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A slimmed-down GE Capital highlights pros and cons of "too big to fail"

Dan Gorenstein Jun 29, 2016
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The entrance of General Electric (GE) Celma, GE's aviation engine overhaul facility in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on June 8, 2016. 
YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

You know that term “Too Big to Fail”? The ultimate symbol of this last recession when taxpayers had to bail out huge companies for the sake of the broader economy?

Yeah, nobody wants that to happen again.

So “Too Big to Fail” became more than a symbol.

These days the companies that are so big they’re a risk to the whole system are slapped with heavy regulation.

GE Capital has just managed to shed that title after federal regulators  rescinded company’s designation

Dennis Kelleher with the consumer advocacy group Better Markets said that gives American taxpayers one more reason to rest easy.

“GE got rid of its high-risk finance gambling and got back to the business that it makes money at, which is airplane engines and all sorts of other industrial products,” he said.

In the last year, GE Capital has sold off $180 billion dollars of its business.

Federal regulators say those moves “reduced the potential for GE Capital’s financial distress to threaten U.S. financial stability.”

That leaves just two other non-banks – insurance giants Prudential and AIG – carrying this ‘Too Big to Fail’ label.

“The idea that we are going to prevent financial catastrophes by designating two insurance companies as systemically important just doesn’t strike me as very probable,” said Harvard Law Professor Hal Scott.

Scott wants to see the feds regulate sketchy products or services, not companies.

For example, Scott said imagine if people invest in some kind of high-risk fund.

“What you might want to do is say ‘Well, these funds have to have liquidity, they have to have assets and therefore have the cash to honor redemptions,’” he said. “That’s an approach where you are looking at what the companies are doing and making sure they are not running too much risk.”

Kelleher said that sounds smart and tactical, but mirrors a financial industry talking point to maximize profits. “The industry approach is to keep clipping the wings of the regulators. ‘Oh, don’t do this, don’t do that,'” he said. “Let’s leave it to the experts who are worried about the public interest to decide which firms to designate and how best to do it.”

Kelleher said GE Capital reducing its risk is proof these labels are onerous enough to get a company’s attention. If anything, he wants more companies to carry them around.

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