As if to maximize the possibility of another major financial crisis, the Trump administration and the GOP have recently been busy undercutting the limited safeguards established a decade ago via Dodd-Frank. The latest example of this stealth attack on Wall Street reform is the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, appropriately sponsored by Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Appropriate, because this is literally a “crapo” bill. It provides a few “technical tweaks” to Dodd-Frank in the same way in which protection payouts to organized crime provide businesses with “insurance” against property damage. In reality, it is an act of regulatory vandalism, which highlights everything that is corrupt about our political system.
We have grown to expect no less from the GOP, whose sole raison d’etre these days seems to be filling the trough from which America’s fat cats can perpetually gorge themselves. What is truly disturbing, however, is that the Republican effort is being given bipartisan cover by more than a dozen Democratic senators: Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (both from Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Chris Coons (Del.), and Tom Carper of Delaware. To this esteemed group, we should also add Senator Angus King (ME), an Independent who regularly caucuses with the Democrats. So, in reality, it’s a filibuster-proof “Baker’s Dirty Dozen.” Digging into the details, perhaps this is what Senator Mitch McConnell had in mind when he predicted more bipartisanship in Congress this year. In co-sponsoring this bill, the 13 senators are providing cover for the GOP when the inevitable fallout comes, dissipating the Democrats’ political capital with the electorate in the process.
Yes, we get it: some of these senator incumbents are in red states that voted heavily for Donald Trump in the last election. And the latest polls suggest many are vulnerable in this year’s elections. But the last time we checked, there didn’t seem to be an overwhelming wave of populist protest demanding regulatory relief for banks. All 50 states—red and blue—suffered from the last financial crisis, and it’s hard to believe voters in Montana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana or Missouri would be more likely to support Senators Tester, Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly or McCaskill because they backed a bank deregulation bill (which in reality goes well beyond helping small community banks). Nor do the 2018 races factor as far as Senators Warner, Coons, or Bennet are concerned, given that none are up for re-election this year.
No, the more likely answer is money, plain and simple. The numbers aren’t in for 2017, but an analysis of the Federal Election Commission data from the 2016 election appears to explain what is driving this newfound solicitousness toward the banks. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) points out that “nine of the twelve Democrats supporting the deregulatory measure count the financial industry as either their biggest or second-biggest donor.” (At least now we have a better understanding as to why Hillary Clinton’s "responsibility gene" induced her to select running mate Tim Kaine, who received “large contributions from Big Law partners that represent Wall Street,” as opposed to a genuine finance reformer, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren is vigorously opposing the new bill.)
We also know (courtesy of the CRP) that Mark Warner’s last campaign in 2014:
“included among his 20 largest donors the mega Wall Street banks Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Goldman’s employees and PACs gave Warner’s campaign $71,600 while JPMorgan Chase gave the Warner campaign committees $50,566… Senator Heidi Heitkamp is also up for reelection this year and her number one contributor at present is employees and/or PACs of Goldman Sachs which have contributed $79,500 thus far.”
Naturally, all of the senators claim their motives are pure. With no hint of irony, a spokesman for Tim Kaine suggested that, “Campaign contributions do not influence Senator Kaine’s policy positions.” Likewise, an aide for Mark Warner vigorously contested the idea that campaign donations from Wall Street ever influenced the Virginia senator’s decision-making on policy matters. Sure, and it was shocking to find out that gambling took place in Rick’s CafÃ©.
It is true, as Senator Jon Tester (another co-sponsor) notes, that the proposed changes introduced in the Crapo bill (notably the increase in the asset size from $50 billion to $250 billion of those banks that are considered “systemically important” and therefore subject to greater oversight and tighter rules) do not affect the likes of Wall Street banks such as Citigroup, JP MorganChase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, all of which are still covered by the most stringent oversight provisions of Dodd-Frank. But the increased asset threshold does exempt the U.S. bank holding companies of systemically significant foreign banks: Deutsche Bank, UBS and Credit Suisse, all of whom were implicated in multiple violations of both American and international banking laws in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis.
Deutsche Bank alone has paid billions of dollars for its role in perpetuating mortgage fraud, money-laundering and interest rate manipulation (the LIBOR scandal), which ideally should invite more regulatory scrutiny, not less. Instead, a new law ostensibly crafted to provide a few “technical fixes” for Dodd-Frank is now reducing the regulatory oversight of a bank that has been cited in an IMF report as one of Germany’s “global systemically important financial institutions.” Translating the couched-IMF-speak, the report suggests that Deutsche Bank on its own has the potential to set off a new global contagion, given the scale of its derivatives exposure. Not only too big to fail, but evidently too big to regulate properly either, aided and abetted by members of a party who claim to be appalled at the level of corruption in the Trump administration.
Another side-effect of raising the regulatory threshold to $250 billion in assets is that it diminishes the chance of obtaining an early warning detection signal from somewhat smaller financial institutions. As the experience of Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns illustrated, smaller problems that remain hidden in the shadows can ultimately metastasize if left alone, and become much bigger—and more systemically dangerous—later.
So when Senator Kaine nobly suggests that he is merely providing relief for “small community banks and credit unions” in his home state, or Jon Tester argues that he is only helping local banks suffering from Dodd-Frank’s regulatory overkill, both are being extraordinarily disingenuous. The reality is that increasing the oversight threshold by 500 percent does not just help a few “small community banks and credit unions” crawl out from a thicket of onerous and costly regulation. Even former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, who favored some regulatory relief for community banks, felt that $250 billion threshold was excessively lax.
In fact, (per the Americans for Financial Reform), the increase “removes the most severe mandate for 25 of the 38 largest banks,” which together “account for over $3.5 trillion in banking assets, more than one-sixth of the U.S. total.” Additionally, as Pat Garofalo writes: “The bill also includes an exemption from capital standards—essentially the amount of money that banks need to have on hand in case things go south—that benefits some big financial firms, and even more are lobbying to be included.” In other words, this isn’t just George Bailey’s friendly neighborhood bank that is getting some regulatory relief here.
All of this newfound regulatory laxity comes at a time when many of the largest Wall Street banks have again resurrected the same practices that almost destroyed them a decade ago. Bank credit analyst Chris Whalen observes: “The leader of this effort is none other than Citigroup (NYSE:C), which has surpassed JP MorganChase (NYSE:JPM) to become the largest derivatives shop in the world. Citi has embraced the most notorious product of the roaring 2000s, the synthetic collateralized debt obligation or ‘CDO’ security, a product that fraudulently leverages the real world and literally caused the bank to fail a decade ago.”
Another example: Trump and his henchman, Mick Mulvaney, have also joined the big banks in attacking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which by virtue of the Crapo act, will be blocked “from collecting key data showing when and where families of color are being overcharged for home loans or steered into predatory products.”
Let’s be honest here: even in its original form, Dodd-Frank was the bare minimum the government could have done in the wake of the 2008 disaster. But lobbyists, paid-for politicians and co-opted bank-friendly regulators have been busy “applying technical fixes” to the bill virtually from the moment it was passed a decade ago. The upshot is that the much-trumpeted Wall Street reform is a joke when compared to the comprehensive legislation passed in the aftermath of the Great Depression (which set the stage for decades of relative financial stability). Under Dodd, the banks are purportedly subject to “meaningful stress tests” (in the words of Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell), but the tests are neither particularly stressful, nor do they adequately reflect today’s twin dangers of off-balance sheet leverage and the concentration of big banks’ on-balance sheet assets in relatively low-return loans.
What should have been done after the global financial crisis? Professors Eric Tymoigne and Randall Wray proposed the following:
“Any of the ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions that needed funding should have been required to submit to Fed oversight. Top management should have been required to proffer resignations as a condition of lending (with the Fed or Treasury holding the letters until they could decide which should be accepted—this is how Jessie Jones resolved the bank crisis in the 1930s). Short-term lending against the best collateral should have been provided, at penalty rates. A comprehensive ‘cease and desist’ order should have been enforced to stop all trading, all lending, all asset sales, and all bonus payments until an assessment of bank solvency could have been completed. The FDIC should have been called-in (in the case of institutions with insured deposits), but in any case, the critically undercapitalized institutions should have been dissolved according to existing law: at the least cost to the Treasury and to avoid increasing concentration in the financial sector.”
A number of conclusions can be drawn from this whole sordid episode. An obvious one is that our model of campaign finance is completely broken. While it is encouraging to see some Democratic politicians increasingly adopting the Sanders model of fundraising, swearing off large corporate donations, not enough are doing so. Democrats are united in their concern pertaining to foreign threats that pose risks to the integrity of U.S. elections, but the vigorous opposition to Vladimir Putin and the Russians isn’t extended to the domestic oligarchs destroying American democracy (and the economy) from within.
The whole history behind Senator Crapo’s bill shows how quickly bank lobbyists can routinely exploit their financial muscle to turn a seemingly innocuous bill into something which pokes yet more holes into the Swiss Cheese-like rules already in place for Dodd. The Baker’s Dirty Dozen have accepted donations from Wall Street that not only constrain their ability to implement genuine reforms in finance (and other areas) but also discourage the mobilization of voters, who see this legislative horror show, and consequently opt out of showing up to vote at elections because they know that the system is rigged and dominated by corporate cash (making their votes irrelevant).
Ironically, no less a figure than Donald Trump exploited that voter cynicism in 2016. In striking contrast to every other Republican presidential nominee since 1936, he attacked globalization, free trade, international financiers, and Wall Street (and made effective mockery of Hillary Clinton’s ties to Goldman Sachs) and thereby mobilized blue-collar voters in marginal Rust Belt states, giving him his path to the presidency. Of course, we now know that this was all bait-and-switch politics, likely facilitated by forces outside the U.S., along with large corporation donations from domestic elites. We’ve probably reached the endgame as far as this "investment approach to politics" as it disintegrates into a cesspool of corruption and further financial fragility. It may take another crash before this problem is truly fixed.
In the meantime, this bipartisan subversion of Wall Street reform not only risks making the next crisis at least as bad as 2008, but also reinforces the notion that both parties are equally corrupt, catalyzing the collapse of the American political order. In a further sick twist of fate, the twin corrosive forces of “golden rule politics” (i.e., he who has the gold rules) and a rapidly deflating “bubble-ized” economy could all come to a head under the watch of Donald the Unready. But he won’t own this disaster alone, thanks to the help of compromised Wall Street Democrats.
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