By John Browne
Senior Economic Consultant to Euro Pacific Capital
In recent decades politicians have increasingly followed the Keynesian prescription of economic growth through continued government borrowing and the creation of undreamt of amounts of fiat money by central banks. To facilitate this process, the larger commercial banks have acted as the central banks' de facto distribution system, and as a result have grown ever larger while accepting progressively greater risks.
In 2008, potential catastrophe loomed as the entire international financial system was challenged with collapse. But, as the 'darlings' of the central banks, the "too big to fail" banks were saved by taxpayer bailouts so that they could continue to play their role in the stimulus engine. But as a result of these distortions, the environment for those banks outside of the exclusive "too big to fail club" has been increasingly challenging. In the United States, the financial services industry is changing radically and many fear that the days of U.S. dominance will be coming to an end.
Public ire resulting from the 2008 financial crisis largely missed politicians and central bankers and landed squarely on "Wall Street." As a result, bankers have become easy political targets. Increased regulation of the banking sector has become the rallying cry for the political left.
In addition to direct assaults on the banks, the ill-designed 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law has raised considerably the cost of entry to small entrepreneurial financial companies. Already, it is forcing the business of smaller financial companies offshore to the benefit of other countries.
Daniel Tarullo, an influential executive at the Federal Reserve Board, has suggested curbing bank growth by demanding a limit on the non-deposit liabilities of banks. Too often, short-term debt comprises the majority of these liabilities and is a source of potential vulnerability in a credit crunch. Meanwhile, some politicians have urged higher capital requirements in order to curb increasing bank size. Even ex-bankers such as Sandy Weil who led the lobbying effort to abolish the Glass-Steagle Act are now calling for its effective restoration. As a result, many corporations are deciding to leave the banking sector.
Companies for whom banking services provide an added benefit to their non-bank clients are fearful of the threat of increased capital requirements and of new, as yet to be clarified, Federal Reserve banking regulations. As such, it is a classic example of how excessive and uncertain regulations are hurting American business and employment. A specific example is that of tax preparation firm H&R Block. Years ago the company launched a service that provides some banking services to its customers. Recently they re-evaluated that strategy and have engaged advisors Goldman Sachs to help them "evaluate strategic alternatives." In other words, they are looking to shed the unit.
Those large banks that remain, firmly entrenched and supported by government guarantees, see little reason to provide cost effective services for retail clients. Most people with bank accounts in the United States will likely agree that in recent years banking fees have gone up while the level of service has gone down. This has resulted in private enterprise proposing innovative solutions. Recent moves by retail giant Walmart provides one example.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC) pointed out some weeks ago, some 51 million Americans are "under banked". Worse, about 17 million are "unbanked". This implies a massive potential need for banking services for individuals at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Many such Americans do a great deal of their shopping at Walmart, which purveys a wide variety of merchandise at extremely low prices.
To provide a service to these potential customers, Walmart has announced an agreement with American Express to issue a prepaid debit card entitled 'Bluebird'. This will enable less well-off consumers to purchase products from Walmart without surrendering their paychecks to a bank, thereby exposing themselves to high banking fees, or to put their purchases on conventional credit cards, which are notorious for high fees. As the service involves no extension of credit, Bluebird should provide cost effective service to the poor while involving no financial risk to either Walmart of American Express.
While Walmart's efforts may be timely and successful, the move will not reverse the fading glory of the U.S financial services sector. In order to perpetuate its system of massive money distribution, the Fed has insured that American banking will become as competitive domestically and globally as American manufacturing, which is to say, not at all.
John Browne is a Senior Economic Consultant to Euro Pacific Capital. Opinions expressed are those of the writer, and may or may not reflect those held by Euro Pacific Capital, or its CEO, Peter Schiff.