. Currently, most holders of contingent capital bonds are investors focused on short-term gains, who are liable to bolt at the first sign of a crisis. Investors who held similar bonds in 2008 took heavy losses. In a Reuters sampling of potential investors, many said they would not take that risk again. And banks and "shadow" banks are specifically excluded as buyers of bail-in bonds, due to the "fear of contagion": if they hold each other's bonds, they could all go down together.
Whether the pension funds go down is apparently not of concern.
Propping Up the Derivatives Casino: Don't Count on the FDIC
Kept inviolate and untouched in all this are the banks' liabilities on their derivative bets, which represent by far the largest exposure of TBTF banks. According to the New York Times:
American banks have nearly $280 trillion of derivatives on their books, and they earn some of their biggest profits from trading in them.
These biggest of profits could turn into their biggest losses when the derivatives bubble collapses.
Both the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 and the Dodd Frank Act provide special protections for derivative counterparties, giving them the legal right to demand collateral to cover losses in the event of insolvency. They get first dibs, even before the secured deposits of state and local governments; and that first bite could consume the whole apple, as illustrated in the above chart.
The chart also illustrates the inadequacy of the FDIC insurance fund to protect depositors. In a May 2013 article in USA Today titled "Can FDIC Handle the Failure of a Megabank?", Darrell Delamaide wrote:
[T]he biggest failure the FDIC has handled was Washington Mutual in 2008. And while that was plenty big with $307 billion in assets, it was a small fry compared with the $2.5 trillion in assets today at JPMorgan Chase, the $2.2 trillion at Bank of America or the $1.9 trillion at Citigroup.
. . . There was no possibility that the FDIC could take on the rescue of a Citigroup or Bank of America when the full-fledged financial crisis broke in the fall of that year and threatened the solvency of even the biggest banks.
That was, in fact, the reason the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve had to step in to bail out the banks: the FDIC wasn't up to the task. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act was supposed to ensure that this never happened again. But as Delamaide writes, there are "numerous skeptics that the FDIC or any regulator can actually manage this, especially in the heat of a crisis when many banks are threatened at once."