Too big to fail, too difficult to explain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am

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I was hoping for enlightenment, or at least a few amusing anecdotes, about how the Western financial crisis started in America when I signed up for a luncheon talk by Michele Davis, a senior adviser to former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club yesterday.

Davis, after all, is portrayed by Cynthia Nixon - the actress who plays Miranda in Sex and the City - in Too Big to Fail, the movie about the 2008 crisis. My curiosity was piqued. How many US Treasury officials, after all, have had the Hollywood treatment since Eliot Ness, the Treasury agent who busted Al Capone? Not many. The movie has Nixon following William Hurt, who plays Paulson, around the set, making inconsequential remarks.

After the talk, I was wondering if the portrayal was not inaccurate. Davis took us, blow by blow, through the US government's conservatorship - basically a takeover - of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and JP Morgan's takeover of Bear Stearns to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the merger of Bank of America with Merrill Lynch. But haven't we heard every one of these blows already in great detail, from many books and the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job?

Nixon - sorry, I mean Davis - didn't address the title of her talk and of the movie, which is one of the key questions of our time: what to do with too-big-to-fail financial institutions? Since the crisis, the surviving banks have become even bigger. As long as they enjoy TBTF status, they get to pocket all the upside, while leaving governments and taxpayers holding the bag when a crisis hits. Privatising profits and socialising losses is the worst kind of capitalism; it's socialism for the rich. And if this is what America stands for, who can blame China for insisting on its own brand of state-run capitalism, with all its concomitant cronyism?

But hey, at least the salmon was good at the FCC.