Rethinking “Too Big To Fail”

 By Saule T. Omarova (Cornell University)

“Too big to fail” – or “TBTF” – is a popular metaphor for a core dysfunction of today’s financial system: the recurrent pattern of government bailouts of large, systemically important financial institutions. The financial crisis of 2008 made TBTF a household term, a powerful symbol of the pernicious society-wide pattern of “privatizing gains and socializing losses.” It continues to frame much of the public policy debate on financial regulation even today, ten years after the crisis. Yet, the analytical content of this term remains remarkably unclear.

In a forthcoming article, I take a fresh look at the nature of the TBTF problem in finance and offer a coherent framework for understanding the cluster of closely related, but conceptually distinct, regulatory and policy challenges this label actually denotes. I begin by identifying the fundamental paradox at the heart of the TBTF concept: TBTF is an entity-centric, micro-level metaphor for a complex of interrelated systemic, macro-level problems. I argue that, while largely unacknowledged, this inherent tension between the micro and the macro, the entity and the system, critically shapes the design and implementation of the key post-2008 regulatory reforms in the financial sector.

To trace these dynamics, I deconstruct the TBTF metaphor into its two basic components: (1) the “F” factor focused on the “failure” of individual financial firms; and (2) the “B” factor focused on their “bigness” (i.e., relative size and structural significance). Isolating and examining these conceptually distinct components helps to explain why the potential for failure (and bailout) of individual firms – or the “F” factor – continues to be the principal focus of the ongoing TBTF policy debate, while the more explicitly structural, relational issues associated with financial firms’ “bigness” – or the “B” factor – remain largely in the background of that debate.

Analyzing post-crisis legislative and regulatory efforts to solve the TBTF problem through this simplifying lens reveals critical gaps in that process, which consistently favors the inherently micro-level “F” factor solutions over the more explicitly macro-level “B” factor ones. It also suggests potential ways of rebalancing and expanding the TBTF policy toolkit to encompass a wider range of measures targeting the relevant systemic dynamics in a more direct and assertive manner. Admittedly, implementing such deliberately structural measures would require a qualitative shift in the way we think and talk about the financial system and its dysfunctions – not an easy precondition to meet in practice. Yet, as I argue in the article, this deep attitudinal shift is the necessary first step toward finally achieving the lofty – and persistently elusive – goal of eliminating the TBTF phenomenon in finance.

The complete article is available for download here.