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Why it's time to break up the 'too big to fail' banks

January 18, 2012: 10:56 AM ET

Customers would benefit, the U.S. government would benefit, and - believe it or not - the big banks themselves would do better. 

By Sheila Bair, contributor

Why it's time to break up the 'too big to fail' banksFORTUNE -- America is downsizing. Whether it's the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the houses we live in, Americans are concluding that smaller is better. Even U.S. corporations are starting to see the benefit of more Lilliputian institutions; the impending -- and widely hailed -- breakups of McGraw-Hill (MHP) and Kraft (KFT) are two examples.

So what about banks? It would surely be in the government's interest to downsize megabanks. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) continues to push his bill to split apart the largest institutions. Regulators have new authority to order divestitures under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. From a shareholder standpoint, government breakups have a pretty good outcome. It worked out well for John D. Rockefeller, whose shares in Standard Oil doubled after it was ordered to break up. Ditto for those who owned stock in AT&T (T).

Yet with gridlock in Washington, don't count on politicians for a solution. Shareholders, however, have an interest in demanding that big banks split apart. Comparing the valuation for the supersize banks (Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), and J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM)) with their simpler, leaner competitors isn't pretty. Price/earnings per share for the supersizers averages 5.8, compared with 8.1 for smaller, more focused Wells Fargo (WFC) and 8.1 for the bigger regional banks like U.S. Bancorp (USB) and PNC (PNC). More telling is the ratio of share price to tangible book value. For the supersizers, the average is 72% of book, compared with 165% for Wells and 142% for the big regionals. Chase's strong performance holds up the average for the supersizers, but even its price to book is only 110%. Wells' superior performance suggests that complexity is a bigger drag on returns than size is. Even though Wells' assets exceed $1 trillion, it has pretty much stuck to its basic business of taking deposits and making loans, and in the process has consistently delivered solid returns.

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Before the financial crisis, the supersizers benefited from high levels of leverage and cheap debt funding costs from their "too big to fail" status. All that has changed. Capital requirements are going up significantly for mega-institutions. The cost of borrowing will rise, too, as bondholders come to realize that Dodd-Frank means what it says: no more bailouts. New rules on liquidity, proprietary trading, and derivatives will also eat into earnings. So it is hard to see how the megabanks' numbers can improve.

Supersizers argue that their scale is necessary to meet the financial needs of multinational corporations. But it's not clear that multinationals find it advantageous to do business with a handful of financial titans. Dealing with smaller, more focused institutions provides specialized expertise and less risk of conflicts. If there were really that much value in supersizer services, presumably it would show up in shareholder returns. But it doesn't.

Supersizers also argue that their economies of scale can lower costs for customers. Studies show that some economies of scale do exist, but they are limited by management difficulties in overseeing many different business lines. So while average overhead costs go down, average revenues go down even more. This effect can be mitigated by strong management, as Chase's exceptional performance demonstrates. But how many Jamie Dimons are out there?

At the beginning of the year, Citi's share price was trading at 58% of tangible book value, while BofA was trading at 48%. If Citi and BofA were broken up into smaller institutions that traded at price to tangible book ratios on par with the average of the big regionals, their shareholders would see $270 billion in appreciation. JPM shareholders would see $52 billion in appreciation.

So, shareholders, get ye to the boards that represent you and ask them loudly about whether your company would be worth more in easier-to-understand pieces. The public-policy benefits of smaller, simpler banks are clear. It may be in the enlightened self-interest of shareholders as well.

This article is from the February 6, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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About This Author
Sheila Bair
Sheila Bair
Contributor, Fortune

Sheila Bair is a Fortune contributor, and a former chair of the FDIC, and former member of the Basel Committee. She is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Bull by the Horns, Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself.

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