What Would the "Financial Instability" Argument Look Like For Any Other Industry?

May 7, 2013Mike Konczal

It’s becoming a surprisingly influential argument given that it hasn’t been well presented or argued, much less vetted and challenged. What is it? The argument that we should raise interest rates or otherwise contract monetary policy in order to preserve “financial stability.”

Brad Delong says critiquing this idea is “PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA,” while Nick Rowe argues that this idea “may be influential. And that idea is horribly wrong.”

Here’s one version of the argument, from a recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota:

“On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis—a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives.”

Tim Duy and Ryan Avent commented on this speech, which essentially argued that that raising rates would certainly cause a problem, but rates at their current value could cause even bigger problems.

Let’s be clear on the terms: should we risk another immediate recession (“lower employment and prices”) to preserve a thing called “financial stability?” Five immediate problems jump out from this argument. Nick Rowe emphasized tackling this on an abstract level; I’m going to focus on practical stuff.

1. This whole story seems predicated on the idea that expansionary monetary policy was behind the housing bubble and collapse. I think there’s very little hard evidence for that. Also, the basic stories surrounding interest rates, as JW Mason mentioned in a guest post here, being too low for too long have some serious contradictions. (For instance, if the problem is a “global savings glut,” expansionary monetary policy should push against that by reducing capital inflows.) So if the idea is to risk another recession in order to not repeat the 2000s, we should work with a clearer story about what went wrong in the housing bubble.

2. The term “reaching for yield” is often deployed in these arguments. Low rates means that traders have to take on bigger risks in order to earn a rate of return that is acceptable. (Is there a minimum level of profit that finance must make on lending? And should we throw people out of work to make sure they make it? I hadn’t heard of that, but sounds like a nice gig.)

But either way, it isn’t clear that low rates drive reaching for yield. Yields are the difference between lending and funding rates. And as JW Mason again writes in an important post, banks’ funding costs are also affected by the policy rate. “Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates -- in other words, a one point increase in spreads.” If anything, the story is the opposite of what people are arguing.

3. The best empirical evidence at understanding the “reach for yield” phenomenon I’ve seen comes from Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina from Harvard University, “Reaching for Yield in the Bond Market.” Here’s a Voxeu summary, and here’s the research pdf. They look at holdings of insurance companies, and find that, “conditional on credit ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds...It is also more pronounced for firms with poor corporate governance and for which regulatory capital requirement is more binding.”

This comes across as portfolio managers juking and manipulating capital requirements and the ratings agencies. The authors note that this is a major agency problem for insurance agencies. It was the strongest at the peak of the cycle, but went away during the recession.

Now if I told you we should keep the economy in a permanent recession because senior managers at insurance companies aren’t good at their basic job of monitoring mid-level portfolio managers you’d probably think I was crazy. And I would be. Especially since it seems that “reach for yield” is tied less to monetary policy and more to gaming ratings-based capital requirements.

4. If this is a serious problem, people should be talking about more serious forms of financial regulation. As a starter platform, we can raise capital requirements. Much of this “reach for yield” looks to be a regulatory arbitrage on ratings-based capital requirements, so, say, tripling the leverage requirement should net out the importance of the ratings agencies in capital requirements.

This is why a more coherent story about what we are concerned about when we think about “financial stability” would help. If we need to make the financial system less complex and prone to abusive practices, requiring parties of a derivatives contract to hold a stake in the underlying asset would do a lot. Are we worried about contagion? In that case, force banks to hold more capital as well as convertible instruments. About bad debts holding back the economy? Then reform the bankruptcy code, dropping the 2005 “reforms.” Some people are demanding more jail sentences, not only for the benefit of the public but for boards and shareholders who can’t keep their workers in line.

5. Because imagine this argument in the context of any other industry. Right now the interest rate is above where it needs to be to guarantee full employment. People are arguing that we should raise rates because banks might make loans, even though that is what the financial sector is supposed to do. (As Daniel Davies notes, “If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone's main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans.”)

Now imagine the government was going to take some land it owns containing oil and sell it to an oil company. Could you imagine someone saying, “We shouldn’t do this, because we can’t assume that oil companies are capable of drilling, refining and selling that oil” as a valid concern? Not concerns about random spills or global warming? But instead expressing concerns about whether the industry is capable of executing its most basic function.

Or take immigration. Imagine if a common response to letting a large number of high-skilled immigrants into the country would be “but we can’t assume that the labor market is capable of matching people with skills who want to work with employers who are willing to pay to complete jobs.” It’s tantamount to saying, “we shouldn’t assume that the labor market can do its basic function.”

It’s hard not to read the financial stability arguments as saying “look, we can’t trust the financial sector to accomplish its most basic goals.” If true, that’s a very significant problem that should cause everyone a lot of concern. It should make us ask why we even have a financial system if we can’t expect it to function, or function only by putting the entire economy at risk.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

 

It’s becoming a surprisingly influential argument given that it hasn’t been well presented or argued, much less vetted and challenged. What is it? The argument that we should raise interest rates or otherwise contract monetary policy in order to preserve “financial stability.”

Brad Delong says critiquing this idea is “PRIORITY #1 RED FLAG OMEGA,” while Nick Rowe argues that this idea “may be influential. And that idea is horribly wrong.”

Here’s one version of the argument, from a recent speech by Narayana Kocherlakota:

“On the one hand, raising the real interest rate will definitely lead to lower employment and prices. On the other hand, raising the real interest rate may reduce the risk of a financial crisis—a crisis which could give rise to a much larger fall in employment and prices. Thus, the Committee has to weigh the certainty of a costly deviation from its dual mandate objectives against the benefit of reducing the probability of an even larger deviation from those objectives.”

Tim Duy and Ryan Avent commented on this speech, which essentially argued that that raising rates would certainly cause a problem, but rates at their current value could cause even bigger problems.

Let’s be clear on the terms: should we risk another immediate recession (“lower employment and prices”) to preserve a thing called “financial stability?” Five immediate problems jump out from this argument. Nick Rowe emphasized tackling this on an abstract level; I’m going to focus on practical stuff.

1. This whole story seems predicated on the idea that expansionary monetary policy was behind the housing bubble and collapse. I think there’s very little hard evidence for that. Also, the basic stories surrounding interest rates, as JW Mason mentioned in a guest post here, being too low for too long have some serious contradictions. (For instance, if the problem is a “global savings glut,” expansionary monetary policy should push against that by reducing capital inflows.) So if the idea is to risk another recession in order to not repeat the 2000s, we should work with a clearer story about what went wrong in the housing bubble.

2. The term “reaching for yield” is often deployed in these arguments. Low rates means that traders have to take on bigger risks in order to earn a rate of return that is acceptable. (Is there a minimum level of profit that finance must make on lending? And should we throw people out of work to make sure they make it? I hadn’t heard of that, but sounds like a nice gig.)

But either way, it isn’t clear that low rates drive reaching for yield. Yields are the difference between lending and funding rates. And as JW Mason again writes in an important post, banks’ funding costs are also affected by the policy rate. “Looking at the most recent cycle, the decline in the Fed Funds rate from around 5 percent in 2006-2007 to the zero of today has been associated with a 2.5 point fall in bank funding costs but only a 1.5 point fall in bank lending rates -- in other words, a one point increase in spreads.” If anything, the story is the opposite of what people are arguing.

3. The best empirical evidence at understanding the “reach for yield” phenomenon I’ve seen comes from Bo Becker and Victoria Ivashina from Harvard University, “Reaching for Yield in the Bond Market.” Here’s a Voxeu summary, and here’s the research pdf. They look at holdings of insurance companies, and find that, “conditional on credit ratings, insurance portfolios are systematically biased toward higher yield, higher CDS bonds...It is also more pronounced for firms with poor corporate governance and for which regulatory capital requirement is more binding.”

This comes across as portfolio managers juking and manipulating capital requirements and the ratings agencies. The authors note that this is a major agency problem for insurance agencies. It was the strongest at the peak of the cycle, but went away during the recession.

Now if I told you we should keep the economy in a permanent recession because senior managers at insurance companies aren’t good at their basic job of monitoring mid-level portfolio managers you’d probably think I was crazy. And I would be. Especially since it seems that “reach for yield” is tied less to monetary policy and more to gaming ratings-based capital requirements.

4. If this is a serious problem, people should be talking about more serious forms of financial regulation. As a starter platform, we can raise capital requirements. Much of this “reach for yield” looks to be a regulatory arbitrage on ratings-based capital requirements, so, say, tripling the leverage requirement should net out the importance of the ratings agencies in capital requirements.

This is why a more coherent story about what we are concerned about when we think about “financial stability” would help. If we need to make the financial system less complex and prone to abusive practices, requiring parties of a derivatives contract to hold a stake in the underlying asset would do a lot. Are we worried about contagion? In that case, force banks to hold more capital as well as convertible instruments. About bad debts holding back the economy? Then reform the bankruptcy code, dropping the 2005 “reforms.” Some people are demanding more jail sentences, not only for the benefit of the public but for boards and shareholders who can’t keep their workers in line.

5. Because imagine this argument in the context of any other industry. Right now the interest rate is above where it needs to be to guarantee full employment. People are arguing that we should raise rates because banks might make loans, even though that is what the financial sector is supposed to do. (As Daniel Davies notes, “If the Federal Reserve sets out on a policy of lowering interest rates in order to encourage banks to make loans to the real economy, it is a bit weird for someone's main critique of the policy to be that it is encouraging banks to make loans.”)

Now imagine the government was going to take some land it owns containing oil and sell it to an oil company. Could you imagine someone saying, “We shouldn’t do this, because we can’t assume that oil companies are capable of drilling, refining and selling that oil” as a valid concern? Not concerns about random spills or global warming? But instead expressing concerns about whether the industry is capable of executing its most basic function.

Or take immigration. Imagine if a common response to letting a large number of high-skilled immigrants into the country would be “but we can’t assume that the labor market is capable of matching people with skills who want to work with employers who are willing to pay to complete jobs.” It’s tantamount to saying, “we shouldn’t assume that the labor market can do its basic function.”

It’s hard not to read the financial stability arguments as saying “look, we can’t trust the financial sector to accomplish its most basic goals.” If true, that’s a very significant problem that should cause everyone a lot of concern. It should make us ask why we even have a financial system if we can’t expect it to function, or function only by putting the entire economy at risk.

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What Does the Leaked Brown-Vitter Bill on Too Big To Fail Do?

Apr 9, 2013Mike Konczal

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.) have been working on a bill to block the largest banks and financial firms from receiving federal subsidies for being deemed Too Big to Fail. On Friday, a draft version of that bill was leaked to Tim Fernholz of Quartz, much to Vitter’s chagrin. So, what does the bill do?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t break up the big banks. Rather, it focuses on how much capital they have to hold to protect themselves from disasters and would “prohibit any further implementation of” the international Basel III accords on financial regulation.

But let’s back up. Banks hold capital to protect against losses. The more capital they hold, the safer they are from crisis. As Alan Greenspan said after the financial meltdown, “[t]he reason I raise the capital issue so often, is that, in a sense, it solves every problem.” The “ratio” in question is the amount of capital against the amount of assets. So, if a bank has $10 in cash and $100 in assets, its capital ratio is 1:10.

Regulators set minimum capital ratios for banks. A capital ratio is like any other ratio, with a numerator and denominator. Some amount of capital held goes on top, and some value of the assets the bank holds goes on the bottom. The Brown-Vitter legislation would significantly change both parts of that ratio.

This is where things get a bit wonky: Common equity is viewed as the best form of capital because it can directly absorb losses. Basel III puts more emphasis on using common equity than previous versions. There’s a baseline 4.5 percent buffer, which is supplemented by a 2.5 percent “capital conservation buffer.” In addition, Basel III also has requirements for categories of less effective forms of capital, grouped under Tier 1 and Tier 2, or “total capital.”

As for the denominator, Basel III has risk-weighted the assets held by the firms. Firms use models and ratings to determine an asset’s risk. The riskier the asset, the more held capital needed in case of a loss. An asset rated as less risky requires less held capital. (You may remember the financial crisis involved both the ratings agencies and the financial sector getting these ratings very wrong for subprime mortgages.)

The Brown-Vitter proposal would not adopt Basel III. It would instead have a baseline of 10 percent equity in the numerator consisting solely of common equity. There are also surcharges for capital over $400 billion, which would cover all assets regardless of their risk-weighting. So there would be a significant increase in equity. The denominator would also increase, forcing banks to hold even more capital. This approach has much in common with the recent book “The Banker’s New Clothes,” by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig, and should be seen as a win for those arguing along these lines.

Though it might seem like a technicality, risk-weighting assets is as significant in this proposal as a higher capital ratio. Risk-weighting was introduced by the first Basel in the late 1980s, using broad categories. It evolved to, among other goals, encourage firms to build out their risk management teams. However, those teams often acted as regulatory arbitrage teams instead. Many people view the system as encouraging race-to-the-bottom regulation dodging, backward-looking strategies that reduce capital held in a bubble and techniques that use derivatives and bad models to keep capital ratios low.

Regulators are growing more critical, both domestically and internationally, about Basel III. That regulation has several measures to address problems with risk-weighted assets, from adjusting the numbers used to requiring capital for derivative positions. But it is unclear how well these will work in practice.

Basel III has to be enacted by the banking regulators in the United States. The process began last summer (see a summary here). As Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo notes, regulators are expected to finish the Basel III capital rules this year and begin working on the rules for new liquidity requirements and other parts of Basel III.

It is interesting that the Brown-Vitter bill would replace, rather than supplement or modify, Basel III. Basel III has a leverage requirement that does similar work to the extra equity requirements Brown-Vitter recommends. That rule is only set at 4 percent, instead of 10 percent, but could be raised while keeping the rest of the Basel rules intact.

Because even those who want financial institutions to hold a lot more capital and less leverage may see a few downsides to abandoning Basel III. If firms go into Basel’s newly created capital conservation buffer, they can’t release dividends and are limited on bonuses. This, to use banking regulation jargon, is a way of requiring “prompt corrective action” on the part of both regulators and firms, who will normally drag their feet.

Basel III isn’t just capital ratios, though. Another important element is its new liquidity requirements. Liquidity here refers to the ability of banks to have enough funding to make payments in the short term, especially if there’s a crisis. Basel III includes a “liquidity coverage ratio,” which requires banks to keep enough liquid funding to survive a crisis.

Financial institutions have been lobbying against an aggressive implementation of Basel IIl’s liquidity requirements. They saw a small victory when some of the requirements were pulled back in the final rule in January. Brown-Vitter would remove them entirely — a remarkable win for the financial sector if the proposal passes.

(There are already some liquidity requirements made since the financial crisis, but they aren’t as extensive as Basel lll. And because they have evolved consciously alongside Basel III, it’s unclear what would happen to them.)

Note that this bill is explicit in not breaking up the big banks, either with a size cap or by reinstating Glass-Steagall. Two months ago in the House, Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) also introduced a bill designed to end Too Big To Fail, which called for banks to hold special convertible debt instruments while also repealing the Volcker Rule. There’s been a lot of talk about conservatives becoming aggressive on structural changes to the financial sector, but so far there’s no evidence of this in Congress.

During the drafting of Dodd-Frank, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner argued against Congress writing capital ratios into law, preferring to leave it to regulators at Basel to find an internationally agreed-upon solution. Basel’s endgame is now coming into focus, and there needs to be a debate on how well it addresses our outstanding problems in the financial sector when it comes to bank capital. This bill means reformers might start to rally around the idea that dramatically increasing capital, as well as removing the emphasis given to measuring risks, is an important part of ending Too Big To Fail. Even if that means going against the recent Basel accords.

 

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.) have been working on a bill to block the largest banks and financial firms from receiving federal subsidies for being deemed Too Big to Fail. On Friday, a draft version of that bill was leaked to Tim Fernholz of Quartz, much to Vitter’s chagrin. So, what does the bill do?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t do: It doesn’t break up the big banks. Rather, it focuses on how much capital they have to hold to protect themselves from disasters and would “prohibit any further implementation of” the international Basel III accords on financial regulation.

But let’s back up. Banks hold capital to protect against losses. The more capital they hold, the safer they are from crisis. As Alan Greenspan said after the financial meltdown, “[t]he reason I raise the capital issue so often, is that, in a sense, it solves every problem.” The “ratio” in question is the amount of capital against the amount of assets. So, if a bank has $10 in cash and $100 in assets, its capital ratio is 1:10.

Regulators set minimum capital ratios for banks. A capital ratio is like any other ratio, with a numerator and denominator. Some amount of capital held goes on top, and some value of the assets the bank holds goes on the bottom. The Brown-Vitter legislation would significantly change both parts of that ratio.

This is where things get a bit wonky: Common equity is viewed as the best form of capital because it can directly absorb losses. Basel III puts more emphasis on using common equity than previous versions. There’s a baseline 4.5 percent buffer, which is supplemented by a 2.5 percent “capital conservation buffer.” In addition, Basel III also has requirements for categories of less effective forms of capital, grouped under Tier 1 and Tier 2, or “total capital.”

As for the denominator, Basel III has risk-weighted the assets held by the firms. Firms use models and ratings to determine an asset’s risk. The riskier the asset, the more held capital needed in case of a loss. An asset rated as less risky requires less held capital. (You may remember the financial crisis involved both the ratings agencies and the financial sector getting these ratings very wrong for subprime mortgages.)

The Brown-Vitter proposal would not adopt Basel III. It would instead have a baseline of 10 percent equity in the numerator consisting solely of common equity. There are also surcharges for capital over $400 billion, which would cover all assets regardless of their risk-weighting. So there would be a significant increase in equity. The denominator would also increase, forcing banks to hold even more capital. This approach has much in common with the recent book “The Banker’s New Clothes,” by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig, and should be seen as a win for those arguing along these lines.

Though it might seem like a technicality, risk-weighting assets is as significant in this proposal as a higher capital ratio. Risk-weighting was introduced by the first Basel in the late 1980s, using broad categories. It evolved to, among other goals, encourage firms to build out their risk management teams. However, those teams often acted as regulatory arbitrage teams instead. Many people view the system as encouraging race-to-the-bottom regulation dodging, backward-looking strategies that reduce capital held in a bubble and techniques that use derivatives and bad models to keep capital ratios low.

Regulators are growing more critical, both domestically and internationally, about Basel III. That regulation has several measures to address problems with risk-weighted assets, from adjusting the numbers used to requiring capital for derivative positions. But it is unclear how well these will work in practice.

Basel III has to be enacted by the banking regulators in the United States. The process began last summer (see a summary here). As Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo notes, regulators are expected to finish the Basel III capital rules this year and begin working on the rules for new liquidity requirements and other parts of Basel III.

It is interesting that the Brown-Vitter bill would replace, rather than supplement or modify, Basel III. Basel III has a leverage requirement that does similar work to the extra equity requirements Brown-Vitter recommends. That rule is only set at 4 percent, instead of 10 percent, but could be raised while keeping the rest of the Basel rules intact.

Because even those who want financial institutions to hold a lot more capital and less leverage may see a few downsides to abandoning Basel III. If firms go into Basel’s newly created capital conservation buffer, they can’t release dividends and are limited on bonuses. This, to use banking regulation jargon, is a way of requiring “prompt corrective action” on the part of both regulators and firms, who will normally drag their feet.

Basel III isn’t just capital ratios, though. Another important element is its new liquidity requirements. Liquidity here refers to the ability of banks to have enough funding to make payments in the short term, especially if there’s a crisis. Basel III includes a “liquidity coverage ratio,” which requires banks to keep enough liquid funding to survive a crisis.

Financial institutions have been lobbying against an aggressive implementation of Basel IIl’s liquidity requirements. They saw a small victory when some of the requirements were pulled back in the final rule in January. Brown-Vitter would remove them entirely — a remarkable win for the financial sector if the proposal passes.

(There are already some liquidity requirements made since the financial crisis, but they aren’t as extensive as Basel lll. And because they have evolved consciously alongside Basel III, it’s unclear what would happen to them.)

Note that this bill is explicit in not breaking up the big banks, either with a size cap or by reinstating Glass-Steagall. Two months ago in the House, Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) also introduced a bill designed to end Too Big To Fail, which called for banks to hold special convertible debt instruments while also repealing the Volcker Rule. There’s been a lot of talk about conservatives becoming aggressive on structural changes to the financial sector, but so far there’s no evidence of this in Congress.

During the drafting of Dodd-Frank, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner argued against Congress writing capital ratios into law, preferring to leave it to regulators at Basel to find an internationally agreed-upon solution. Basel’s endgame is now coming into focus, and there needs to be a debate on how well it addresses our outstanding problems in the financial sector when it comes to bank capital. This bill means reformers might start to rally around the idea that dramatically increasing capital, as well as removing the emphasis given to measuring risks, is an important part of ending Too Big To Fail. Even if that means going against the recent Basel accords.

 

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How Congress and the Courts Are Closing in on Dodd-Frank

Apr 4, 2013Mike Konczal

What are the serious threats to Dodd-Frank? Last month, Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote "He Who Makes the Rules" at the Washington Monthly, which is the best single piece on Dodd-Frank implementation I've seen. In it, she identifies "three main areas on this gauntlet where a rule can be sliced, diced, gouged, or otherwise weakened beyond recognition." The first is "the agency itself, where industry lobbyists enjoy outsized influence in meetings and comment letters, on rule makers’ access to vital information, and on the interpretation of the law itself." The second is the courts, "where industry groups can sue an agency and have a rule killed on a variety of grounds." And the third is Congress, "where an entire law can be retroactively gutted or poked through with loopholes."

How important have those three areas been? Looking at the first two and a half years of Dodd-Frank, the courts turned out to be the unexpected danger for financial reform. I have a piece in Bloomberg View today arguing this, as well as the fact that the courts are structurally biased against reform in some very crucial ways.

That's not to say the lobbying battle is going well. But when the bill passed, people understood that rulewriting would be a difficult battle, and some groups like Americans for Financial Reform and Better Markets could at least help balance the lobbying efforts of financial industry groups. What was less understood was that the D.C. Circuit Court would have so many vacancies, and thus tilted to the far right and a radical agenda. I hope you check out the piece.

But what about Congress? Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones has an excellent piece about the ongoing, now biparistan, efforts to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank's derivative regulations that are starting up in the House Agriculture Committee. (I wrote about this effort for Wonkblog here.) This third area Edwards identifies, Congress, is only now becoming a serious battlefield. But isn't the timing off? President Obama and the Democrats lost in 2010 but won in 2012. Yet while the threat of Congress rolling back Dodd-Frank, one of President Obama's major achievements, with new bills wasn't on the radar in 2011, it may be in 2013. Isn't that backwards?
 
Part of the answer is that the rules are becoming clearer, so financial industry lobbyists have more concrete targets to bring to Congress. But there's a political dimension as well. The general shutdown and polarization that dominated Congress after 2010 made a congressional threat to Dodd-Frank less likely. And ironically, the rise of the Tea Party within the conservative movement, even with its anti-Obama and anti-regulatory zeal, made bills to weaken Dodd-Frank less likely to pass. One reason is that the Tea Party wanted a full repeal of the bill or to gut entire sections, rather than more targeted interventions. Another is that the biggest losers in the 2010 shellacking were centrist “new Democrats,” those that would be more responsive to the needs of the financial industry than the progressive caucus that gained in relative strength afterwards.
 
It’s possible many more centrist Democrats could have moved a bill through Congress weakening Dodd-Frank as it was being implemented, especially if conservatives were looking to compromise. But remaining centrist Democrats were not going to remove the FDIC's new resolution authority to end Too Big To Fail, which is what the Ryan budget calls for, or knee-cap the CFPB out the door, which is what the Senate GOP wants in exchange for nominating a director, or vote to repeal the bill in its entirety, which was a litmus test for the 2012 GOP presidental candidates. Especially after they just took a lot of heat to pass the bill. Deficit hysteria was the only thing that got momentum, with both parties doing serious damage by cutting the budget of the CFTC.
 
(The unpopularity of the financial industry probably didn't help either. The congressional change that the financial industry most wanted, the delay of a rule designed to limit the interchange fees associated with debit cards, failed to clear 60 votes in the Senate.)
 
Now that the GOP is realizing that Dodd-Frank is here to stay, we might see more effort to reach across the aisle to dismantle smaller pieces of it in accordance with what the financial industry wants. Health care is facing a similar situation, where conservatives policy entrepreneurs are currently debating whether or not to work within the framework of Obamacare or continue trying to repeal it. Sadly, conservatives will probably do far more damage if they get to the point of accepting that Dodd-Frank is the law of the land and try to do more targeted repeals rather than wage all-out war.
 
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What are the serious threats to Dodd-Frank? Last month, Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote "He Who Makes the Rules" at the Washington Monthly, which is the best single piece on Dodd-Frank implementation I've seen. In it, she identifies "three main areas on this gauntlet where a rule can be sliced, diced, gouged, or otherwise weakened beyond recognition." The first is "the agency itself, where industry lobbyists enjoy outsized influence in meetings and comment letters, on rule makers’ access to vital information, and on the interpretation of the law itself." The second is the courts, "where industry groups can sue an agency and have a rule killed on a variety of grounds." And the third is Congress, "where an entire law can be retroactively gutted or poked through with loopholes."

How important have those three areas been? Looking at the first two and a half years of Dodd-Frank, the courts turned out to be the unexpected danger for financial reform. I have a piece in Bloomberg View today arguing this, as well as the fact that the courts are structurally biased against reform in some very crucial ways.

That's not to say the lobbying battle is going well. But when the bill passed, people understood that rulewriting would be a difficult battle, and some groups like Americans for Financial Reform and Better Markets could at least help balance the lobbying efforts of financial industry groups. What was less understood was that the D.C. Circuit Court would have so many vacancies, and thus tilted to the far right and a radical agenda. I hope you check out the piece.

But what about Congress? Erika Eichelberger at Mother Jones has an excellent piece about the ongoing, now biparistan, efforts to roll back parts of Dodd-Frank's derivative regulations that are starting up in the House Agriculture Committee. (I wrote about this effort for Wonkblog here.) This third area Edwards identifies, Congress, is only now becoming a serious battlefield. But isn't the timing off? President Obama and the Democrats lost in 2010 but won in 2012. Yet while the threat of Congress rolling back Dodd-Frank, one of President Obama's major achievements, with new bills wasn't on the radar in 2011, it may be in 2013. Isn't that backwards?
 
Part of the answer is that the rules are becoming clearer, so financial industry lobbyists have more concrete targets to bring to Congress. But there's a political dimension as well. The general shutdown and polarization that dominated Congress after 2010 made a congressional threat to Dodd-Frank less likely. And ironically, the rise of the Tea Party within the conservative movement, even with its anti-Obama and anti-regulatory zeal, made bills to weaken Dodd-Frank less likely to pass. One reason is that the Tea Party wanted a full repeal of the bill or to gut entire sections, rather than more targeted interventions. Another is that the biggest losers in the 2010 shellacking were centrist “new Democrats,” those that would be more responsive to the needs of the financial industry than the progressive caucus that gained in relative strength afterwards.
 
It’s possible many more centrist Democrats could have moved a bill through Congress weakening Dodd-Frank as it was being implemented, especially if conservatives were looking to compromise. But remaining centrist Democrats were not going to remove the FDIC's new resolution authority to end Too Big To Fail, which is what the Ryan budget calls for, or knee-cap the CFPB out the door, which is what the Senate GOP wants in exchange for nominating a director, or vote to repeal the bill in its entirety, which was a litmus test for the 2012 GOP presidental candidates. Especially after they just took a lot of heat to pass the bill. Deficit hysteria was the only thing that got momentum, with both parties doing serious damage by cutting the budget of the CFTC.
 
(The unpopularity of the financial industry probably didn't help either. The congressional change that the financial industry most wanted, the delay of a rule designed to limit the interchange fees associated with debit cards, failed to clear 60 votes in the Senate.)
 
Now that the GOP is realizing that Dodd-Frank is here to stay, we might see more effort to reach across the aisle to dismantle smaller pieces of it in accordance with what the financial industry wants. Health care is facing a similar situation, where conservatives policy entrepreneurs are currently debating whether or not to work within the framework of Obamacare or continue trying to repeal it. Sadly, conservatives will probably do far more damage if they get to the point of accepting that Dodd-Frank is the law of the land and try to do more targeted repeals rather than wage all-out war.
 
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Why the U.S. Could Use a Financial Transaction Tax

Feb 11, 2013Greg Noth

Taxing speculation would raise revenue and make markets safer for everyone.

Taxing speculation would raise revenue and make markets safer for everyone.

In January, 11 European countries implemented a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), which places a small tax on stocks, bonds, and other products traded in financial markets. They expect to raise billions of dollars in revenue, and there are signs the idea for a similar tax may be gaining traction in the United States. Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. Peter DeFazio are reviving their Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, which includes an FTT but died in committee in 2011.

The purpose of a Financial Transaction Tax is to raise revenue by requiring buyers and sellers to pay a very small fee for each trade they make. The FTT proposed by Harkin and DeFazio, for example, places a three-basis-point charge on most stock, bond, and derivative trades. (In comparison, the European FTT taxes stock and bond trades at 0.1 percent of their value.) A basis point is one-hundredth of one percent, meaning a tax of just 3 cents would be paid for every $100 traded, $3 for every $10,000 traded, and so on. It would apply to any trade in the U.S. and by any U.S. individual or company, so corporations’ offshore subsidiaries would not be able to get around it.

The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation projects a three-basis-point FTT could raise as much as $352 billion over the course of 10 years – an average of $43 billion a year. This is a significant amount of money. With it, many of the harsh across-the-board cuts put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) (also known as sequestration) could be alleviated. For example, the $38 billion scheduled to be cut from non-defense discretionary spending – for things like housing assistance and community development – could be avoided entirely.

The FTT is a very low-risk bet, and, as mentioned, the returns could be huge. Most Americans are not trading derivatives or credit-default swaps, and thus would have nothing to worry about. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) examined Europe’s FTT and said it was “quite progressive.” According to the European Tax Commissioner, banks and other financial institutions, such as hedge funds, carry out as much as 85 percent of taxable transactions. In practice, the FTT would function in a similar way to the capital gains tax, which affects a very small number of people, most of whom are already wealthy. It would not be like the sales tax, which is regressive and falls disproportionately on the poor.

A Financial Transaction Tax would create a less volatile and speculative stock market, something few Americans would have a problem with. Because trades would be taxed (albeit at a very low rate), investors and financial managers would have an incentive to think long-term when making investments. This would discourage high-frequency trading (HFT), which offers very little to normal investors and has exploded in recent years, making the market more volatile  and dangerous. If HFT did not decline, however, it would simply result in more revenue.

Opponents of the FTT say it would harm financial markets and companies looking to raise money. However, smart legislation can avoid that problem rather easily. For example, the Harkin-DeFazio FTT would exempt the initial issuance of stocks, bonds, and other debts. Loans from financial institutions, companies’ initial public offerings (IPOs), and a city’s sale of municipal bonds, for example, would all be exempt from the FTT the first time they are sold. If a financial institution decided to trade a company’s debt after issuing it a loan, however, the FTT would come into effect.

Those arguing against the FTT also say the costs incurred by the tax would be passed on to retail investors -- through increased ATM fees, for example. But this is entirely avoidable with the right legislative language. The law could simply ban the practice, but even without an explicit ban, it is unlikely banks would take that course. Since some banks’ activities would fall under the FTT more than others’, not every bank would have the same incentives to raise fees on customers. As a result, if only a select few banks did so while others did not, marketplace competition would drive consumers to institutions without FTT-related fees.

In the wake of the 2008 financial disaster, which banks and financial institutions played a large role in creating, it makes sense to have policies designed to incentivize responsible trading practices and reign in reckless behavior. A Financial Transaction Tax would result in a more stable and less volatile stock market. It would also raise billions of dollars that could help avoid the harsh cuts set to begin March 1 – and it would do it all without touching the vast majority of Americans’ wallets.

Greg Noth is an intern in the House of Representatives and has formerly worked with the Center for American Progress and Iowa Senate Democrats. He is a graduate of Knox College in Galesburg, IL.

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Why the Republican CFPB Arguments Are Wrong

Feb 5, 2013Mike Konczal

It's been almost two years, and the GOP still refuses to approve a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) director without a significant overhaul of the agency. Check out Adam Serwer at Mother Jones as well as Jennifer Bendery at Huffington Post for more on this story. Forty-three Republican Senators signed a letter last week, one that is almost exactly the same as the one they signed in July 2011, blocking Cordray's nomination because they want major legislative changes to Dodd-Frank and the CFPB.

As congressional scholar Thomas Mann told Jonathan Cohn, this should be viewed as a form of modern day nullification. Dodd-Frank is the law of the land. Congress legitimately passed this law containing a CFPB designed to have certain features. Even though the GOP doesn't like it doesn't mean they can sabotage it or prevent it from working. And the CFPB needs a director to work.

The letter features a high-level complaint along with three specific changes they want. Beyond the letter, these three points are so common on the right that it is probably useful to point out that they are wrong. This is drawn from Adam Levitin's Congressional testimony on the matter as well as other CFPB analysis over the years. Bold is from the letter.

"...we have serious concerns about the lack of congressional oversight of the agency and the lack of normal, democratic checks on its sole director, who would wield nearly unprecedented powers."
 
The CFPB must regularly make reports and appear before Congress. The CFPB is subject to a veto of its actions by other financial regulators as represented by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), a completely unique accountability feature that does not apply to any other regulators. The CFPB is subject to an annual audit by the GAO, which is then turned over to Congress, another unique form of accountability. It is also subject to the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (SBREFA), a feature of OIRA that doesn't apply to other financial regulators.
 
The CFPB is also limited in its actions by the text of Dodd-Frank itself. It can't mandate the offering of any financial product, force the extension of credit, regulate non-financial businesses, require businesses to offer products or credit, impose usury caps, or force consumers to take products. See, among other places, Section 1027 of Dodd-Frank for further restrictions. If you'd like to go further, you can see a list of 19 ways the CFPB is accountable here. Rather than having unprecedented powers, this agency is as accountable and has more checks than any other federal financial regulator.
 
"We again urge the adoption of the following [three] reforms:
 
1. Establish a bipartisan board of directors to oversee the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."
 
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the former Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), both federal financial regulators, both have single directors, so this is neither odd nor unprecedented. Some other agencies have boards, like the FDIC. There are some reasons to use one model over the other, but the GOP is not making a clear case for why a board of directors is superior to a sole director, much less a case sufficient to justify nullifying parts of Dodd-Frank. A single director encourages direct action, streamlined agency, and more accountability. Given what we've seen in the past 10 years with subprime, action is better than inaction.
 
Five directors can blame each other when things go wrong. Given the concern over accountability in the GOP's letter, a single director strikes me as the right way to go. There's more on oversight here.
 
"2. Subject the Bureau to the annual appropriation process, similar to other federal regulators."
 
Other federal banking regulators have their own independent budgets and are not subject to the appropriations process. The OCC, the FDIC, and the former OTS get their budgets from assessments from the financial institutions they regulate. The CFPB gets its budget from the Federal Reserve in order to avoid the capture that comes with being dependent on industry assessments. However, unlike those institutions, the CFPB has a statutory budgetary cap of 12 percent of the Federal Reserve's budget.

Congress consciously decided to fund the CFPB this way to prevent them from subjecting the important work that needs to be done to the annual appropriations process. This is normal in financial regulation and appropriate for the CFPB. You can read more about how this funding is designed to take the political economy of regulation into account here.

"3. Establish a safety-and-soundness check for the prudential regulators."
 
There is already a safety-and-soundness check at the OCC, which, through the FSOC, can vote on vetoing CFPB actions. Beyond that, safety-and-soundness is often synonymous with profit-making. The broken servicing model at the largest banks, for instance, is an abuse-ridden disaster for borrowers and lenders, but they are profitable activities that, de facto, boost the banks' safety-and-soundness via profits. The CFPB is meant to be a balance against this regulatory impulse. This was debated at length during the Dodd-Frank process, and Congress still decided to mandate the CFPB with its current mission.
 
Immediately after Obamacare passed, conservative David Frum argued, in a now famous piece called "Waterloo," that the GOP could have turned the bill into one far more favorable for conservatives with just a few GOP votes. But they didn't, and now they are stuck with a law they hate. The same dynamic is true for Dodd-Frank. If a dozen Senators and House GOP members decided to make a bipartisan bill in 2009, they could have likely gotten a CFPB that they would like better. But they didn't. And now they want to retroactively try and get that bill they chose not to enact.
 
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It's been almost two years, and the GOP still refuses to approve a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) director without a significant overhaul of the agency. Check out Adam Serwer at Mother Jones as well as Jennifer Bendery at Huffington Post for more on this story. Forty-three Republican Senators signed a letter last week, one that is almost exactly the same as the one they signed in July 2011, blocking Cordray's nomination because they want major legislative changes to Dodd-Frank and the CFPB.

As congressional scholar Thomas Mann told Jonathan Cohn, this should be viewed as a form of modern day nullification. Dodd-Frank is the law of the land. Congress legitimately passed this law containing a CFPB designed to have certain features. Even though the GOP doesn't like it doesn't mean they can sabotage it or prevent it from working. And the CFPB needs a director to work.

The letter features a high-level complaint along with three specific changes they want. Beyond the letter, these three points are so common on the right that it is probably useful to point out that they are wrong. This is drawn from Adam Levitin's Congressional testimony on the matter as well as other CFPB analysis over the years. Bold is from the letter.

"...we have serious concerns about the lack of congressional oversight of the agency and the lack of normal, democratic checks on its sole director, who would wield nearly unprecedented powers."
 
The CFPB must regularly make reports and appear before Congress. The CFPB is subject to a veto of its actions by other financial regulators as represented by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), a completely unique accountability feature that does not apply to any other regulators. The CFPB is subject to an annual audit by the GAO, which is then turned over to Congress, another unique form of accountability. It is also subject to the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (SBREFA), a feature of OIRA that doesn't apply to other financial regulators.
 
The CFPB is also limited in its actions by the text of Dodd-Frank itself. It can't mandate the offering of any financial product, force the extension of credit, regulate non-financial businesses, require businesses to offer products or credit, impose usury caps, or force consumers to take products. See, among other places, Section 1027 of Dodd-Frank for further restrictions. If you'd like to go further, you can see a list of 19 ways the CFPB is accountable here. Rather than having unprecedented powers, this agency is as accountable and has more checks than any other federal financial regulator.
 
"We again urge the adoption of the following [three] reforms:
 
1. Establish a bipartisan board of directors to oversee the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."
 
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the former Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), both federal financial regulators, both have single directors, so this is neither odd nor unprecedented. Some other agencies have boards, like the FDIC. There are some reasons to use one model over the other, but the GOP is not making a clear case for why a board of directors is superior to a sole director, much less a case sufficient to justify nullifying parts of Dodd-Frank. A single director encourages direct action, streamlined agency, and more accountability. Given what we've seen in the past 10 years with subprime, action is better than inaction.
 
Five directors can blame each other when things go wrong. Given the concern over accountability in the GOP's letter, a single director strikes me as the right way to go. There's more on oversight here.
 
"2. Subject the Bureau to the annual appropriation process, similar to other federal regulators."
 
Other federal banking regulators have their own independent budgets and are not subject to the appropriations process. The OCC, the FDIC, and the former OTS get their budgets from assessments from the financial institutions they regulate. The CFPB gets its budget from the Federal Reserve in order to avoid the capture that comes with being dependent on industry assessments. However, unlike those institutions, the CFPB has a statutory budgetary cap of 12 percent of the Federal Reserve's budget.

Congress consciously decided to fund the CFPB this way to prevent them from subjecting the important work that needs to be done to the annual appropriations process. This is normal in financial regulation and appropriate for the CFPB. You can read more about how this funding is designed to take the political economy of regulation into account here.

"3. Establish a safety-and-soundness check for the prudential regulators."
 
There is already a safety-and-soundness check at the OCC, which, through the FSOC, can vote on vetoing CFPB actions. Beyond that, safety-and-soundness is often synonymous with profit-making. The broken servicing model at the largest banks, for instance, is an abuse-ridden disaster for borrowers and lenders, but they are profitable activities that, de facto, boost the banks' safety-and-soundness via profits. The CFPB is meant to be a balance against this regulatory impulse. This was debated at length during the Dodd-Frank process, and Congress still decided to mandate the CFPB with its current mission.
 
Immediately after Obamacare passed, conservative David Frum argued, in a now famous piece called "Waterloo," that the GOP could have turned the bill into one far more favorable for conservatives with just a few GOP votes. But they didn't, and now they are stuck with a law they hate. The same dynamic is true for Dodd-Frank. If a dozen Senators and House GOP members decided to make a bipartisan bill in 2009, they could have likely gotten a CFPB that they would like better. But they didn't. And now they want to retroactively try and get that bill they chose not to enact.
 
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Republican with tie image via Shutterstock.com.

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Live at the American Prospect: On the Treasury's Second Term Financial Reform Agenda

Feb 4, 2013Mike Konczal

I have a new piece at The American Prospect, on what Treasury will need to do in the 2nd term when it comes to financial reform:

Nevertheless, the Treasury secretary will be responsible for the overhaul of the legal and regulatory framework that governs the financial sector. The incoming Treasury secretary will have three chief responsibilities: complete the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, determine how many of the new parts will work together going forward, and parry with congressional efforts to repeal parts of that law.

I hope you check it out.

I have a new piece at The American Prospect, on what Treasury will need to do in the 2nd term when it comes to financial reform:

Nevertheless, the Treasury secretary will be responsible for the overhaul of the legal and regulatory framework that governs the financial sector. The incoming Treasury secretary will have three chief responsibilities: complete the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, determine how many of the new parts will work together going forward, and parry with congressional efforts to repeal parts of that law.

I hope you check it out.

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Is the Right Shifting Course on Dodd-Frank?

Feb 4, 2013Mike Konczal

During the 2012 election, conservatives' main goal was to either repeal Dodd-Frank completely or remove such large sections of it that it was a completely different bill. There was very little engagement with the content of Dodd-Frank itself and how to make them work better. One important example was Republican candidates like Jon Huntsman calling for bold new financial reforms that were already part of Dodd-Frank

It now appears that the flagship policy journal on the right, National Affairs, is moving towards a reform rather than replace agenda for Dodd-Frank and financial reform. The latest issue featured an large, 7,000+ word article, "Against Casino Finance," by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl of University of Chicago law school. What's fascinating about the piece is less the authors' counter proposals for reform, which are lacking, than the fact that they accept two of the ideas put forward by financial reformers that have generally been resisted on the right. The first is that derivatives require regulation and the second is that prudential regulation of the largest systemically risky financial firms is necessary.

Let's take those in order. First the authors argue, "[I]n today's derivatives market...no such sensible restriction exists to separate the use of the instruments as insurance from their use as gambling devices." They describe these instruments as "pure gambling," or a transaction in which "one party loses exactly what the other party gains, and both are made worse off by the additional risk they take on in this bargain." They argue that these instruments can increase pure risks and are zero-sum, differentiating them from other trades. They go as far as to argue against the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

It isn't clear what they think of the general Dodd-Frank approach to derivatives, which emphasizes transparency through exchanges and clearinghouses, capital adequacy, private enforcement, and regulation of intermediaries. Their focus is partially on the "insurable interest doctrine" of common law as it relates to insurance, which requires that a party to an insurance contract have a stake in the event. If you can't buy fire insurance on your neighbor's house, why can you buy credit insurance on his business if you don't have an ownership claim on it? That's a dog whistle for either banning so-called "naked" derivatives or running them under state-level insurance law. The vote to ban naked credit default swaps, proposed in the Senate by Bryan Dorgan, failed (and was generally opposed on the right). 

The other regulations relate to bailouts and prudential regulations. As they put it:

When banks fail, the government must act as lender of last resort.

Today, the government serves this role in two ways. First, it compels banks to buy government-supplied deposit insurance, which covers depositors up to $250,000. Second, it provides emergency loans at below-market rates -- bailouts -- to any financial institution whose collapse would take down enough banks with it to endanger the entire economy.

Few seriously doubt that governments must play this role.

Bagehot’s rule is usually summarized as, “Lend without limit, to solvent firms, against good collateral, at high rates." In exchange for this, certain regulations are necessary. Dodd-Frank includes higher capital and liquidity requirements for larger and riskier firms, as well as certain organizational requirements (loosely referred to under the term "living wills") to help with collapsing the company in question via FDIC's resolution powers.

Again, it would be interesting if they addressed the specific reforms to lender of last resort functions included in Dodd-Frank, or the combination of regulation and resolution. Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act was amended so that "any emergency lending program or facility is for the purpose of providing liquidity to the financial system, and not to aid a failing financial company." and any such lending program has to have "broad-based eligibility.” Some have argued this is too loose to deal with a liquidity crisis. Do these authors agree? Are the regulations and FDIC's resolution powers sufficient in this case, or do we need a different approach?

Their specific recommendations for how the right should tackle Dodd-Frank, which is the last third of the piece, involve applying stricter cost-benefit analysis to all rules. There's no talk about repeal, or huge changes to the framework, or long court battles. Cost-benefit has significant problems, but that's a debate for another day. Conceptually, it is tinkering with Dodd-Frank rather than repealing it, which has dominated the conversation on the right. Will this signal a larger change?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

During the 2012 election, conservatives' main goal was to either repeal Dodd-Frank completely or remove such large sections of it that it was a completely different bill. There was very little engagement with the content of Dodd-Frank itself and how to make them work better. One important example was Republican candidates like Jon Huntsman calling for bold new financial reforms that were already part of Dodd-Frank

It now appears that the flagship policy journal on the right, National Affairs, is moving towards a reform rather than replace agenda for Dodd-Frank and financial reform. The latest issue featured an large, 7,000+ word article, "Against Casino Finance," by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl of University of Chicago law school. What's fascinating about the piece is less the authors' counter proposals for reform, which are lacking, than the fact that they accept two of the ideas put forward by financial reformers that have generally been resisted on the right. The first is that derivatives require regulation and the second is that prudential regulation of the largest systemically risky financial firms is necessary.

Let's take those in order. First the authors argue, "[I]n today's derivatives market...no such sensible restriction exists to separate the use of the instruments as insurance from their use as gambling devices." They describe these instruments as "pure gambling," or a transaction in which "one party loses exactly what the other party gains, and both are made worse off by the additional risk they take on in this bargain." They argue that these instruments can increase pure risks and are zero-sum, differentiating them from other trades. They go as far as to argue against the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000.

It isn't clear what they think of the general Dodd-Frank approach to derivatives, which emphasizes transparency through exchanges and clearinghouses, capital adequacy, private enforcement, and regulation of intermediaries. Their focus is partially on the "insurable interest doctrine" of common law as it relates to insurance, which requires that a party to an insurance contract have a stake in the event. If you can't buy fire insurance on your neighbor's house, why can you buy credit insurance on his business if you don't have an ownership claim on it? That's a dog whistle for either banning so-called "naked" derivatives or running them under state-level insurance law. The vote to ban naked credit default swaps, proposed in the Senate by Bryan Dorgan, failed (and was generally opposed on the right). 

The other regulations relate to bailouts and prudential regulations. As they put it:

When banks fail, the government must act as lender of last resort.

Today, the government serves this role in two ways. First, it compels banks to buy government-supplied deposit insurance, which covers depositors up to $250,000. Second, it provides emergency loans at below-market rates -- bailouts -- to any financial institution whose collapse would take down enough banks with it to endanger the entire economy.

Few seriously doubt that governments must play this role.

Bagehot’s rule is usually summarized as, “Lend without limit, to solvent firms, against good collateral, at high rates." In exchange for this, certain regulations are necessary. Dodd-Frank includes higher capital and liquidity requirements for larger and riskier firms, as well as certain organizational requirements (loosely referred to under the term "living wills") to help with collapsing the company in question via FDIC's resolution powers.

Again, it would be interesting if they addressed the specific reforms to lender of last resort functions included in Dodd-Frank, or the combination of regulation and resolution. Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act was amended so that "any emergency lending program or facility is for the purpose of providing liquidity to the financial system, and not to aid a failing financial company." and any such lending program has to have "broad-based eligibility.” Some have argued this is too loose to deal with a liquidity crisis. Do these authors agree? Are the regulations and FDIC's resolution powers sufficient in this case, or do we need a different approach?

Their specific recommendations for how the right should tackle Dodd-Frank, which is the last third of the piece, involve applying stricter cost-benefit analysis to all rules. There's no talk about repeal, or huge changes to the framework, or long court battles. Cost-benefit has significant problems, but that's a debate for another day. Conceptually, it is tinkering with Dodd-Frank rather than repealing it, which has dominated the conversation on the right. Will this signal a larger change?

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Mike Konczal: How Would a Socialist Wall Street Work?

Jan 30, 2013

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman about Seth's recent article "

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman about Seth's recent article "The Red and the Black," which asks what kind of mechanisms would replace the pursuit of profit in a socialized economy. In the clip below, they discuss Seth's proposal for socializing the financial sector, transforming the heart of capitalism to give the public ownership over the means of production.

Mike summarizes the idea by noting that "if the government used eminent domain to purchase all the stocks" then "the public would run all the firms," allowing it to distribute the dividends of their success more equally throughout society. Critiquing the idea from a liberal perspective, Mike notes, "We don't tax wealth directly, but we tax the surplus that goes to corporations" and put it towards various public goods. If we want to create a more fair distribution of wealth, why not just do it through the tax code? Seth argues that this kind of "social democratic solution" attempts to mitigate the negative effects of capitalism but doesn't solve the underlying problems. 

For more, including how Seth's ideas apply to public education and what we can learn from past failures in both centrally planned and market economies, check out the full video below:

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Mike Konczal: How Would a Socialist Wall Street Work?

Jan 30, 2013

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman about Seth's recent article "The Red and the Black," which asks what kind of mechanisms would replace the pursuit of profit in a socialized economy.

In the latest episode of the Roosevelt Institute's Bloggingheads series, Fireside Chats, Fellow Mike Konczal talks to Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman about Seth's recent article "The Red and the Black," which asks what kind of mechanisms would replace the pursuit of profit in a socialized economy. In the clip below, they discuss Seth's proposal for socializing the financial sector, transforming the heart of capitalism to give the public ownership over the means of production.

Mike summarizes the idea by noting that "if the government used eminent domain to purchase all the stocks" then "the public would run all the firms," allowing it to distribute the dividends of their success more equally throughout society. Critiquing the idea from a liberal perspective, Mike notes, "We don't tax wealth directly, but we tax the surplus that goes to corporations" and put it towards various public goods. If we want to create a more fair distribution of wealth, why not just do it through the tax code? Seth argues that this kind of "social democratic solution" attempts to mitigate the negative effects of capitalism but doesn't solve the underlying problems. 

For more, including how Seth's ideas apply to public education and what we can learn from past failures in both centrally planned and market economies, check out the full video below:

 

Stock exchange image via Shutterstock.com.

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The Path to the Next American Economy: The Cult of Scale

Jan 22, 2013Bo Cutter

An obsession with the largest economic players distracts us from the smaller companies that should drive our future economy.

An obsession with the largest economic players distracts us from the smaller companies that should drive our future economy.

Both Richard Fisher, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, and Alan Blinder, arch-economist and former vice-chair of the Federal Reserve Board, had fascinating commentaries last week on "too big to fail," the big banks, and financial stability. Fisher's was a reform proposal; Blinder's a set of lessons to remember. Both dealt explicitly or implicitly with our cult of scale. 

The business, popular, political, think tank, and NGO cultures of America are all infatuated with big enterprise and its leaders. As a society, we pay ritual and theoretical attention to small business and entrepreneurs, but with a very few exceptions we court big company CEOs almost exclusively. Every presidential economic statement or study has its requisite CEO centerpiece. When presidents (of all political persuasions) want to show that they are really, really serious about the economy, they have pictures taken of themselves with big company CEOs. The most frequently quoted business organization, the one whose policy pronouncements are taken as the last word in economic wisdom, is the Business Roundtable -- the insiders club for big business CEOs. The big news talk shows always have big business CEOs as their private sector representatives. The lobbyists whom congresses and governments pay attention to are from the biggest businesses. The same set of CEOs are always invited to presidential state dinners for visiting heads of state. The board development committees of think tanks, NGOs, and foundations covet the same set of CEOs. 

Why? 

Certainly not because big businesses play an actual dominant and dynamic role in our economy. Essentially 100 percent of all new jobs in America are created by new medium and small businesses. Even though large companies dominate R&D spending, revolutionary breakthroughs come almost exclusively from small entrepreneurial companies. If you look back just at the business history of the last 20 years, the pathbreaking innovations were always driven by small and medium companies -- never by the giant incumbents of an industry. 

So what benefits does scale bring us? Richard Fisher raises this question dramatically in the case of banking. Banks with less than $10 billion in assets -- 98 percent of all banks -- held only 12 percent of total bank assets in America but they made 51 percent of all small and medium business loans. Banks with less than $10 billion in assets continued lending to these businesses during the financial debacle; the big banks stopped. Lending, I'll remind you, is basically what banks are supposed to do.

And of course big banks are the riskiest and most costly part of the banking sector. Their failures or near failures nearly cratered our economy, they received the vast bulk of the bailout money, and they continue to hold the riskiest assets. The five largest banks in America hold $4 trillion in non-deposit liabilities, 26 percent of U.S. GDP. Among other problems posed by these liabilities -- for example, that virtually no one understands them -- they are the reason for the excess leverage of the big banks.

Blinder usefully underlines 10 commandments for avoiding the next financial crisis. They all make sense. But when you look closely at his commandments, at least eight out of 10 are directly linked to unavoidable problems of scale and complexity. Consider this: the five biggest banks operated through over 19,000 subsidiaries in a minimum of 50 countries each. The simple fact is that Blinder's very intelligent commandments can't work in this world. I begin with a prejudice: compared to the directors of the five giants (and these are highly sought after and highly compensated directorships), directors of America's smaller community banks are every bit as smart,  know more about the banks they direct, hold the CEOs of their banks in far less awe, are much more likely to discipline their management effectively, and are closer to the customers. None of this is just a role of the dice. According to Richard Fisher, J.P.Morgan Chase has about 5,000 subsidiaries. I'll grant that many of these are meaningless. But no set of directors on earth can really understand or guide well an entity with thousands of subsidiaries. In these circumstances, the amount of arbitrary, mostly unchecked authority given to senior management and the CEO is enormous. A single director is rarely going to risk either losing his or her directorship or simply being humiliated in the club by challenging the CEO on anything.

Which gets me back to the general problems of mega scale in business. While the biggest banks pose particular problems and the biggest dangers, all the evidence seems to say that as businesses get very, very big, four developments are inevitable. The businesses become sclerotic and bureaucratic. The businesses lose the creativity and dynamism that initially drove them. The businesses become extraordinarily complex. The businesses become less market-driven and more dominated by CEOs with a fair amount of arbitrary power. Some businesses and some extraordinary leaders -- Steve Jobs -- delay all of this, but the trends are inevitable. 

So once again, why the fascination with big companies and their chiefs? Awe, power, and money. The heads of the biggest companies are the real masters of our universe. They are treated like heads of sovereign states. A lot of them think of themselves that way and, in fact, a heck of a lot of big company CEOs have more actual power than the heads of government of all but 30 to 50 countries. And within a range the power is fairly arbitrary. The biggest companies have the widest range of  choices about products, locations, suppliers, public and community relations money, and foundation money. There is lots of economic "rent" buried among all those choices and everyone wants a little bit of it. I think the resources most big companies allocate through these choices mostly do an enormous amount of good and have a significant function in our strange society, but that's not the same thing as believing these companies are the future of our economy.

To be clear, big companies play big, real, valuable roles in our economy. We need a mix. But the balance has gone too far in our infatuation with bigness. The true path to the Next American Economy does not go in that direction. We will not grow as fast as we must with an increasingly big company economy. Equity and social mobility won't increase that way. We will need more breakthrough innovation, more new companies creating good jobs, more highly specialized value-added products and services, and more diversity and localization of businesses. The dream should be an economy driven by thousands of companies growing from dozens of very different urban platforms, not by a few dozen giants. But achieving that dream will be much harder if our political and intellectual culture is perpetually fascinated and seduced by the non-economic glamor of the wrong part of the private sector. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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