Three cheers for Obama’s banking reforms

By Felix Salmon
January 21, 2010
press release line by line:

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Barack Obama is coming out swinging today, and good for him for doing so. Let’s go through the press release line by line:

WASHINGTON, DC- President Obama joined Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve; Bill Donaldson, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission; Congressman Barney Frank, House Financial Services Chairman; Senator Chris Dodd, Chairman of the Banking Committee and the President’s economic team to call for new restrictions on the size and scope of banks and other financial institutions to rein in excessive risk taking and to protect taxpayers.

Note here how Geithner and Summers just become part of “the President’s economic team”, while Volcker gets top billing. This is, as Simon Johnson says, an important change of course — and it’s one which is being supported by both Dodd and Frank, so there’s a good chance it can pass. After all, the Republicans tend to hate Wall Street even more than the Democrats.

The President’s proposal would strengthen the comprehensive financial reform package that is already moving through Congress.

This is also a good sign: in the wake of Dodd making noises about softening existing legislative proposals, Obama has come out and said, quite rightly, that we should push hard in the opposite direction, and tighten them up.

“While the financial system is far stronger today than it was a year one year ago, it is still operating under the exact same rules that led to its near collapse,” said President Barack Obama. “My resolve to reform the system is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see record profits at some of the very firms claiming that they cannot lend more to small business, cannot keep credit card rates low, and cannot refund taxpayers for the bailout. It is exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.”

OK, so this is populism. But populism in the service of a good cause is no great sin.

The proposal would:

1. Limit the Scope-The President and his economic team will work with Congress to ensure that no bank or financial institution that contains a bank will own, invest in or sponsor a hedge fund or a private equity fund, or proprietary trading operations unrelated to serving customers for its own profit.

This is a good idea, but cutting back on prop trading, in particular, is going to be hard. Goldman Sachs has told me repeatedly that they don’t have prop trading: everything they do is ultimately for the benefit of their clients. Absent a corner of the trading floor with a big flashing “prop desk” sign above it, in practice it’s very hard to draw the line between the kind of daily trading that any broker dealer has to do, on the one hand, and proprietary trading for a bank’s own account, on the other. Both of them involve the bank taking risk and making money, after all.

The restriction on sponsoring hedge funds and private-equity shops makes sense: after all, the in-house hedge funds at Bear Stearns played a large role in its demise. The banks will just spin off those holdings to shareholders, I don’t think this is a big deal for them.

2. Limit the Size- The President also announced a new proposal to limit the consolidation of our financial sector. The President’s proposal will place broader limits on the excessive growth of the market share of liabilities at the largest financial firms, to supplement existing caps on the market share of deposits.

I love this. It’s bank liabilities which cause systemic risk: that’s why it’s bank liabilities which are subject to the bank tax. And as too-big-to-fail banks increasingly rely on wholesale liabilities rather than a more stable deposit base, it’s important to place some kind of restrictions on the degree to which they can do so. In his press conference, Obama said that banks should not be allowed to stray too far from their mission of serving depositors: he’s moving, here, towards a vision of narrow (or at least narrower) banking. Good for him.

Banks stocks are down in the wake of the speech, but not dramatically: it’s easy to get overexcited about a 6% fall in JP Morgan’s share price while forgetting that it’s still over $40 a share, compared to less than $15 in March. Indeed, its all-time high, back in 2007, was barely over $50. Let’s get the Republicans on board with this, and push it through. It’s probably our last chance to enact meaningful financial reform this generation.

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