James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Wall Street scores a win on financial reform … for now

May 21, 2010

A sigh of relief is due on Wall Street. The procedural finale for the U.S. Senate’s debate on financial reform came just in time for the big banks. The bill just kept getting 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. In the end, Wall Street got nicked, not nuked. Some observations:

1) Wall Street should thank the White House. 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.

2) Nothing radical here. While the Senate and House bills still need to be blended, 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 Corporation 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. Caveat: This assumes the Blanche Lincoln provision on derivatives is softened or stripped in the conference committee.

3) Too Big To Fail is still a problem. As long as regulators and politicians have vast amounts of discretion, a financial crisis will make bailouts an irresistible temptation. The way around this is either breaking up the banks or creating hard, market-based triggers for either regulatory action or a resolution process. Neither is in the bill.

4) Wall Street’s has an enduring PR problem. Yes, big banks are unpopular. But it has gotten so bad that they may not be able to so easily counter their image issues with campaign cash. Getting Wall Street money now has a stigma attached to it like oil and tobacco money. Candidates like Meg Whitman in California and John Kasich are getting hammered for their Wall Street ties. The industry’s continued unpopularity will no doubt spawn further attempts to tax, regulate and restrict the sector.

5) Bernanke trimphant. The Federal Reserve has to be pretty satisfied. It did not lose its role as regulator; in fact, it’s been strengthened. And the central banks was also able to fend off attempts to make it more transparent.  The downside:  The GOP (see Rand Paul)  has soured on the Fed in a big way, particularly at the grassroots. Further economic woes will lead to more calls to change its form and function.

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