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Mark Gongloff Headshot

Time To Stop Babying The Big Banks

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When it comes to big banks, we're like overly doting parents: Four years after the financial crisis, we just can't stop babying them.

Apparently, despite the personal guarantee of Warren Buffett that the banks are okey-dokey, they still need our assistance. Their profit margins are getting squeezed in several ways, writes Robin Sidel in the Wall Street Journal (as we'll observe when they report fourth-quarter earnings, starting with Wells Fargo today). For one thing, they have way too many deposits, on which they must pay interest. For another, they're having a hard time finding anybody they want to loan money, so they're not getting as much interest back. As a result, their net interest margins are too thin.

Meanwhile, they also just can't seem to stop getting into trouble and paying hefty fines all of the time, which is also not great for business. Big lenders will take hits totaling about $20 billion in fines this quarter from their various settlements with the government, Sidel notes -- settlements that weren't too awfully onerous and that almost never involved any criminal charges being filed, mind you. Even as we speak, they're getting into more trouble: A couple of top UBS executives testifying before a UK parliamentary commission yesterday expressed shock and ignorance about rampant Libor fraud at their bank, for which it has paid $1.5 billion in fines. And Reuters reports that JPMorgan Chase will soon get a strongly worded letter from the U.S. government that it needs to do a better job of keeping an eye on the money going through its coffers, lest it run afoul of money-laundering laws, as HSBC, Standard Chartered and many other banks have before.

Meanwhile, banks complained so much about the fragile state of housing that they won some key concessions in the new mortgage-lending rules announced yesterday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, notes Peter Eavis in the New York Times. The rules may prevent some of the pre-crisis abuses in mortgage lending that helped lead to the housing collapse, but they will take effect over many years, and the CFPB offered possibly unnecessary protections to the banks against being sued by homeowners.

In another sop to the banks, the recent government settlement with mortgage lenders over their shoddy foreclosure practices was based on a belief that actually reviewing cases of foreclosure abuse was just way too hard, and that it's better for everybody (except homeowners) just to let lenders handle things as they see fit, as Jessica Silver-Greenberg in the NYT reminds us (and Eleazar David Melendez and Ben Hallman wrote earlier this week).

All of this follows the most profound bank concession of all: the retreat earlier this week on tougher bank capital and liquidity standards by the Basel III regulators. Some commentators suggested this surrender was a good thing, otherwise these tender banks would be so fragile as to not be able to lend money any more.

That's just completely wrong. The banks already aren't lending money, as Sidel's WSJ story today points out, either because they're being too finicky or because the economy is weak or because there's just not that much demand for loans, or all of the above. Distant-future capital and liquidity standards are not really a big part of the equation. Sure, business is bad, and we help industries when business is bad. But we shouldn't sacrifice the future safety of the financial system in the process. It's time to stop spoiling these banks.