How the End of GE Capital Also Kills the Core Conservative Talking Point About Dodd-Frank

April 10, 2015

News is breaking that GE Capital will be spinning off most of its financing arm, GE Capital, over the next two years. Details are still unfolding, but, according to the initial coverage, “GE expects that by 2018 more than 90 percent of its earnings will be generated by its high-return industrial businesses, up from 58% in 2014.”

It’s good that our industrial businesses will be focusing more on innovating and services rather than financial shenanigans, but this also tells us two important things about Dodd-Frank: it confirms one of the stories about the Act and disproves the core conservative talking point about what the Act does.

Regulatory Arbitrage

A very influential theory of the financial crisis is that there were financial firms acting just like banks but without the normal safeguards that traditionally went with banks. There was no public source of liquidity or backstops through the FDIC or the Federal Reserve, a public good capable of ending self-fulfilling panics. There was no mechanism to wind down the firms and impose losses outside of the bankruptcy code. There weren’t the normal capital requirements or consumer protections that went with the traditional commercial banking sector.

Though we now call this regulatory arbitrage, at the time it was seen as innovation. GE Capital was explicitly brought up as a poster child for deregulation. You can see it in Bob Litan  and Jonathan Rauch’s 1998 American Finance for the 21st Century, which lamented the “twentieth-century model of financial policy” that, using transportation as an analogy, “set a slow speed limit, specified a few basic models for cars, separated different kinds of cars into different lanes, and demanded that no one leave home without a full tank of gas and a tune-up.” GE Capital was explicitly an example of a firm that could thrive with a regulatory regime that “focuses less on preventing mishaps and more on ensuring that an accident at any one intersection will not paralyze traffic everywhere else.”

This was very apparent in the regulatory space. The fact that GE owned a Utah savings and loan allowed it to be regulated under the leniency of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), so it was able to work in the banking space without the normal rules in place. It was also able to use its high-level industrial credit rating to gamble weaker positions in the financial markets, arbitraging the private-sector regulation of the credit ratings agencies in the process.

How did that work out? First off, there was massive fraud. As Michael Hudson found in a blockbuster report, one executive declared that “fraud pays” and that “it didn’t make sense to slow the gush of loans going through the company’s pipeline, because losses due to fraud were small compared to the money the lender was making from selling huge volumes of loans.” Then there were the bailouts. The government backstopped $139 billion worth of GE Capital’s debts as it was collapsing and essentially had to manipulate the regulatory space to allow it to qualify for traditional banking protections. So much for not paralyzing traffic, and so much for the old rules not being important.

Dodd-Frank looked to normalize these regulations across both the shadow and regular banking sectors. It eliminated the OTS and declared GE Capital a systemically risky firm that has to follow higher capital requirements and prepare for bankruptcy with living wills just like we expect a bank to do, regardless of what kind of legal hijinks it is using to call itself something else. And GE Capital, faced with the prospect of having to play in the same field as everyone else, decided it should go back to trying to bring better things to life rather than making financial weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty good news, and a process that should be encouraged and continued.

The Collapse of the Conservative Argument

But there’s one ask GE has as it spins off GE Capital, one that actually disproves the core conservative argument on Dodd-Frank. In the coverage, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt states directly, “GE will work closely with [the regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council] to take the actions necessary to de-designate GE Capital as a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI).”

Dodd-Frank designates certain financial institutions, mostly over $50 billion in size, as systemically important. Or as the lingo goes, they get designated SIFI status. Those firms have stronger capital requirements and stronger requirements to be able to declare themselves ready for bankruptcy or FDIC resolution if they fail.

Conservatives, from the beginning, have made this the centerpiece of their story about Dodd-Frank. They argue that SIFI status is a de facto permanent bailout and claim that firms will demand to be designated as SIFIs because it means they will have a favored status. This status gives them easy crony relationships with regulators and allow them to borrow cheaply in the credit markets.

This has become doctrine on the right; I can’t think of a single movement conservative who has said the opposite. Examples of the mantra range from Peter Wallison of AEI writing “[t]he designation of SIFIs is a statement by the government that the designated firms are too big to fail” to Reason’s Nick Gillespie repeating that “everyone agrees [Dodd-Frank] has simply reinscribed too big to fail as explicit law.” (I love an “everyone agrees” without any sourcing.)

It’s also the basis of proposed policy. The Ryan budget cancels out the FDIC’s ability to regulate SIFIs, stating that Dodd-Frank “actually intensifies the problem of too-big-to-fail by giving large, interconnected financial institutions advantages that small firms will not enjoy.”

If that’s the case, GE should be desperate to maintain its SIFI status even though it is spinning off its GE Capital line. After all, being a SIFI means it gets all kinds of favored protections, access, and credit relative to other firms.

But, instead GE is desperate to lose it. This is genuine; ask any financial press reporter or analyst, and they’ll tell you that GE is very sincere when it says it doesn’t want to be designated as risky anymore, and is willing to take appropriate measures to remove the designation.

If that’s the case, what’s left of the GOP argument?