10 Years On: Too-Big-to-Fail Bailouts Failed Americans

Protesters want bailouts and financial crises to end, but their demands are likely to create even more. (Shawn Sebastian)

Ten years have passed since the financial crisis that triggered a global economic downturn, and many Americans are still struggling to get back on their feet. It's no surprise then that resentment against Wall Street continues unabashed.

The progressive Center for Popular Democracy, for instance, argues that the financial institutions bailed out in 2008 with "$4 trillion in emergency low-interest loans from the Federal Reserve" have become more profitable than ever, while affected households are trying to make ends meet.

On March 12, activists joined the organization's staff to stage a protest demanding that the next head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank be someone who has the interests of workers at heart, not Wall Street's, with a focus on economic stability, job-creation, and higher wages.

The demonstrators are right that the US government has unjustly subsidized reckless firms for years and designated them as too big to fail, a moral hazard which they are getting used to at the expense of taxpayers. However, they are misguided in their belief that more regulations or government-backed programs are going to ensure that history will not repeat itself.

Companies like AIG become "systemically important financial institutions" precisely when high entry barriers—regulations, licenses, taxes, and even government patronage—prevent new and smaller businesses from competing with them. Therefore, piling on regulations is merely another way of bailing out the government’s favorite firms.

It bears repeating that economic freedom is the solution these activists should be demanding. Firms operating in a free market face the risk of failure or insolvency, and they must be responsible for their mismanagement—not taxpayers.

Hester Pierce, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, explains the real costs of the bailouts in a 2012 study: in addition to the costs that come from officials pouring taxpayer dollars into stakes that no one else wanted to invest in, “bailouts disrupt the way markets function.” Big firms are able to operate inefficiently because they know the government will protect them from failure. Since big firms are more likely to get a bailout, other companies will prefer to partner and do business with them.

If protecting workers is the goal, the new president of the New York Fed should acknowledge that risk taking is part of a free and healthy financial system, and he will introduce market-based reforms. That is what Pierce and Benjamin Klutskey, managers of the monetary-policy program at the Mercatus Center, suggest in "Reframing Financial Regulation: Enhancing Stability and Protecting Consumers" (2016).

The “financial regulatory system needs to be reoriented to meet the objective of providing the framework within which individuals and institutions come together freely to engage in mutually beneficial financial transactions,” the authors advise. Since regulators operate outside the market, they know little about the appropriate products and services, interest rates, portfolios, and technologies that best fit the needs of consumers.

Government intervention sends ripples across the financial system and distorts its dynamics in ways we cannot predict, just like the subprime mortgage crisis. Asking the Fed to fix the negative effects of its bailouts is understandable, but we must also understand that the vicious cycle will continue, and soon we'll be demanding government to repair another consequence of its own making.

It is time that Wall Street be held accountable for its own choices, and let's stop asking government officials to pick winners and losers. 

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Paz Gómez

Paz Gómez has been a contributor to the AIER blog since September 2017, and she is a policy analyst with Antigua Report. She is also the cofounder and academic coordinator of Libre Razón, a think tank in Quito, Ecuador. Follow @PazenLibertad.