Too Big to Fail in Financial Crisis: Motives, Countermeasures, and Prospects

Levy Economics Institute Working Paper No. 601

31 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2010

See all articles by Bernard Shull

Bernard Shull

City University of New York, CUNY Hunter College - Department of Economics

Date Written: June 7, 2010


Regulatory forbearance and government financial support for the largest U.S. financial companies during the crisis of 2007-09 highlighted a “too big to fail” problem that has existed for decades. As in the past, effects on competition and moral hazard were seen as outweighed by the threat of failures that would undermine the financial system and the economy. As in the past, current legislative reforms promise to prevent a reoccurrence.

This paper proceeds on the view that a better understanding of why too-big-to-fail policies have persisted will provide a stronger basis for developing effective reforms. After a review of experience in the United States over the last 40 years, it considers a number of possible motives. The explicit rationale of regulatory authorities has been to stem a systemic threat to the financial system and the economy resulting from interconnections and contagion, and/or to assure the continuation of financial services in particular localities or regions. It has been contended, however, that such threats have been exaggerated, and that forbearance and bailouts have been motivated by the “career interests” of regulators. Finally, it has been suggested that existing large financial firms are preserved because they serve a public interest independent of the systemic threat of failure they pose – they constitute a “national resource”.

Each of these motives indicates a different type of reform necessary to contain too-big-to-fail policies. They are not, however, mutually exclusive, and may all be operative simultaneously. Concerns about the stability of the financial system dominate current legislative proposals; these would strengthen supervision and regulation. Other kinds of reform, including limits on regulatory discretion, would be needed to contain “career interest” motivations. If, however, existing financial companies are viewed as serving a unique public purpose, then improved supervision and regulation would not effectively preclude bailouts should a large financial company be on the brink of failure. Nor would limits on discretion be binding.

To address this motivation, a structural solution is necessary. Breakups through divestiture, perhaps encompassing specific lines of activity, would distribute the “public interest” among a larger group of companies than the handful that currently hold a disproportionate and growing concentration of financial resources. The result would be that no one company, or even a few, would appear to be irreplaceable. Neither economies of scale nor scope appear to offset the advantages of size reduction for the largest financial companies. At a minimum, bank merger policy that has, over the last several decades, facilitated their growth should be reformed so as to contain their continued absolute and relative growth. An appendix to the paper provides a review of bank merger policy and proposals for revision.

Keywords: Too Big to Fail, Banking Policy, Antitrust, Government Policy, Regulation

JEL Classification: G21, G28

Suggested Citation

Shull, Bernard, Too Big to Fail in Financial Crisis: Motives, Countermeasures, and Prospects (June 7, 2010). Levy Economics Institute Working Paper No. 601. Available at SSRN: or

Bernard Shull (Contact Author)

City University of New York, CUNY Hunter College - Department of Economics ( email )

695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
United States
609-896-9194 (Phone)

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