James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

U.S. reforms will nick, not nuke, big banks

May 20, 2010 20:52 UTC

A sigh of relief is due on Wall Street. The procedural finale for the Senate’s debate on financial reform came just in time for banks. The bill got tougher as the talk dragged on. But it could have been worse. While banks’ future activities and profitability may get pinched, their core business model appears intact.

Had President Barack Obama prioritized bank reform over healthcare at the height of the crisis, the biggest players might have been broken up, hard caps placed on balance sheets, and banking and investing operations separated. More recently, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s lawsuit against Goldman Sachs  in April helped re-energize advocates for such changes.

It’s safe to say the most radical ideas have fallen by the wayside. A “systemic risk council” of federal regulators will recommend new capital and leverage rules to the Federal Reserve, which will be the most influential bank regulator. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp will have the power to wind down any failing large, systemically interconnected institution.

In addition, large, complex financial firms will have to submit plans for their rapid and orderly shutdown should they go under. And for the first time the derivatives that are currently traded privately will mostly be forced to go through clearing houses and in some cases trade on exchanges. Bank lobbyists have defended their corner: it’s not the regulatory reign of terror their clients’ most vociferous critics wanted. But it’s hardly a “light touch” regime, either, and it does involve real changes.

There’s still the chance that the bill’s limitations on banks’ derivatives activities could be further tightened. And the Senate’s final effort will then need to be blended with the House version, a process during which restrictions on derivatives and possibly proprietary trading — the so-called Volcker rule — will really be hammered out. So the book isn’t yet fully written.

Meanwhile, Wall Street’s continued unpopularity will no doubt spawn further attempts to tax, regulate and restrict the sector. And that’s ignoring the inevitable empty rhetorical attacks in this election year. For now, though — perhaps surprisingly — pragmatic policy has trumped punitive politics.

Paul Ryan and free-market populism

May 20, 2010 18:19 UTC

Over at RealClearPolitics, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin further fleshes out the emerging “free-market populism” meme beginning to emerge in the GOP:

From an ideological perspective, big government can combine with big business to advance a more progressivist society. For self-described “progressives,” the agenda is straightforward: expand government; co-opt big business; direct the capital markets from Washington to pursue “social justice.” Think Fannie and Freddie by much higher orders of magnitude.

Over the past decade, the thinking has been much less clear for conservatives. Being “pro-market” has been fundamentally confused with “pro-business.” Conservatives who came to Congress to defend and promote free enterprise have often been led to believe that pathway lies in bolstering established firms as they navigate the maze of government regulations and taxes. These instincts are correct, but the implementation is often flawed. All too often, the results of these efforts have been to exacerbate crony capitalism – erecting barriers to entry against potential competitors to firms that are currently on top.

For their part, companies seeking such protection have a right to pursue their narrow self-interest; but when these actions involve reducing open competition and transparency for short term gain, they do so to the detriment of the very free enterprise system that made their success possible.

Me: I can see this manifesting in a number of ways, from attacks on corporate welfare to more explicit calls to diffuse financial power. And it would seem to be in the sweet spot of folks like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Pat Toomey. This is also a group that would be willing to call for radical change in the U.S. entitlement system.

A ‘new’ GOP on its way?

May 20, 2010 18:10 UTC

So says Mr. Lawrence Kudlow:

A new tea party center is forming in the Republican Senate caucus. It will be the first Reagan nucleus in many years, one that will give the GOP a strong limited-government, cut-spending, low-tax-rate, stop-government-controls, and end-Bailout Nation message that will have clarity and gusto and will reverberate throughout the country.

Here’s how it’s going to work: Rand Paul will grab the Senate seat in Kentucky. Marco Rubio will take Florida. Mike Lee will win in Utah. Pat Toomey will finally prevail in Pennsylvania. And Carly Fiorina will knock off Barbara Boxer in California.

Yup. That’s how I see it. And this new tea-party Senate nucleus will join free-market stalwarts like Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, Jon Kyl, Richard Shelby, Jeff Sessions, and John Thune. I’m probably leaving somebody out in the Senate, and I apologize in advance. But that’s what I’m thinking. It’s a pity Judd Gregg is retiring; he could be part of that group also.

This will be a reformist nucleus, tackling spending, taxes, and even monetary and currency policy. It will unabashedly propose free-market reforms to replace the Obama welfare state and to finally curb the avalanche of debt creation.


It’s interesting that anybody might see virtue in coalescing with the likes of Jim de Mint who is one of biggest scenery-chewing scam artists in political history.

If that’s the best the GOP has going for it, then they’d better be stocking up on industrial-strength deodorant.

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