Supersize Them? Large Banks, Taxpayers and the Subsidies That Lay Between

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In 2013, media reports sent shockwaves across financial markets by estimating that the value of the combined financial advantages and subsidies for the six biggest U.S. banks since the start of 2009 was at least $102 billion. Follow-up reports estimated that the profits of two of America’s largest banks would have been negative if not for implicit and explicit government subsidies. The most significant implicit subsidy stems from market perception that the government will not allow the biggest banks to fail—that they are “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF)—enabling them to borrow at lower interest rates. This article focuses on two main things. First, it explores the TBTF subsidies and their unintended consequences. Specifically, the article examines whether TBTF subsidies exist, and reviews the different estimates of the arguable subsidies. The article describes why it is difficult to measure the subsidies given the lack of any formal or transparent data, and discusses the perverse effects and incentives that result from the subsidies. Second, the article examines the various proposals that have been suggested to address the TBTF problem, and suggests a new user-fee framework that could be useful in addressing the issue and used together with other approaches. The article’s contributions are three-fold. First, it provides a theoretical framework for understanding how government subsidies have worked in the past. Second, the article applies that framework to demonstrate that the current body of work on the issue is incomplete because it under-theorizes the TBTF subsidies’ impact on the economy and politics. Finally, the analysis in this article usefully supplements the existing legal writing on regulation of banks. As a first step, the article explains the problems created by the subsidies, and suggests that policymakers and market participants should be more transparent about the subsidies, especially since taxpayers do not have standing to challenge such subsidies. As a second step, the article reviews the advantages and the shortcomings of the suggested solutions to the TBTF problem and suggests using user-fees to help minimize the impact of future financial, social and political crises.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-295
Number of pages67
JournalNorthwestern Journal of International Law and Business
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 by Northwestern University School of Law Printed in U.S.A.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Strategy and Management
  • Law


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