The New Conservative Reformers Still Don’t Have a Plan for Wall Street

By Mike Konczal |

There’s a certain liberal fascination with the idea of conservative “reformers” showing up and recalibrating the Republican Party toward policies that would benefit working Americans and lead to potential bipartisan solutions. This fascination is on display in the reaction to the new Room to Grow report, available for free online, by the YG Network. Already being covered by liberals, this volume features various reform conservative writers addressing a range of innovative economic policy ideas, with the hope that Republicans lawmakers will pay attention.

But if this is the best the new wave of conservatives can do on financial reform, it’s probably not the biggest worry that elected Republicans aren’t listening. The chapter that focuses on Dodd-Frank and the regulation of the financial markets after the crisis is by American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis. It’s billed as “financial reforms to combat cronyism,” but it offers little in terms of reform. The reformers should, at the very least, explain what they would repeal or replace in Dodd-Frank (a tension that exists with Obamacare as well), and this is left unclear.

The problems start with Pethokoukis’s take on the story of what went wrong in the first place. But he also glosses over the key issues facing policymakers today. The general idea of attacking “cronyism” and promoting competition tells us nothing about what needs to be done, making it so this report is a poor guide to the actual ongoing debates happening in financial reform. And this silence on contentious matters is so deafening that it bodes poorly for any kind of genuine positive agenda for the right or bipartisan alignment with liberal reformers. Understanding where Pethokoukis goes wrong, however, can tell us why conservatives are going to have a hard time dealing with actual reform in the age of Dodd-Frank.

The Story of What Went Wrong

For Pethokoukis, a lack of competition in the financial markets led to the crisis of 2008. To whatever extent there were problems, those problems existed because of the government’s safety net and backstopping of deposits and commercial banks.

A quick glance at most accounts of the financial crisis argues otherwise. The whole point of deregulation in the financial markets was to increase competition. The book that made the case for repealing Glass-Steagall argued for “an enhanced role for competition.” Economists associated with the Clinton administration also believed deregulation would lead to more competition and fix the financial sector. There was an explicit assumption that private entities like the ratings agencies would act as better regulators because they faced competition, and they explain how those agencies became so pivotal to the entire system.

So what went wrong? All these new types of “shadow” banks turned out to have the same problems as any other banking sector. They had massive conflicts of interest, were capable of generating panics and runs with no lender-of-last-resort to fall back on, and there were no regulatory tools to wind them down. The goal of Dodd-Frank, in this version of the story, is to extend the core, tried-and-tested methods of financial reform to this shadow banking sector. Under these new regulations, the FDIC can take down shadow banks, derivatives have to be traded in an exchange, the CFPB provides transparency and accountability for consumers, and so on. Perhaps this narrative is wrong, or perhaps these are terrible policy goals that follow from it, but it goes entirely undiscussed in Pethokoukis’s account.

No Conservative Answer to Too Big To Fail

The problems become more obvious when you consider two of the most debated parts of Dodd-Frank: the FDIC’s ability to create a death panel for failing banks, known as resolution authority; and the Federal Reserve’s power to act as a “lender of last resort” in periods of crisis. Pethokoukis only obliquely addresses these issues, though they go to the core of Too Big To Fail.

He argues that Dodd-Frank “explicitly permits bailouts through its resolution authority provision.” What he is referencing is sadly not cited, because Dodd-Frank in fact requires “that unsecured creditors bear losses in accordance with the priority of claim.” (If Pethokoukis would argue that the power to differentiate payments is a de facto bailout, then all of bankruptcy is a permanent bailout, as those powers look just like critical vendor orders or other parts of the bankruptcy process in the proposed FDIC rules.)

Pethokoukis also argues against any type of lender-of-last-resort functionality for the non-commercial banking sector. Awkwardly, this in turn functions as a defense of the 2007 status quo. Take an investment bank, allow it to be subject to market panics, and have no resolution process in place other than tossing it into bankruptcy. This is the exact experiment we did with Lehman Brothers.

In supporting materials, Pethokoukis argues that conservative reformers “have ideas to end Too Big To Fail once and for all,” but it’s not clear what they actually are, or even what they could look like. He doesn’t engage in the debate over resolution authority, and he doesn’t mention various conservative replacements to Dodd-Frank that involve a special bankruptcy code. Maybe that’s because the leading proposals make it purposely difficult to lend in a crisis by penalizing lenders, an approach that violates the wisdom of economists going back to Bagehot.

Not a Roadmap for Our Current Debates

Now granted, the report is about messaging and priorities rather than the intricacies of specific reforms. But even here Pethokoukis’s general guiding star of pro-competition and anti-cronyism doesn’t tell us anything about what we need to know to assess the problems on the ground.

Derivative reforms are notably missing from this paper. I’d argue that forcing price transparency in the derivatives market is pro-competition because it leads to better information and an even playing field, and that pushing for aggressive international enforcement of those rules is anti-cronyism, because Wall Street shouldn’t get to flout the rules by cleverly housing its operations somewhere. Would conservative reformers agree? Based on this report, I have no idea.

Is the fact that Wall Street has such an extensive presence in commodities like aluminum a cause for concern? Do we want to push back on the market mediated complex credit chains that comprise shadow banking? Did Dodd-Frank not go far enough in restructuring the financial system, or did it already go too far with the Volcker Rule and concentration limits? The fact that the conservative reformers’ framework is incapable of guiding us in any plausible direction on these major unfolding issues is very problematic. It points to an absolute void in reform conservative policy on the practical regulatory challenges of the day.

The most promising thing in Pethokoukis’s piece is the call for higher capital requirements, perhaps on the order of 15 percent. Though a very good idea, this won’t end Too Big To Fail. And again this doesn’t engage with the current debates over capital, which involve how to balance multiple needs of capital. If you have a straight leverage requirement by itself, won’t that be gamed by firms taking on big risks? If you have a lot of capital but no liquidity, won’t you be subject to runs? Should banks hold long-term, unsecured debt, perhaps engineered to turn into equity during a failure? People often seek a silver bullet here, but one of the points of Basel is to try and balance all these needs against each other. Pethokoukis is correct that requirements should be higher, but unclear on this balancing act.

Mediating Institutions Require Regulations

Capital requirements aside, it’s surprising how unsurprised I am by the supposedly bold new thinking on financial reform contained in this report. The report is ideologically focused on using the government to build the spaces between the individual and state, the space of mediating institutions that include the market. But one of the best ways we can do that is by enforcing transparency and accountability among people participating in a market. Indeed, arguably the biggest blow to cronyism in 2014 has been the disclosure by the SEC of serious, widespread breaches in the private equity market – breaches that are reportable because of Dodd-Frank.

Here’s an example of a policy I’d love to see the right embrace: fiduciary requirements updated for a landscape of 401(k)s, IRAs, and all the other personal, private, tax-exempt savings accounts that people have to deal with. The Department of Labor is trying to do this right now, in fact, and the House Tea Party is trying to stop them.

One might expect that conservatives thinking in terms of civil society would support fiduciary requirements. They’ve existed since antiquity, going back to the Code of Hammurabi, Judeo-Christian traditions, Chinese law, and, a bonus for the right, centuries of common law. Using the state to set a guidepost for ethical norms that have existed across time and place, and thereby boosting people’s ability to take responsibility for their investments, is remarkably consistent with a richer civil society. But it’s not there in this report.

I hope these reformers succeed in checking the furthest right-wing elements of their party, although the rehabilitation of Bush-era “compassionate conservatism” (a term whose absence is conspicuous) is a far heavier lift given the libertarian focus of today’s conservatism. But if this vision is going to be centered on mediating institutions rather than direct state action, it will be essential for reformers to understand how the state creates the market, and how it sets the terms for enforcing consumers interests, for private agents to get access to information, and for trading, prices, and risk to move throughout the economy. The core balance of transparency, accountability, stability, and innovation is not something that can simply be waved away by appeals to a “free” market as is done here.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:


Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.