New Mpls. Fed chief: U.S. should look at breaking up biggest banks

Neel  Kashkari, president of the Mpls. Fed
New Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari has promised a series of public meetings on bank regulation and said the Minneapolis Fed staff will deliver an "action plan" on ending too big to fail by year's end.
Judy Griesedieck | For MPR News 2015

Updated: 5:34 p.m. | Posted: 1:56 p.m.

New Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari sent shock waves through the financial world on Tuesday when he said regulators should consider breaking up the country's biggest banks.

In his first speech as Minneapolis Fed chief, Kashkari told a gathering at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., that current policy isn't robust enough to protect the nation's economy from banks that remain too big to fail.

"We must begin this work now and give serious consideration to a range of options, including breaking up large banks into smaller, less connected, less important entities, turning large banks into public utilities by forcing them to hold so much capital that they virtually can't fail," he said.

The surprising stance from a former Wall Street executive and Republican candidate for California governor sent tremors through the financial world. Kashkari also drew praise from Bernie Sanders, the most liberal major party presidential candidate.

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Kashkari said there's been good progress toward increasing oversight of the country's mega-banks. But he says measures, such as the Dodd-Frank legislation, have not gone far enough.

"I believe the biggest banks are still too big to fail and continue to pose an ongoing large risk to our economy," he said.

David Wessel, a moderator at the event in Washington, kidded Kashkari about being too clear and straight-forward for a Fed official.

"It'll take you a long time to learn how to give a speech as a Fed president where no one understands what you're saying," Wessel said. "Glad we got you before they trained you."

Kashkari's views are likely to receive lots of scrutiny given his current position as well as his prior work.

At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, he was named to lead the newly-created, $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, which became widely viewed as the government's bailout of Wall Street's biggest banks.

Kashkari stepped up as the public face of TARP as it came in for criticism for initially helping larger banks first, although Kashkari disputed the idea that smaller institutions were treated unfairly.

"We needed to put medicine into the economy quickly and the fastest way to do that was to start with the biggest institutions," he said in a November interview with MPR News. "Big banks did not get any special deal."

Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi said he's skeptical about the wisdom of breaking up the biggest U.S. banks.

"What does that mean exactly? How do you execute on that? And what are the costs of that? Those are all very, very significant questions that don't have easy answers," Zandi said. "So, it's an easy thing to say, very hard to implement and execute and end up with a system that's in a better place."

Still, Zandi said Kashkari has raised a lot of questions about the banking system that need further debate.

Kashkari on Tuesday didn't say which banks he thought might be breakup targets. He acknowledged the decision rests ultimately with Congress.

He promised a series of public meetings on bank regulation and said the Minneapolis Fed staff will deliver an "action plan" on ending too big to fail by end of year.