ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Too big to fail. The phrase has been repeated often since the early days of the financial crisis. Banks deemed too big to fail were supposed to be brought under control when Congress passed the financial overhaul known as Dodd-Frank back in 2010. But the fear remains and it unites some odd bedfellows - liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.
As NPR's John Ydstie reports, these lawmakers believe the government will still step in to bail out big banks if they get in trouble.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: At recent Capitol Hill hearing, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, confronted Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke with her concerns.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We've now understood this problem for nearly five years, so when are we going to get rid of too big to fail?
BEN BERNANKE: We do have a plan and I think it's moving in the right direction.
YDSTIE: Bernanke pointed to Dodd-Frank's prohibition against government bailouts, the authority the law gives to the FDIC to wind down the biggest banks and the added capital the law requires those banks to have to absorb potential losses. But the next questioner at the hearing wouldn't drop the subject.
SENATOR DAVID VITTER: My top concern is actually exactly the same as Mrs. Warren's.
YDSTIE: That's Republican David Vitter of Louisiana.
VITTER: There is growing bipartisan concern about the fact that too big to fail is alive and well.
YDSTIE: Vitter says the evidence is in the financial markets. Investors are willing to lend to the mega banks more cheaply than to smaller banks. He says that's because investors believe if the big banks get in trouble, the government will bail them out, despite Dodd-Frank. Vitter has teamed up with liberal Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio. The two will soon introduce a bill that would require the six biggest banks to have even more capital to cushion against potential losses.
The bill would also limit the big banks' access to the federal safety net, including FDIC insurance and cheap Federal Reserve loans. Another bill Brown is pushing would curb the size if the mega banks by limiting how much they could borrow.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: They really are too big to manage, so people running these banks don't understand the complexity in many cases of some of the derivatives with which they're involved. And that says to me that it's not just too big to fail, it's too big to manage.
YDSTIE: As proof, Brown points to JP Morgan's $6 billion loss stemming from the disastrous financial bets made by its so-called London whale. But it's not just on Capitol Hill that there's worry too big to fail lives on despite Dodd-Frank. There's concern within the Federal Reserve System, too. Harvey Rosenblum, an official at the Dallas Fed has worked with the bank's president, Richard Fisher, to develop an alternative plan. Rosenblum acknowledges that Dodd-Frank clearly states that there will be no more bailouts but he says...
HARVEY ROSENBLUM: Those are empty words. Right now, all you have is, oh, we're fixing to or writing over 9,000 pages of regulations to make sure we don't have too big to fail anymore, but nobody can follow regulations that they don't understand.
YDSTIE: The Dallas Fed plan would limit the government's safety net to the traditional commercial banking part of the mega banks, but not the investment banks or securities units, for instance. Then, says Rosenblum, the plan would require that people doing business with those outside units sign a pledge acknowledging this simple fact.
ROSENBLUM: I understand that if this company loses money, I'm stuck. I get it. That, in and of itself, will change the incentives enormously and would clarify where the safety net is and where it isn't.
YDSTIE: Former FDIC chairman Sheila Bair agrees the limits of the safety net must be made clearer. She argued for just that in her book, "Bull by the Horns." But Bair says it should be done within the Dodd-Frank framework. She says those who wish to put a stake through the heart of too big to fail should recognize Dodd-Frank is the best tool for the job.
Bair fears reopening the legislation would give Wall Street a chance to weaken the reforms.
SHEILA BAIR: Once this gets opened up, you never know what Congress is going to do. So again, it's a healthy discussion, but let's try to use the tools we have now and I think that will be faster, too, than trying to get Congress to do a bill.
YDSTIE: Bair says she wishes lawmakers had pushed harder for these tougher measures back when Dodd-Frank was being debated. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.