Perhaps Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) thinks of himself as a modern day John Sherman. In 1890, Ohio Sen. Sherman set out on a mission to establish “just competition” laws and level the economic playing field. His quest culminated in the dismantling of monopolies-such as American Tobacco and Standard Oil-and the passage of new laws prohibiting malicious competitive practices. In a similar way, Dodd now seeks the power to tear apart any company he considers a risk to the national economy. But unlike Sherman, Dodd isn’t out to create the best possible conditions for competition to thrive. He’s out for blood.
Dodd’s plan for overhauling Wall Street regulations, released last week, includes a proposed new organization: the Agency for Financial Stability (AFS). This new regulator would be tasked with identifying and addressing “systemic risks posed by large, complex companies as well as products and activities that can spread risk across firms.” This represents one piece of the most extensive proposal to reform financial services regulation-topping even the ridiculousness of the Obama plan and Barney Frank plan. Which is saying a lot.
The financial crisis has made off with nearly $30 trillion in global wealth. Dodd believes Wall Street banks and other financial institutions are the chief culprits in this dubious economic caper. And to exact revenge, he will push for some of the toughest, most expansive regulatory powers to date.
To do this, Dodd plans to go Elliot Ness on Wall Street, using economists and accountants as if they were FBI agents. Only instead of targeting Al Capone and Big Angelo Lonardo, these number-crunchers would be given nearly limitless power to hunt down systemic risks inside America’s financial institutions.
Here’s one of the biggest problems with this (and with the Obama and Frank plans, too): the government offers only a dangerously vague definition of what constitutes a financial institution. So not only would Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase qualify, but firms like Wal-Mart, Ford, and Texas Instruments-not exactly the companies you think of when discussing Wall Street regulation-might be subject to higher compliance standards as well. It all depends on the subjective whims of the Agency for Financial Stability.
As outlined in the Dodd plan, AFS would be an independent agency, one whose chairman was appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It would also have a 9-member board comprised of federal financial regulators and an independent expert.
The structure is similar to President Obama’s proposed Financial Services Oversight Council. Both of these proposed overseers would monitor the market for systemic risks, and would possess the authority to collect information from financial institutions as needed. The major difference is that where the Obama council would only have the power to designate firms as “Tier 1” companies, a category that would require stricter regulation, Dodd’s agency would actually have the power to break-up those companies considered too big to fail.
In other words, an Agency for Financial Stability would enjoy unprecedented power over the private sector. Presently, if the government wants to take a large firm apart, it must first take its case to court, proving that the company is either a monopoly or that it is maliciously attacking its competitors.
Yet not only would Dodd’s AFS write rules for capital requirements, leverage limiting, and risk management compliance, it would also have the authority to treat Wells Fargo or UBS like the Bonanno crime family.
Which means that the risk of undue political influence is palpable. Let say’s enough people come to believe that Goldman Sachs is secretly controlling the Treasury Department, as Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi so viciously claimed. All those people need to do is pressure the government into taking the company apart on the grounds that it’s size has become too critical to the economic health of the nation. There are certainly enough anti-Goldman Sachs staffers on Capitol Hill to make that happen. And it doesn’t take a follower of Ayn Rand to imagine a scenario where flimsy justifications like “to expand competition” and “create a fair playing field” start rolling off the tongues of aggressive AFS agents.
Nor is the Agency for Financial Stability the only part of the Dodd plan worth worrying about. His regulatory overhaul proposal also includes a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, similar to the one currently being considered in the House. Even more aggressive than Rep. Frank’s version, this consumer agency would also ultimately protect the market to death.
The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week that the Dodd overhaul plan would open up anyone who associates with someone accused of fraud to civil suits, even if prosecutors have no proof or are just on a fishing expedition. The Dodd proposal also repeats the errors of the Obama plan on issues like derivative reform, hedge funds, and executive compensation.
There are a few good ideas in the proposal. Consolidating federal banking rules into a single regulator could do a lot to simplify and refocus banking rules. Though that reform shouldn’t be kept separate from consumer protection concerns, and it would be inappropriate for the regulator to force the various charters under its supervision into one-size-fits-all regulations.
The Dodd plan also requires large firms to provide “funeral plans” outlining how they could be quickly and effectively shutdown in the case of an emergency. In theory, this is just a part of responsible risk management. But the Dodd plan treads into dangerous waters by giving AFS the authority to approve or reject such plans.
In the end, the Dodd plan is on the highest order of hubris. Politicians in Washington honestly believe they can fix the economy and prevent future calamity. Sure, they weren’t quite right when they “fixed” the system after Enron, or when they “reformed” the rules under Clinton, or when they “fixed” everything after the Savings and Loan Crisis. But this time will be different! At least Elliot Ness knew enough to change tactics after several initial failures to capture Al Capone.
The current financial crisis was largely brought about by well-intentioned regulations that just got it wrong. We thought that 8 percent was enough capital for banks to hold onto in case they ran into trouble. We thought that subprime mortgage-backed securities were decreasing risk. We were wrong on both counts. We can’t anticipate every risk. Under the Dodd plan-like the Obama and Frank plans before it- we’ll be proven wrong once again.
Anthony Randazzo is a policy analyst for Reason Foundation. This column first appeared at Reason.com.