What Explains Wall Street’s Shift Away From Obama: Fat Cat Comments or Dodd-Frank?

By Mike Konczal |

In an interesting column on President Obama as the last of the “New Democrats” presidents, Michael Lind brings up the idea that the financial sector has permanently moved away from Democrats. “In 2012, most Wall Street donors, offended by Obama’s mild criticism and alarmed by the support shown by many Democrats for Occupy Wall Street, have swung their support away from the Democrats to the Republicans. It is unlikely that most of them will ever come back. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, moderate as well as progressive Democrats are going to emphasize deficit reduction through tax increases far more than even moderate Republicans…Any such reform will cut deeply into the incomes of many Wall Street rentiers whose ‘progressivism’ extends only to cost-free support for gay rights and abortion rights.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the political coalitions permanently shift in this manner. One reason for a shift is if Wall Street is leaving President Obama less for rhetorical reasons and more for economic and regulatory ones, especially when it comes to Dodd-Frank, which Democrats will continue to defend and Republicans will look to overturn.

When people discuss why Wall Street has turned against President Obama, it is usually a story about personalities and ego. Obama once said, “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” and that particularly stung them. Or maybe Obama is terrible with fundraising and managing the egos of rich donors. Or maybe it runs deeper psychologically. As an investor who voted for Obama in 2008 told Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, “There is just this feeling across the financial services community, across the business community, that this guy hates us.”

There is a lot to the lost feeling of proper stewardship over the economy, but as Matt Yglesias points out, it likely goes beyond the fat cats line. These conversations almost always put Dodd-Frank in the far background, even though it is a major reform of the financial sector that will reduce Wall Street’s power and profits. Let’s look at a few reforms.

Derivatives. One of the goals of Dodd-Frank is to bring transparency and standardization to the derivatives markets by requiring derivatives to go through a clearinghouse with pricing transparency. According to the FT’s Michael Mackenzie and Tracy Alloway in “Swaps profits threatened by Dodd-Frank,” “Analysts at Standard & Poor’s expect an annual drop in revenues for large dealers of between $4bn and $4.5bn once rules that include…mandatory central clearing of OTC swaps are fully implemented… But for smaller broker dealers and others, the future looks brighter as competition potentially opens across the OTC arena.”

In the article, CFTC chairman Gensler recognizes “all [the] benefit[s] from the lower costs and greater pricing information of a more transparent, accessible and competitive swaps market.” But not everybody actually does. Those who cornered the market pre-reform lose out on rents they were collecting from dominating the information in the market. Dodd-Frank is tackling the market in a way that expands access and transparency and reduces the pricing power of powerful incumbents. That’s fantastic, unless you are one of those incumbents who will lose billions of dollars.

Interchange. Even the little things challenge the power of the financial sector over the real economy. Take interchange, the fees the financial sector charges to the real economy for using debit and credit cards. That now resembles a public utility after Dodd-Frank, which rationalizes the system in much the same way that personal checks were rationalized by the Federal Reserve in the early 20th century. S&P estimates that “the Durbin Amendment’s immediate financial impact for the banking industry is a $6.5 billion to $7 billion annual reduction in debit card-related revenue… Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo have absorbed the majority of these losses, considering the size of their debit card businesses relative to peers.” This balances the playing field between the real economy and the financial sector while taking away a powerful set of contracts the banks were using to squeeze merchants.

CFPB. Meanwhile, consumer financial protection used to be the orphan mission of 10 different agencies, a number that encourages race-to-the-bottom regulatory arbitrage, none of which had the incentives to build expertise in this area or directly fight for consumers over other mission priorities. Now that mission is squarely placed in the CFPB, an agency whose funding and organizational structure is designed to prevent capture. The CFPB is already successfully going after illegal and deceptive practices at places like American Express, Discover, and Capital One, winning damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The financial sector is noticing that there is now an agency designed to enforce accountability.

(One might note that hedge funds don’t fall under these requirements, yet they are very mad. Some of that is the result of the push to remove special tax breaks, which is a direct economic issue. Some might be the result of other financial regulations.)

These are just items with visible price tags, so it doesn’t include things like the Volcker Rule, extra-prudential regulations of larger and riskier firms, trying to tackle the ratings agencies, the presumption that the FDIC will need to resolve and liquidate large firms and will require those firms to prepare for that event, and the other new regulations of the financial sector. With billions of dollars a year in profits on the line in repealing Dodd-Frank (and with those who benefit from regulation dispersed across the entire economy), it isn’t surprising that we are seeing a lot of donations go to those saying they will substantially weaken reform. And the GOP is specifically targeting these kinds of reforms.

Notice that though these regulations have a large price tag, they aren’t “soak the rich” or “let’s get the fat cats” regulations. They are all designed to make the financial markets run better by bringing transparency, a level playing field, and accountability to the system. We haven’t seen how they’ll be fully implemented, and a lot is still at risk even without a Republican victory in the presidental election. But right now there are billions of reasons Wall Street should want to stop the Democratic Party and Dodd-Frank beyond hurt feelings.

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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.