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Warren versus Bernanke: A Senate Showdown

February 26, 2013

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, went to the U.S. Senate to take the populist approach, her showdown with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke shows the CFPB architect may be succeeding in her mission.

But what the showdown doesn’t resolve is the ongoing feeling that Congress is only capable of grilling monetary policy officials to keep the voters happy, while doing very little of anything to fix the nation's housing and financial issues on their own.

But back to Warren’s grilling of Ben Bernanke on Tuesday.

Warren challenged the Fed Chair on the premise that too-big-to-fail has yet to go away in the U.S. In what can only be described as a trip through a black hole, Warren gained bipartisan support when Sen. David Vitter, R-La., piped in to inform Bernanke that – surprise – some Republicans actually agree with Warren on something.

Apparently, there is bipartisan angst in regards to Bernanke, Fed policy and the fact that big banks remain.

In fact, Vitter agrees with Warren's concerns about large banking institutions receiving implicit government guarantees, creating market instability.

Warren went a step further, citing a controversial Bloomberg editorial, in which the editorial writer said the top 10 U.S. banks receive a taxpayer subsidy of $83 billion a year.

As to how they got to this number – one that has been questioned – the article looked at the fact that big banks borrow money at lower rates because creditors assume they have government backing. This value was put into a calculation to determine that the big banks receive about $83 billion in subsidies for maintaining an image of government life-support.

As Bernanke sat before the same Senate Banking Committee, Warren – better known as the name behind the creation of the CFPB – asked if the largest financial institutions should be forced to repay subsidies that they are getting in the form of lower borrowing rates.

In response, Bernanke said any assumptions of government backing "are incorrect," thereby making the formula incorrect. He added that the Fed now has “early liquidation authority," a tool not available prior to Dodd-Frank and during the 2008 financial crisis.

With that tool, Bernanke noted shareholders of big banks can in fact be wiped out. As far as implicit government bailouts, he said, "that is the expectations of the markets, but it doesn’t mean we have to do it."

The chairman went on to explain to Vitter and Warren that with early liquidation rules and living wills for banks, regulators are moving in the direction of forcing the big banks to survive or perish on their own.

He agreed that large financial institutions are still a problem, but stipulated, that "As somebody who has spent a lot of late nights dealing with these problems and crisis, I would like the confidence that we can close down a large institution without damaging the larger economy."

The take-away: More talk and grilling from Congress, but very little in terms of an actual solution.

 

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