Too Big To Learn

            With a bad habit of ignoring profound systemic problems, Federal Treasury officials are now securing a system that encourages the same careless risk-taking that originally got us into this mess. With this week marking the one-year anniversary since Lehman Brothers imploded, it is only appropriate to discuss the faulty system that protects and rewards failing financial institutions.

            The talking heads in charge of the world’s financial practices are on path to deliver more of the pain and suffering we have been experiencing over the past 20 plus months. The Lehman Brothers’ collapse last year showed us how brutal a large bank failure can be. Now, because of the mess caused by Lehman’s demise, it is unlikely that our government would again allow an institution of similar size to fail. This essentially gives big banks a free pass to misbehave. If you owned a business that was referred to as “too big to fail,” and you knew the government would do all they could to keep your doors open, would you not be inclined to take risks? It is like giving a six year old the keys to a candy factory and a set of cavity-resistant teeth. All risk is stripped away, so why not have some fun?

By receiving government funds, big banks are allowed to carelessly take on high degrees of risk, knowing that there is a safety net underneath them. This recession has been gut-wrenching. It has badly battered our economy and exposed wounds that will not heal in our lifetimes. No one wants to experience a downturn of this size again. But, if officials continue to foster an environment that rewards carelessness by major financial institutions, we will inevitably get more rounds of the same. While we should be demanding big banks to practice prudent due diligence, we are instead enabling them to write off any level of accountability. This recession should have been a major wake-up call for all businesses, but those institutions deemed “too big to fail” have also been allowed to be “too big to learn.”


Top Five of the Bad, Bottom Five of the Good

            Ravaged by the bursting of the real estate bubble, Nevada is among the states with the deepest wounds. Historically, our state has been in the top or bottom five of the most-unappealing statistically-compiled lists put out by major media. Unfavorable, sure, but we all choose to live here for one good reason or another. For instance, our tax structure keeps Nevada among the most business-friendly states in the country. For this reason, we have highly-competitive local markets and capitalism thrives here. Our state officials are somewhat handcuffed because of our demand to keep government out of our businesses as much as possible. By adopting and supporting this system, Nevadans have agreed to take on more personal responsibility when it comes to providing our own financial security—and we are now being put to the test.

            Across our country, state officials are scrambling for ideas that will simultaneously better their state’s situation and put them in the position of being quality leaders. In Nevada, our elected officials have considered bringing in a pricey third-party consultant to advise them on how to progress the state. This means not only are the individuals we put in office to make vital decisions not carrying out their duty, but now we will also foot the bill for a new position. We elected these authorities to represent us; not lead us, by way of expensive consultation, in an undesirable direction. With that said, when we elect them we do not, in turn, remove ourselves from the equation. We are not reduced to waiting on our state leaders to be proactive.

            These are extremely trying times for our country. The recovery is going to be led by us via our private capital and our private enterprise. The government does not have a weapon in its repertoire that comes close to matching the power of our collective private resources. Across the U.S., and particularly in our state, there is an abundant supply of quality projects that have been postponed due to insufficient capital. Because success requires both money and knowledge, every successful idea struggles with acquiring adequate funding at least once throughout the process. Every successful venture has to be properly backed and the majority of the backing comes from private capital. At the end of the day we, the people, are the engine that runs our country.

            Nevada is riddled with quality projects that could be going forward with proper capital and qualified management. We now have to be proactive in matching the two. Being among the top five states in the country in foreclosures, troubled institutions and bank closures does not mean we cannot also be among the top five states to emerge from this recession.


Survival of the Government-Backed Banks

            Even the banks that did not become entangled in the shaky investment strategies of Wall Street during the boom still indirectly had their knees taken out from beneath them throughout this meltdown. According to, 92 banks have failed in the U.S. through the first nine months of 2009; including three here in Nevada. As a comparison, in all of 2008 only 25 banks closed.

            In any meltdown, the government’s focus is on the big banks that have the potential to buckle our country’s financial system if they go under. But, that focus leads to a distinct advantage for big banks over their competition. Having government support allows the bigger banks the power to go out and collect the majority of the available capital, while smaller banks are forced to scavenge. This crisis has presented terrible obstacles for banks to raise the capital lifeblood needed to remain in business. Without liquid capital, smaller banks are consumed by their debts. With losses on commercial real-estate loans rising, the smaller banks that feed credit into our communities are drowning.

            When governments support the behemoth banks and allow the smaller banks to sink, they essentially help eliminate the competition needed to improve our financial system. Without intervention, smaller banks are generally able to pose a competitive threat to the large firms because they are more apt to find ways to be faster, smarter and more strategic. It has always been a staple in American capitalism to save a place in our economy for smaller businesses because they push against the bigger corporations and keep them honest.

            Competition in the banking industry leads to a financial system that operates more efficiently. By helping to eliminate competition, our government is essentially allowing the largest banks to monopolize the industry. By supporting the large and abandoning the small, our government is positioning us to face a much weaker economic recovery than if the innovative smaller firms were allowed to compete fairly. We are essentially heading in the same direction as Europe, which has long had its bank assets heavily concentrated in massive firms. The tactic may make it easier for governments to regulate financial systems, but it also eliminates the capitalistic nature that has made our banking industry the strongest in the world.

NEXT WEEK: Banks as Intermediaries

All my best,


Thomas J Powell







About TomPowell

Senior Managing Partner of Resolute Capital Partners. As chief strategist I combine my education and proven expertise in raising private capital, innovative deal structure, risk mitigation, portfolio management, and distressed debt recovery to lead the Resolute Capital team in building a cross-pollination program of Foreign Direct Investment between Asia and the United States. In 1999, I founded and led the growth of ELP Capital, Inc, a mortgage banking investment company. In addition I served as the Senior Managing Director for ELP Capital’s affiliated investment company - ELP Capital Advisors, a Registered Investment Advisor for the ELP Capital Family of Funds, Institutional Investors, and wealthy individuals. I began my career with Wells Fargo Bank when I was recruited in 1988 for a management position in business banking for the Silicon Valley market. I was instrumental in the architecture, development, and initial application of Wells Fargo's Officer Sales Training programs, led two separate branch offices to top 5 overall rankings, and in 1990 was named as one of the youngest Vice Presidents in the Company’s 140-year history. I am a widely sought after speaker, international guest lecturer, and am an Instructor in the Office of Executive Education at Harvard University. In addition, I publish a weekly economic newsletter and podcast The Powell Perspective. I am involved in numerous community and industry groups. Specialties:An innovative investment manager with particular expertise in credit risk analysis, distressed debt recovery, and deal structure. I understand the practical application of money management in response to risk on both Wall Street and Main Street.
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