It seems odd that days after we were told by Goldman Sachs’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, that bankers are doing “God’s work”, we are still having active debates about how to regulate these selfless apostles of capitalism.
The latest foray into financial reform comes from the Senate. Senator Christopher Dodd will propose creating a single U.S. regulator that would strip the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. of bank- supervision authority, according to a report from Bloomberg. Dodd, according to the Bloomberg report, has faulted the U.S. bank regulation system, saying “it encourages charter shopping and a ‘race to the bottom’ by agencies to win oversight roles.” Bloomberg notes that “his proposal goes further than proposals by President Barack Obama and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank to merge the OTS and OCC.”
Certainly, almost anything is an improvement over the abomination that came out of Barney Frank’s committee. But we feel that the ‘race to the regulatory bottom’ could easily be solved via a simple mechanism: If you don’t fall in line with our regulatory requirements, you’re simply denied a banking license to operate in this country. Problem solved. The United States is the biggest banking market in the world. Do you think any major bank would willingly vacate this market?
And even if the “too big to fail” behemoths decided to transplant a bunch of their operations elsewhere, the country would still be left with thousands of community banks which could fill the void and better fulfill the public purpose described by Mr Blankfein: namely, to “help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital”, rather than extracting their pound of flesh via grotesquely high financial intermediary fees, as is the case today.
We have argued before on New Deal 2.0 that the FDIC is best suited to carry on the role of chief systemic regulator, given its role as deposit insurer. That regulator has the best institutional incentives to be concerned with systemic risk and to be a vigorous regulator. It should be the least subject to regulatory capture (a pervasive problem at the Fed, which is full of quant economists who have virtually no interaction with other Fed examiners).
But WHO controls the banks is ultimately less important than HOW we control the banks’ activities. Oversight is all very nice, but at times it pays to get back to first principles. What on earth is the public purpose of these things?
Banks are set up and supported by government for the further benefit of the macro economy via providing a payments system and lending in a way that is specifically defined by regulators. Newsflash: the public purpose of banking is NOT to provide profits per se to shareholders. Rather, the provision of the ability to earn profits is only a tool used to support the attendant public purpose. Banks should only be allowed to lend directly to borrowers, and then service and keep those loans on their own balance sheets. There is no further public purpose served by selling loans or other financial assets to third parties, but there are substantial real costs to government in regulating and supervising those activities. There are severe consequences for failure to adequately regulate and supervise those secondary market activities as well.
Banks should be prohibited from engaging in any secondary market activity because it serves no public purpose and may result in severe social costs in the case of regulatory and supervisory lapses. Some argue that these areas might be profitable for the banks, but this is not a reason to extend government sponsored enterprises into those areas. Therefore, banks should not be allowed to buy (or sell) credit default insurance. The public purpose of banking as a public/private partnership is to allow the private sector to price risk, rather than have the public sector pricing risk through publicly owned banks.
If a bank instead relies on credit default insurance, then it is transferring that pricing of risk to a third party, which is counter to the public purpose of the current public/private banking system. Banks should not be allowed to engage in proprietary trading or any profit-making ventures beyond basic lending. If the public sector wants to venture out of banking for some presumed public purpose it can be done through other outlets.
If the activities of the banks are not facilitating the production and movement of real goods and services what public purpose do they serve? It is clear they have made a small number of people fabulously wealthy. It is also clear that they have damaged the prospects for disadvantaged workers in many parts of the world.
It’s more obvious to all of us now that when the system comes unstuck through the complexity of these transactions and the impossibility of correctly pricing risk, the real economies across the globe suffer. The consequences have been devastating in terms of lost employment and income and lost wealth.
All governments should sign an agreement which would make all financial transactions that cannot be shown to facilitate funding for real goods and services illegal. Simple as that. When we keep these principles at the front of the argument, we can see that what Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank are arguing about is akin to how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.