Academic journal article Independent Review

The Dilemma of Bailouts

Academic journal article Independent Review

The Dilemma of Bailouts

Article excerpt

On May 17, 1984, after a twelve-day "electronic" run, the Federal Reserve Board (Fed), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency jointly announced that they would guarantee "all depositors and general creditors" of Continental Illinois Bank--the country's sixth-largest bank, with assets of $45 billion--make a capital infusion of $2 billion, and supply any "extraordinary liquidity" needed to keep the bank afloat (Office of the Comptroller 1984). The announcement stunned many policy observers as the group of regulators promised to make whole (that is, to bail out) all of the bank's creditors, not just those entitled to federal deposit insurance, a step that had never been taken previously. The regulators took this exceptional action because they believed that owing to Continental's large size and its financial connections with other large banks, its failure might trigger a crisis in the world's financial system. The regulators knew that many other important U.S. banks had been weakened by a wave of bad loans to industrial corporations, real estate developers, and Third World governments and might also be vulnerable to an electronic run on their credit sources. The Fed acted as it did, according to Comptroller of the Currency Todd Conover in testimony before Congress, because "we could very well have seen a national, if not an international financial crisis, the dimensions of which were difficult to imagine" (Conover 1984). Thus, Continental Illinois was deemed to be "too big to fail," regardless of existing laws or precedents.

The Mother of All Resolutions

The announcement, however, was not enough to halt the run on the bank, which had begun after rumors surfaced in Tokyo that it was about to file for bankruptcy. The bank had become dependent on the Eurodollar financial market for the sale of certificates of deposit and medium-term notes. Holders of Continental paper were refusing to roll over maturities and looking for buyers at almost any price. Indeed, despite the regulators' pledge, the run continued through the month of July, causing the bank to draw down its emergency credit lines and to sell assets. The FDIC later invested another $4.5 billion in Continental Illinois and took over its $3.5 billion debt to the Chicago Fed in exchange for 80 percent of the bank's common stock (later expanded to include all of it) and replacement of its entire management and board of directors. Continental was divided into a recapitalized and restaffed "good" bank, which continued in business, and a "bad" bank, which held $3 billion of the bank's most troubled loans until they could be resolved. A few years later the FDIC commenced a successful program of public offerings of the "good" Continental stock, and in 1994 Bank of America acquired Continental at a premium over its market price. The proceeds from the stock sales greatly offset losses on the "bad" bank's holdings, limiting them to about $800 million ("Continental Illinois" 1997).

The Continental resolution, conducted under Fed chairman Paul A. Volcker's direction, was the landmark transaction during a ten-year crisis in the U.S. banking system (separate from the savings-and-loan crisis that occurred at roughly the same time). During this period, most of the large commercial banks experienced exceptional loan losses that degraded their credit ratings, stock prices, and market shares and led to a massive disintermediation of wholesale banking business to capital markets. New wholesale financing products initiated by investment bankers (for example, securitization, junk bonds, and derivatives) met the corporations' requirements, usually at lower cost, so that the availability of funds to the U.S. economy was not impaired by the long-term distress the major banks experienced. Many large banks (1) were forced to merge with stronger banks or to submit to draconian controls imposed by the regulators to avoid fates similar to Continental's (Smith 1993, 62-68). …

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