Why Bank Bail-Ins Will Be the New Bailouts

The financial crisis of 2008 ushered in the term "too big to fail," which regulators and politicians used to describe the rationale for rescuing some of the country's largest financial institutions with taxpayer-funded bailouts. Heeding the public's displeasure over the use of their tax dollars in such a way, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Act of January 2010, which eliminated the option of bank bailouts but opened the door for bank bail-ins.

Difference Between Bank Bail-In and Bank Bailout

A bail-in and a bailout are both designed to prevent the complete collapse of a failing bank. The difference lies primarily in who bears the financial burden of rescuing the bank. With a bailout, the government injects capital into the banks to enable them to continue to operate. In the case of the bailout that occurred during the financial crisis, the government injected $700 billion into some of the biggest financial institutions in the country, including Bank of America Corp. (NYSE: BAC), Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) and American International Group (NYSE: AIG). The government doesn't have its own money, so it must use taxpayer funds in such cases. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the banks have since repaid all of the money.

With a bank bail-in, the bank uses the money of its unsecured creditors, including depositors and bondholders, to restructure their capital so it can stay afloat. In effect, the bank is allowed to convert its debt into equity for the purpose of increasing its capital requirements. A bank can undergo a bail-in quickly through a resolution proceeding, which provides immediate relief to the bank. The obvious risk to bank depositors is the possibility of losing a portion of their deposits. However, depositors have the protection of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), insuring each bank account for up to $250,000. Banks are required to use only those deposits in excess of the $250,000 protection.

As unsecured creditors, depositors and bondholders are subordinated to derivative claims. Derivatives are the investments that banks make among each other, which are supposed to be used to hedge their portfolios. However, the 25 largest banks hold more than $247 trillion in derivatives, which poses a tremendous amount of risk to the financial system. To avoid a potential calamity, the Dodd-Frank Act gives preference to derivative claims.

Bail-Ins Become Statutory

The provision for bank bail-ins in the Dodd-Frank Act was largely mirrored after the cross-border framework and requirements set forth in Basel III International Reforms 2 for the banking system of the European Union. It creates statutory bail-ins, giving the Federal Reserve, the FDIC and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) the authority to place bank holding companies and large non-bank holding companies in receivership under federal control. Since the principal objective of the provision is to protect the American taxpayers, banks that are too big to fail will no longer be bailed out by taxpayer dollars. Instead, they will be 'bailed in.'

Europe Experiments With Bail-Ins

Bank bail-ins have been used in Cyprus, which has been experiencing high debt and possible bank failures. The bail-in policy was instituted, forcing depositors with more than 100,000 euros to write off a portion of their holdings. Although the action prevented bank failures, it has led to unease among the financial markets in Europe over the possibility that these bail-ins may become more widespread. Investors are concerned that the increased risk to bondholders will drive yields higher and discourage bank deposits. With the banking systems in many European countries distressed by low or negative interest rates, more bank bail-ins are a strong possibility.