In a CDDRL research seminar series talk, Anat Admati — the George G.C. Parker Professor of Finance and Economics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business — shared findings from her research on how banking practices can undermine democracy. Her talk highlighted themes from the new and expanded edition of her book, The Bankers’ New Clothes: What is Wrong with Banking and What to Do About It. Coauthored with Martin Hellwig, the book’s latest edition was published this year by Princeton University Press.
Admati argues that banks use their positions of influence to exploit their symbiotic relationships with politicians, breaking and distorting rules with impunity. The powerful consensus in the policy establishment that banks cannot be allowed to fail, has afforded these banks unrestricted power, knowing that the government will do whatever it takes to keep them afloat. The outcome has been detrimental to the rule of law and the quality of democracy.
Admati brought to focus the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report, which was formed in the wake of the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis. The report found that the crisis was avoidable, and attributed the failures to gaps in regulation. The same weaknesses in the system of regulation, Admati noted, persist today.
Much of the problem is rooted in the lack of sufficient equity. Banks, in other words, are allowed to operate with large amounts of debt, rendering them quite fragile. Exacerbating the problem is that banks are heavily interconnected, and when one indebted corporation fails, it takes down others with it; the 2008 crisis is a case in point.
The problem is global, but the U.S. provides a clear example. The U.S. government is central to how banks are able to get away with operating with such little equity. With the federal government prepared to support them through various bailout practices, banks find a strong incentive to borrow beyond their means. A recent example of that trend is Silicon Valley Bank, wherein the federal government took measures to guarantee that depositors would be made whole after the bank’s failure. This safety net that the government has consistently provided has, in effect, shielded banks from the downsides of taking on unsound risks. Better regulation is needed to require more equity so that banks would be prepared to absorb losses before being bailed out.
However, the current regulations — sponsored by the Basel Committee — are so complex that banks can weaponize and exploit them, spreading misinformation to shield themselves from accountability. Lobbying groups, like the Bank Policy Institute, are among the most powerful on Capitol Hill, ensuring that regulations remain lax, and banks continue to have the opportunity to game the system.
Banks hold disproportionate power in democracies and face limited political will to hold them accountable.