Is Congress Getting Nostalgic for Bank Failure?

Congress is picking apart the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the Great Recession, the type of economic conflagration the law was supposed to prevent.

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, New York Times

Congress is picking apart the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, just in time for the 10th anniversary of the Great Recession, the type of economic conflagration the law was supposed to prevent.

You remember the Great Recession, don’t you? It consumed trillions of our dollars because banks had overinvested in risky securities few people really understood, which were tied to riskier mortgages that they were underwriting.

Apparently, Congress thinks that can’t be repeated. They will probably be proven wrong, like others who have thought economic disasters were one-shot deals.

Our history is rife with them. The Panic of 1873 was set off by the failure of the investment bank Jay Cooke & Co., which had overinvested in leading edge technology — railroads. The collapse of some 100 banks would soon follow.

In 1907, Knickerbocker Trust keeled over after making bad loans to that era’s version of hedge funders. Serial bank failures ensued, requiring a bailout organized by J. Pierpont Morgan. At least that led to some reform, the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913, to supply liquidity to markets.

But when banks invested in the red-hot stock market, the Fed could not stop the Great Depression that followed.

From that debacle came the Securities and Exchange Commission, to apply some controls to the unscrupulous stock market, and the Glass-Steagall Act, which barred retail banks from the riskier maneuvers of investment banks.

But when the crash of 1987 hurt nearly all financial players because portfolio insurance failed to properly insure anything, it didn’t register with Congress that Wall Street’s more complex trading had raised the stakes for the next crisis. By 1999, lawmakers were ready to repeal Glass-Steagall with the logic that its regulations were outdated because banks had enough risk management to prevent dangerous trading and investing.

In the autopsy of the Great Recession, we learned that risk managers were run over by derivatives traders and investment banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. were leveraged 30-1 — a dollar of equity for every 30 borrowed. The cascading effects required huge federal bailouts.

When Congress tried, yet again, to muzzle the banks’ penchant for mad-dog investing, one result was the Dodd-Frank Act. It gave the Fed powers to designate larger banks as “systemically important” and required more capital, more oversight and what’s been called a “living will” so that the failure of any one of them wouldn’t cause another crisis. Tougher regulations were also imposed on smaller banks, because so many of them had gone bust making bad real estate loans. And to help prevent large banks from gambling again there was the Volcker Rule, a refresh of Glass-Steagall that limits banks’ abilities to venture into riskier proprietary trading activities.

The Volcker Rule is now treated like a 1920s traffic law outmoded by today’s safer cars and superhighways. But it was made to let banks give customers liquidity for investment, while making it hard for the banks to game the system. “Gaming is harder to do with the rule in place than if it is not in place,” Rick Bookstaber, a former Treasury Department and SEC official who helped write the Volcker Rule, said with perfect logic.

The bill, passed by the House on Tuesday, and signed by President Donald Trump on Thursday, increases the size at which banks are considered to pose systemic risk and requires greater regulation to $250 billion in assets, up from $50 billion, and frees thousands of small and medium-sized banks from the cumbersome rules that have inhibited lending — rules intended to keep them from self-destructing again.

Amid this purportedly stifling regulation, banks had record profits, while commercial and industrial loan balances reached $2.162 trillion, says the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

We’ve seen this movie before, when 1982’s Garn-St. Germain Act deregulated the savings and loan industry — small local institutions — which led to the savings and loan crisis of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In 1989, there were 534 bank failures, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Legislate. Repeal. Fail. Repeat. Meanwhile the potential damage swells because the global financial system has become ever more tightly linked. Why do we expect a different result from deregulation, which has ended in sorrow again and again?

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