Worried About TBTF Banks? Ignore Romney's Attacks in the Debate.

Oct 5, 2012Mike Konczal

The big question is not whether to dismantle Dodd-Frank, but whether it gets implemented correctly.

Wednesday's presidential debate had a relatively detailed discussion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. From a transcript, this is how President Obama described what the bill does:

We said you've got -- banks, you've got to raise your capital requirements. You can't engage in some of this risky behavior that is putting Main Street at risk. We've going to make sure that you've got to have a living will so -- so we can know how you're going to wind things down if you make a bad bet so we don't have other taxpayer bailouts. [...] And, you know, I appreciate and it appears we've got some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. But in the past, Governor Romney has said he just want to repeal Dodd- Frank, roll it back.
 
And so the question is: Does anybody out there think that the big problem we had is that there was too much oversight and regulation of Wall Street? Because if you do, then Governor Romney is your candidate. But that's not what I believe.
The sleepy delivery aside, this is a good description. I would have liked to seen a reference to the CFPB ("cops on the beat protecting consumers") and derivatives reform ("making sure our financial markets are transparent"), since they are both under serious attack from conservatives. But it's not bad for a high-level overview.
 
What was Mitt Romney's critique of Dodd-Frank?
One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they're effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that's been given to -- to New York banks I've ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them....We need to get rid of that provision because it's killing regional and small banks. They're getting hurt.
 
Let me mention another regulation in Dodd-Frank. You say we were giving mortgages to people who weren't qualified. That's exactly right. It's one of the reasons for the great financial calamity we had. And so Dodd-Frank correctly says we need to have qualified mortgages, and if you give a mortgage that's not qualified, there are big penalties, except they didn't ever go on and define what a qualified mortgage was.
 
It's been two years. We don't know what a qualified mortgage is yet. So banks are reluctant to make loans, mortgages. Try and get a mortgage these days. It's hurt the housing market because Dodd-Frank didn't anticipate putting in place the kinds of regulations you have to have. It's not that Dodd-Frank always was wrong with too much regulation. Sometimes they didn't come out with a clear regulation.

First off, as Adam Levitin notes, the reason that we don't have a QM definition is because that requires having a CFPB director. And who has been blocking a CFPB director consistently from the beginning? Senate Republicans. President Obama had to recess appoint a director in order to get this rule started, much to the chagrin of Republicans. So it is a bit much to block the nominee necessary to start the agency and then complain the agency isn't getting things done.

That said, there are two major complaints here. The first is that Dodd-Frank's "resolution authority" and regulations for systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are a "wet kiss" to the banks, and the second is that qualified mortgages are holding up the financial market. Let's take them in turn.

SIFI and Too Big To Fail

Part of Dodd-Frank's approach involves creating a graduated system of regulatory burdens for risky financial firms, combined with special resolution authority powers housed at the FDIC to resolve these firms when they fail. This gets attacked by conservatives, an attack Mitt Romney reiterated, because, they believe, it has three problems: (1) it picks a handful of winners, (2) protects those winners from competition through regulations that have no teeth, and (3) gives a signal to the market that these firms will be bailed out again in the future.

To address complaint (1), all bank holding companies with $50 billion or more in consolidated assets are included without a necessary designation, and systemically important financial institutions (SIFI) are included as well after a determination process. So it isn't just the top five firms, but instead the 35 plus that are all larger in size. If it were an advantage to be declared systemically important, SIFI financial firms would be fighting to get the designation. By all accounts they are not, and indeed they are fighting against this status.

For (2), it makes sense that they are fighting the designation because Dodd-Frank requires more capital and includes more requirements for riskier firms. Take Sec. 165, which requires "large, interconnected financial institutions" to be subject to "prudential standards...more stringent than the standards and requirements applicable to nonbank financial companies and bank holding companies that do not present similar risks to the financial stability of the United States."

Or Sec. 171, which requires that capital requirements scale with "concentrations in market share for any activity that would substantially disrupt financial markets if the institution is forced to unexpectedly cease the activity." The idea is that if a firm wants to get bigger or engage in riskier activity, the normal prudential requirements to hold more capital and plan for a failure should scale as well.

For (3), the question is whether it will work or whether the market will think there will be endless bailouts. As I've described at length elsewhere, the resolution authority in Dodd-Frank is designed to precommit against bailouts. You need three institutions to approve resolution, who must consider the decision with a bias toward the market and the bankruptcy code. If there's a liquidation, the FDIC has to wipe out shareholders, hit creditors, fire management and board members, and can't buy equity in the firm to keep it alive. The problem we face isn't Dodd-Frank, but Congress and the executive branch passing "TARP: Part Two."

So how is the market reacting? Jennie Bai, Christian Cabanilla, and Menno Middeldorp of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York wrote a great paper recently that used "Moody’s KMV credit default swap (CDS) implied probability of default to gauge changes in the market perception of the risk that senior bondholders will not be completely repaid." (Disclosure: In the past, I worked at Moody’s KMV, a well regarded credit risk firm founded as KMV by three old-school quants, as a financial engineer. As a result, I'm biased towards their probability of default methodologies as a metric.)

What did they find?

Using the results from this regression and the shift in Bloomberg resolution news over our sample, we estimate that the anticipated and actual changes in resolution regime have increased the CDS market’s expectations of default by approximately 20 basis points, which is around a fifth of the average CDS-implied default probability for G-SIFIs in March 2012. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that markets are no longer pricing in any possibility of government support, it does suggest that the new laws have resulted in the CDS market taking into account the view that senior bondholders run a higher risk that they’ll need to share in the costs of bank resolution.

The market is starting to price in the risk that senior bondholders at risky, major financial firms will take hits, and those risks are priced in alongside movements in the resolution authority law. Given that the rules aren't completed yet and that there are additional ways to bolster them, this is a good sign. Mitt Romney's attack on the overall plan embodied in Dodd-Frank isn't the right approach for people serious about tackling Too Big To Fail. The problems we should be worried about are whether there is a good implementation of the law and if it is sufficient for taking down a major firm.

QM

In addition to Adam Levitin's piece, you should read John Griffith and Julia Gordon of Center for American Progress, writing over at Think Progress, who have a piece on the QM issue.

We’re thrilled to hear Romney give such a full-throated defense of the ability-to-repay rule. It’s a welcomed about-face from his recent calls to repeal Dodd-Frank and dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that’s responsible for enforcing the rule. That said, Romney has a few key facts wrong.

As Romney points out, the ability-to-repay rule has not yet taken effect as regulators are still defining the “Qualified Mortgage” exemption. But the Republican candidate neglected to mention that the final rule isn’t due until January 2013 — a deadline regulators appear to be on pace to meet. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau submitted its proposed rule back in April and is currently hashing through public comments.

Romney seems to imply some sort of negligence or malfeasance from the Obama administration that is preventing the rule from being completed. Alas, no scandal here. The Dodd-Frank law is actually quite clear about what type of loan should be considered a “Qualified Mortgage.” The loan must be well-underwritten with verified income, employment, and debt information. Loan payments can’t exceed a certain percentage of the borrower’s net monthly income. The loan can’t contain risky feature like negative amortization, interest-only payments, or balloon payments. The list goes on.

It's a shame the debates didn't include anything on foreclosures or the housing market more generally, but the Dodd-Frank discussion was a pleasant surprise.

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