Paul Krugman Exposes Wall Street Vampires' Latest Ploy

"Last year the vampires of finance bought themselves a Congress," Paul Krugman begins his colum Monday. He then spends the rest of the piece explaining why what might seem like a pretty harsh metaphor is actually apt. But first there's the fact that the bought and paid for Congressional Republicans are trying their darndest to repay their masters by killing the financial reform bill enacted in 2010, a.k.a. Dodd-Frank. "And why must Dodd-Frank die?" Krugman asks. "Because it’s working."

Krugman recognizes that the news that Dodd-Frank is having an effect might be surprising to progressives who rightly think that a lot more should have been done to rein in out-of-control banks. The successes include the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Senator Elizabeth Warren's initiative, which is having a "major chilling effect on abusive lending practices." Krugman also says that regulating "derivatives — which played a major role in the 2008 crisis — is proving effective.

Lastly, Dodd-Frank seems to be yielding results in terms of addressing the overwhelming size and devilish complexity of financial institutions, summed up by the somewhat over-simplified phrase, “too big to fail." Krugman writes: 

As I’ve just suggested, too big to fail doesn’t quite get at the problem here. What was really lethal was the interaction between size and complexity. Financial institutions had become chimeras: part bank, part hedge fund, part insurance company, and so on. This complexity let them evade regulation, yet be rescued from the consequences when their bets went bad. And bankers’ ability to have it both ways helped set America up for disaster.

Dodd-Frank addressed this problem by letting regulators subject “systemically important” financial institutions to extra regulation, and seize control of such institutions at times of crisis, as opposed to simply bailing them out. And it required that financial institutions in general put up more capital, reducing both their incentive to take excessive risks and the chance that risk-taking would lead to bankruptcy.

All of this seems to be working: “Shadow banking,”  which created bank-type risks while evading bank-type regulation, is in retreat. You can see this in cases like that of General Electric, a manufacturing firm that turned itself into a financial wheeler-dealer, but is now trying to return to its roots. You can also see it in the overall numbers, where conventional banking — which is to say, banking subject to relatively strong regulation — has made a comeback. Evading the rules, it seems, isn’t as appealing as it used to be.

Of course, Wall Street does not care for reform, and is not taking it lying down. But they are fighting back in sneaky ways, and that's where the vampire analogy fits in. Krugman again:

But what really makes the word apt in this context is that the enemies of reform can’t withstand sunlight. Open defenses of Wall Street’s right to go back to its old ways are hard to find. When right-wing think tanks do try to claim that regulation is a bad thing that will hurt the economy, their hearts don’t seem to be in it. For example, the latest such “study,” from the American Action Forum, runs to all of four pages, and even its author, the economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, sounds embarrassed about his work.

What you mostly get, instead, is slavery-is-freedom claims that reform actually empowers the bad guys: for example, that regulating too-big-and-complex-to-fail institutions is somehow doing wheeler-dealers a favor, claims belied by the desperate efforts of such institutions to avoid the “systemically important” designation. The point is that almost nobody wants to be seen as a bought and paid-for servant of the financial industry, least of all those who really are exactly that.

Reformers like Elizabeth Warren have to keep shining that light on shady practices so that the vampires and their friends in Congress stay in their coffins with the lid closed.

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