The Shameful Murder of Dodd Frank

Chris Dodd and Barney Frank

Chris Dodd and Barney Frank

Happy Birthday Dodd Frank,
Happy Birthday to you,
You’ve lost all your muscle,
And your teeth are gone, too.

One full year after the financial reform bill spearheaded through Congress by Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank was signed into law, Wall Street looks and acts much the way it did before. That’s because the Street has effectively neutered the law, which is the best argument I know for applying the nation’s antitrust laws to the biggest banks and limiting their size.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says the financial system is “on more solid ground” than prior to the 2008 crisis, but I don’t know what ground he’s looking at.

Much of Dodd-Frank is still on the drawing boards, courtesy of the Street. The law as written included loopholes big enough to drive bankers’ Lamborghini’s through — which they’re now doing.

What kind of derivatives must be traded on open exchanges? What are the capital requirements for financial companies that insure borrowers against default, such as AIG? How should credit rating agencies be funded? What about the much-vaunted Volcker Rule requiring that banks trade their own money if they’re going to gamble in the stock market – how should their own money be defined? What “stress tests” must the big banks pass to maintain their privileged status with the Fed?

The short answer: whatever it takes to maintain the Street’s profits and perquisites.

The law included a one-year delay, ostensibly to give regulators time to iron out these sorts of details. But the real purpose of the delay, it’s now obvious, was to give the Street time to expand the loopholes and fill the details with pablum — when the public stopped looking.

Since Dodd Frank was enacted a year ago, Wall Street has spent as much – if not more – on lobbyists and political payoffs designed to stop the law’s implementation than it did trying to kill off the law in the first place. The six largest banks spent $29.4 million on lobbying last year, according to firm disclosures — record spending for the group. This year they’re on track to break last year’s record.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the Street and other financial institutions engaged about 3,000 lobbyists to fight Dodd-Frank – more than five lobbyists for every member of Congress. They’ve hired almost the same number to delay, weaken, or otherwise prevent its implementation.

Meanwhile, the portion of the law that’s now supposed to be in effect is barely being enforced. That’s because the agencies charged with enforcing it, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, don’t have enough money or staff to do the job. Congress hasn’t seen fit to appropriate these necessities.

Several of these agencies are still lacking directors or commissioners. Senate Republicans have refused to confirm anyone. They wouldn’t even consider Elizabeth Warren to run the new consumer bureau.

Many of same business leaders who blame the sluggish economy on regulatory uncertainty are complicit in all this. A senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times that “uncertainty among companies about the rules of the road is keeping a lot of capital on the sidelines.” The Chamber has been among the groups responsible for keeping Dodd Frank at bay.

But it’s the biggest Wall Street banks – the ones that got us into this mess in the first place, and got bailed out by the public – that have taken the lead in killing off Dodd-Frank. They can afford the hit job.

At the same time, their executives  – enjoying pay and bonuses as large as in the boom days of the housing bubble – are busily bankrolling both political parties, although Republicans are favored in this election cycle. A significant portion of Mitt Romney’s sizable war chest has come from the Street. President Obama is no slouch when it comes to pulling at the Street’s purse strings.

Bankers try to justify their shameful murder of Dodd-Frank by saying tightened regulatory standards will put them at a disadvantage relative to their overseas competitors. JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon had the nerve to publicly accost Ben Bernanke recently, complaining that the law’s implementation would harm the Street’s competitiveness.

The argument is pure claptrap. In the wake of global finance’s near meltdown, Europe has been more aggressive than the United States in clamping down on banks headquartered there. Britain is requiring its banks to have higher capital reserves than are so far contemplated in the United States. In fact, senior Wall Street executives have warned European leaders their tighter bank regulations will cause Wall Street to move more of its business out of Europe.

Wall Street is global because capital is global. JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley are doing business in every corner of the world. Goldman even advised Greece on how to hide its growing indebtedness, before the rest of the world got wind, through a derivatives deal that circumvented Europe’s deficit rules.

The real reason Wall Street has spent the last year bludgeoning Dodd-Frank into meaninglessness is the vast sums of money it can make if Dodd-Frank is out of the way. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement.

Wall Street is the richest and most powerful industry in America with the closest ties to the federal government – routinely supplying Treasury secretaries and economic advisors who share its world view and its financial interests, and routinely bankrolling congressional kingpins.

How else can you explain why the Street was bailed out with no strings attached? Or why no criminal charges have been brought against any major Wall Street figure – despite the effluvium of frauds, deceptions, malfeasance and nonfeasance in the years leading up to the crash and subsequent bailout? Or why Dodd-Frank has been eviscerated?

As a result of consolidations brought on by the bailout, the biggest banks are bigger and have more clout than ever. They and their clients know with certainty they will be bailed out if they get into trouble, which gives them a financial advantage over smaller competitors whose capital doesn’t come with such a guarantee. So they’re becoming even more powerful.

Face it: The only answer is to break up the giant banks. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was designed not only to improve economic efficiency by reducing the market power of economic giants like the railroads and oil companies but also to prevent companies from becoming so large that their political power would undermine democracy.

The sad lesson of Dodd-Frank is Wall Street is too powerful to allow effective regulation of it. We should have learned that lesson in 2008 as the Street brought the rest of the economy – and much of the world – to its knees. Now we’re still on our knees but the Street is back on top. Its leviathans do not generate benefits to society proportional to their size and influence. To the contrary, they represent a clear and present danger to our economy and our democracy.

robert reichThey should be broken up, and their size must be capped. Congress won’t do it, obviously. So we’ll need to rely on the nation’s two antitrust agencies — the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. The trust-busters are now investigating Google. They should be turning their sights onto JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs instead.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich’s Blog

About Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine.

Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

Comments

  1. Don Duitz says:

    Let’s get the testosterone (votes) flowing, so that maybe Obama can implement some of these laws. We can help put his efforts where his mouth is. How about getting some people from main street into our government?????? I’m sick of these corporate A-holes.

  2. Don’t forget Dodd’s son’s $300K job at Countrywide. Or Dodd’s miraculous fortune in buying a house in Ireland at a tiny fraction of the market value – seems there were connections to lenders involved there, too.

    While I almost never agree with Reich on anything he writes – I do agree with him here. The sole effect of this legislation has been to crush small businesses with more senseless regulation. Turns out it is the small business that is the enemy in the eyes of this administration and they are now firing for effect. Wall Street and the banks took the bailout money and began speculating in foreign currency trades, rather than putting it back into circulation through extending credit to small businesses and home buyers. Check out the P&L for any large bank and you’ll see that their earnings are not coming from lending operations, but from FX activities.

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