The round-up with Max Fisher at The Atlantic
Adam Sorensen at Swampland at Time:
By a 60-39 vote Thursday, the Senate passed legislation that re-calibrates the flow of capital through the American financial sector and provides new powers to the regulatory regime that oversees it. The final bill is the culmination of a near two-year effort launched after 2008’s Wall Street crisis thrust the nation into recession and marks the most comprehensive changes to government’s oversight of banks since the Great Depression. When Obama signs it into law next week, financial reform will join health care and the stimulus in the ranks of major Democratic initiatives enacted by the 111th Congress and boldface bullet-points on the president’s resume.
Peter Suderman at Reason:
In a victory for the hordes of Washington politicians who have been deeply committed to doing something about Wall Street (regardless of whether that something was likely to be effective), the Senate voted 60 to 38 to move forward with a significant overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations. Three of those votes came from moderate Republicans, including Cosmo-pinup Scott Brown, who, after demanding that Democrats remove a tax on banks (and replace the revenue with TARP revenue that was intended to be used to reduce the deficit), gave the bill his blessing. As predicted, once Brown came around, fellow GOP squishes centrists Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins followed. No longer just a guy with a truck, he’s now a guy with a truck who decides whether or not to massively increase the power of federal regulators over the nation’s banking system.
Annie Lowrey at The Washington Independent:
The final bill, more than 2,300 pages in length, directs regulators to create 533 rules, according to the Chamber of Commerce. The bill contains three central provisions. First, it provides the government with new powers to identify risky banking institutions and to shutter them before they harm the broader financial system, via a new systemic regulator. Henry Paulson, the Treasury Secretary under President Bush when the financial crisis first hit, lauded the provision this week. “We would have loved to have something like this for Lehman Brothers. There’s no doubt about it,” he told The New York Times, referring to the investment bank that collapsed, destabilizing the country’s financial system and contributing to the credit crunch. Democrats say this provision ends “too big to fail,” by providing the government with a way of shutting down failing banks, reassuring counterparties and containing any sense of panic.
Second, the Dodd-Frank bill makes banks less dangerous, forcing them to keep more capital on hand, banning them from making risky trades on their own behalf and keeping them from investing heavily in vehicles like hedge funds. “[The bill] places some limits on the size of banks and the kinds of risks that banking institutions can take,” President Obama told an audience of Wall Street workers this spring, speaking at Cooper Union in Manhattan. “This will not only safeguard our system against crises, this will also make our system stronger and more competitive by instilling confidence here at home and across the globe. Markets depend on that confidence. By enacting these reforms, we’ll help ensure that our financial system — and our economy — continues to be the envy of the world.”
Finally, it creates a new consumer financial protection bureau, which will have the power to create and enforce new rules regarding financial products like home-equity loans and credit cards. “Consumers finally will have a cop on the beat … that will monitor the market and write and enforce the rules,” said Susan Weinstock, the financial reform campaign director for the Consumer Federation of America. “The Wild West for financial products and services is coming to an end. Consumers will now have a bureau that will clear out the tricks and traps in financial products and services that have harmed so many Americans.”
Nicole Gelinas at The Corner:
A couple of hours before the Senate narrowly passed the Dodd-Frank fin-reg bill today, Sen. Chris Dodd, one of the bill’s two namesakes, spoke some common sense on the Senate floor:
We can’t legislate wisdom or passion. We can’t legislate competency.
Dodd did not allow this point of truth to inform the bill that he helped write, though.
The financial system’s failures made themselves obvious starting in 2007 in part because legislators and regulators thought that they could conjure up on command not only wisdom and competence but omniscience.
In the years leading up to the financial crisis, regulators allowed financial firms such as AIG to create derivatives that evaded the old-fashioned limits on borrowing and trading. The people in charge figured that the financial guys had figured out every angle and made these things perfectly safe.
Regulators, too, allowed banks to borrow far more than old-fashioned rules would have allowed on mortgage-related securities and other instruments rated AAA — because competent people had determined that such securities could never fail.
Finally, regulators allowed people to buy houses with no money down — even though we learned in the 1920s that it’s not a good idea to let people borrow limitlessly to speculate that the price of something will continue to rise.
The lesson to be learned here is that we need borrowing and trading rules that apply to everyone and everything for those times when bankers, regulators, and tens of millions of ordinary Americans aren’t right.
The bill offers no evidence that anyone in Congress has learned this lesson.
Just over a hundred years ago, the United States led the world in terms of rethinking how big business worked – and when the power of such firms should be constrained. In retrospect, the breakthrough legislation – not just for the US, but also internationally – was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
The Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill, which is about to pass the US Senate, does something similar – and long overdue – for banking.
Prior to 1890, big business was widely regarded as more efficient and generally more modern than small business. Most people saw the consolidation of smaller firms into fewer, large firms as a stabilizing development that rewarded success and allowed for further productive investment. The creation of America as a major economic power, after all, was made possible by giant steel mills, integrated railway systems, and the mobilization of enormous energy reserves through such ventures as Standard Oil.
But ever-bigger business also had a profound social impact, and here the ledger entries were not all in the positive column. The people who ran big business were often unscrupulous, and in some cases used their dominant market position to drive out their competitors – enabling the surviving firms subsequently to restrict supply and raise prices.
There was dominance, to be sure, in the local and regional markets of mid-nineteenth-century America, but nothing like what developed in the 50 years that followed. Big business brought major productivity improvements, but it also increased the power of private companies to act in ways that were injurious to the broader marketplace – and to society.
The Sherman Act itself did not change this situation overnight, but, once President Theodore Roosevelt decided to take up the cause, it became a powerful tool that could be used to break up industrial and transportation monopolies. By doing so, Roosevelt and those who followed in his footsteps shifted the consensus.
Why are these antitrust tools not used against today’s megabanks, which have become so powerful that they can sway legislation and regulation massively in their favor, while also receiving generous taxpayer-financed bailouts as needed?
The answer is that the kind of power that big banks wield today is very different from what was imagined by the Sherman Act’s drafters – or by the people who shaped its application in the early years of the twentieth century. The banks do not have monopoly pricing power in the traditional sense, and their market share – at the national level – is lower than what would trigger an antitrust investigation in the non-financial sectors.
Effective size caps on banks were imposed by the banking reforms of the 1930’s, and there was an effort to maintain such restrictions in the Riegle-Neal Act of 1994. But all of these limitations fell by the wayside during the wholesale deregulation of the past 15 years.
Now, however, a new form of antitrust arrives – in the form of the Kanjorski Amendment, whose language was embedded in the Dodd-Frank bill. Once the bill becomes law, federal regulators will have the right and the responsibility to limit the scope of big banks and, as necessary, break them up when they pose a “grave risk” to financial stability.
This is not a theoretical possibility – such risks manifested themselves quite clearly in late 2008 and into early 2009. It remains uncertain, of course, whether the regulators would actually take such steps. But, as Representative Paul Kanjorski, the main force behind the provision, recently put it, “The key lesson of the last decade is that financial regulators must use their powers, rather than coddle industry interests.”
And Kanjorski probably is right that not much would be required. “If just one regulator uses these extraordinary powers [to break up too-big-to-fail banks] just once,” he says, “it will send a powerful message,” one that would “significantly reform how all financial services firms behave forever more.”
Regulators can do a great deal, but they need political direction from the highest level in order to make genuine progress. Teddy Roosevelt, of course, preferred to “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Kanjorski Amendment is a very big stick. Who will pick it up?
Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo:
They’re not campaigning on it in earnest — at least not yet — but Republican leaders say that, given the power, they would like to do away with Wall Street reform much like they have already discussed repealing health care reform.
“I think it ought to be repealed,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, in response to a question from TPMDC, at his weekly press conference this morning.
One of his top lieutenants, Republican Conference Chair Mike Pence agrees. “We hope [the Senate vote] falters so we can start over,” Pence told TPMDC yesterday. “I think the reason you’re not hearing talk about efforts to repeal the permanent bailout authority is because the bill hasn’t passed yet.”