In Joe Nocera's editorial today, "The Simplicity Solution," he calls for financial reforms to be more focused on solutions that are both simple and market-based. He draws on recent writing by Sallie Krawcheck who "lays out a handful of market-oriented ideas that would almost surely pare back the complexity risk posed by banks." Nocera goes through Krawcheck's reforms, which are focused on corporate boards and dividend policy for financial institutions.
I think people have a good sense of the arguments for simple rules in financial regulation. The clearer the lines are drawn, the less likely they are to be gamed, financially engineered-around, or ignored by regulators. As Elizabeth Warren noted in an interview with Ezra Klein, financial institutions "want layers and layers of complexity because it’s in complexity that there are loopholes. That’s where it’s possible to back up regulators who are not quite certain about the ground they stand on. And it’s a larger problem with our regulatory structure: Complexity favors those who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers." This is part of the big battle over the Volcker Rule.
But what about market-oriented reforms? What about reforms designed to make financial markets work better, more transparently, and in a way that prevents both cronyism and instability? The Roosevelt Institute's big financial reform program was named Make Markets Be Markets because we think that a focus on markets will be essential to the future of financial reform. There are two things worth noting: first is that the best parts of Dodd-Frank build on this insight, and secondly the first wave of battles brought by financial institutions were over smaller parts of Dodd-Frank, but parts that embraced market-based reforms.
If you look at the derivatives component of Dodd-Frank, it builds on the core essentials of New Deal financial reform for traded instruments: transparency, disclosure, clearing, capital adequacy, the regulation of intermediaries, anti-fraud and anti-manipulation authority, and private enforcement. The insight and practice is to set up the financial markets so that private entities regulate each other through transparent prices and adequate capital. Regulators need a gentler touch because they empower other parties to regulate the financial institutions in question. Clearing institutions make sure that counterparties are properly capitalized, something that was missing in the financial crisis; exchanges make sure that price information gets into the market broadly.
The same happens with the Consumer Financial Protection Bereau. The idea is to provide simple, clear rules across all firms for consumer financial products, regardless of banking charter, and let them compete against each other on price and product. Rather than racing to the bottom in terms of fees and mangled contracts, standardization of terms allows real market competition to take place. This extends across large parts of Dodd-Frank.
What's interesting is that, as I read it, the first two major battles over Dodd-Frank were precisely over these types of reforms. The first major lawsuit against Dodd-Frank, from September 2010, run by the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, was against proxy access. Proxy access allows "[a]ny investor, or a group of investors, with at least 3 percent of a firm's shares for three years...to nominate directors." It re-balances the relationship between dispersed shareholders and boards: it allows shareholders to hold ineffectual boards accountable for everything from business practices to executive pay.
Notice that no regulator is necessary here. Shareholders are granted the power to take these actions on their own, which they'll use their their advantage as necessary. Indeed, just the threat forces boards into action, even if no proxy access is formally held. And shareholders, representing their own money and interests, are going to be more forceful as de facto regulators than a handful of actual regulators staring at and trying to regulate board composition.
The other big initial fight was over "interchange fees." On the urgent lobbying of financial firms, Congress came very close to repealing the part of Dodd-Frank that dealt with these fees in 2011, but that ultimately failed. Interchange balances the relationship between vendors and financial firms in regard to the fees charged on credit cards. It allows vendors to price discriminate between credit and debit cards, and it moves debit cards to clear at par so that people's money actually reflects their transactions. Again, no regulator is needed here. Every small business owner who feels squeezed by financial firms' fees becomes a regulator in this case. Their ability to price discriminate helps keep interchange on credit cards from spiraling out of control in a way a handful of regulators sitting in Washington DC could never pull off.
Going forward, we need Dodd-Frank implimented in the simplest, clearest regulatory way. But we also need to make sure that it makes financial markets work the way they are supposed to and allows the market itself to be the best regulator. Financial lobbyists know this, and will respond accordingly.
Wall Street image via Shutterstock.