Too big to fail has become a key issue in financial regulation. Indeed, in the recent crisis many institutions enjoyed subsidies precisely because they were deemed “too big to fail” by policymakers. The expectation that large institutions will be bailed out by taxpayers any time they get into trouble makes the job of regulators all the more difficult. After all, if someone else will pay for the downside risks, institutions are likely to take on more risk and get into trouble more often—what economists call moral hazard. This makes reaching too-big-to-fail status a goal in itself for financial institutions, given the many implicit and explicit benefits governments are willing to extend to their large institutions. Hence, all the proposed legislation to tax away some of these benefits.
But could it be that some banks have actually become too big to save? Particularly for small countries or those suffering from deteriorating public finances, this is a valid question. The prime example is Iceland, where the liabilities of the overall banking system reached around 9 times GDP at the end of 2007, before a spectacular collapse of the banking system in 2008. By the end of 2008, the liabilities of publicly listed banks in Switzerland and the United Kingdom had reached 6.3 and 5.5 times their GDP, respectively.
In a recent paper with Harry Huizinga, we try to see whether market valuation of banks is sensitive to government indebtedness and deficits. If countries are financially strapped, markets may doubt countries’ ability to save their largest banks. At the very least, governments in this position may be forced to resolve bank failures in a relatively cheap way, implying large losses to bank creditors.