USA Today, an early pioneer of soundbite journalism in written form, is admirably concise in setting the stage for elections soon to come:
Obama will likely trumpet a new financial regulation bill — the biggest overhaul of the system since the Great Depression — as one of his major first-term accomplishments, along with health care and the stimulus plan.
Republicans will likely argue that all three bills threaten prospects for economic recovery.
ObamaCare is such a train wreck that Americans support repealing it by a 2-1 margin. Don’t even get me started on the wasteful and dishonest Porkulus fiasco, which will continue to increase deficits for years after the “need” for financial stimulus has passed.
And now comes yet another 2,000-plus page bill, a financial services “reform” measure that does a lot of things — but fails to address the actual causes of the financial meltdown that began nearly two years ago and has us staggering still. Here’s blogger (and Nobel-prize-winning economist) Gary Becker on the bill’s shortcomings (H/T: Freakanomics):
One of the most serious omissions is that the bill essentially says nothing about Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. [KP Note: !?!?!?!?] In 2008 these organizations were placed into conservatorship of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. During the run up to the crisis, Barney Frank and others in Congress encouraged Freddie and Fannie to absorb most of the subprime mortgages. In 2008 they held over half of all mortgages, and almost all the subprimes. They have absorbed even a larger fraction of the relatively few mortgages written after 2008. Freddie and Fannie deserve a considerable share of the blame for the crisis, but they continue to have strong political support. I would like to see both of them eventually dissolved, but that is unlikely to happen. Instead we are promised that they will be dealt with in future legislation, but I am skeptical that anything will be done to terminate either organization, or even improve their functioning.
Many proposals in the bill will have highly uncertain impacts on the economy. These include, among many other provisions, the requirement that originators of mortgages and other assets retain at least 5% of the assets they originate, that many derivatives go on organized exchanges (may be an improvement but far from certain), that hedge funds become more closely regulated, and that consumer be “protected” from their financial decisions.
Most of these and other changes in the bill are not based on a serious analysis of what contributed to the financial crisis, but rather are the result of political and emotional reactions to the crisis. Usually, such reactions do more harm than good. That is likely to be the fate of the great majority of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank bill.
In simple terms, the primary enabler of the financial meltdown was the fact that financial institutions had incentives to take huge risks, knowing that any catastrophe would be socialized by a government that would have no choice. WSJ columnist Holman Jenkins today cites new academic research in arguing that the bill doesn’t change that:
What was obvious to common sense, the naked eye and the open ear is now systematically upheld in the research of finance professors. To wit, shareholders of large, publicly traded banks have a higher appetite for risk than is compatible with our regulatory system.
Down this path lies the beginning of wisdom on how we can live with banks, which alone among businesses have the potential to bring down entire economies. Too bad such wisdom is absent from the financial regulation bill now before Congress. …
Let us be realistic about one thing, since most of us aren’t running for office: “Bailout” has become a curse word in populist diction, but “too big to fail” isn’t going away just because regulators pretend next time they would fold their arms and let the system blow up.
The government will and should continue to come to the rescue in a panic. We need better incentives to avoid creating such situations in the first place. But that discipline won’t come from shareholders, who will happily create the next 100-to-1 leveraged financial institution if the potential rewards are great enough. Bank depositors and other leverage suppliers are the ones who must be mobilized to make the system safer.
“… banks, which alone among businesses have the potential to bring down entire economies.” There in a nutshell is why I favored the “bank bailout” (on which the taxpayers are making a profit, btw) while staunchly opposing the auto industry bailout.
Becker and Jenkins both describe an opportunity lost that actually would have led to a better alignment of risk and reward. Jenkins is the better writer, let him tell it:
Perhaps the best idea, though, is to require financial firms to fund themselves partly with a special kind of debt that would automatically be converted to equity when a bank’s capital or liquidity are imperiled. These debtholders then would have an incentive to monitor not just the amount of leverage, but the quality of the risks a bank is pursuing.
Bingo. But instead we get another mammoth bill, chock full of unintended consequences, that increases the size of government to no good end, while failing to fulfill its primary purpose. Add to this the public anger over the gulf oil blowout — although I think on that count, criticism of Obama is unfair — and you can see why Peter Wehner says “it’s getting ugly for the Democrats.”