Monday, June 28, 2010

The Timidity of Reform

But will it work? This is what someone asked me last Friday after Congress sealed the deal on the financial reform package for the banks. My simple answer is that there are some nice reforms here, but much like the health care law, the economic stimulus bill, and the other reforms of the Obama Administration, this too was short of real reform, demonstrating once again the timidity of this president and Congress in addressing real reform that matters.

Economically, there are multiple problems with the US and world economy. One way to slice it is to look at short and long term needs. Short term the problems in the economy are the high unemployment figures, the still depressed real estate market, and slow economic growth. Longer term the problems are many, including financial institution instability, energy consumption, and a looming debt crisis.

The bank and financial regulation bill agreed upon last week addresses some of the longer term problems, but not all of them, and does little for the short term. Long term the best potential features of the bill are the Volker Rule to limit bank speculation and the creation of the consumer credit protection agency. At present the agency looks weak but perhaps over time it can use its administrative rule making to actually do real work to help consumers.

Having said the good things, the bill falls short on real reforms. Real reform should have reinstated Glass-Steagall, imposed more requirements on banks holding capital to cover losses, extended more regulations to cover non-bank financial institutions, and made it illegal for institutions to do hedge funds that bet against their investors.

It might have also made sense to consider policies that make it illegal for FDIC entities to speculate on Wall Street, something similar to a Glass-Steagall requirement. Finally, limits on compensation packages for officers to depress financial incentives to speculate make sense. All of these ideas would help, as would be preventing banks from selling office mortgages that finance (so that they have to bear the risk of their loans). However, even with all these reforms, it is still not clear banks will serve the public interest. Remember, they are private for-profit entities that are not there to serve the public good. This is the purpose of government regulation.

Government regulation is meant to address market failures and correct externalities and moral hazards that the free market cannot address. Beginning in 1978 the USA has been on a deregulatory path, placing firm belief in the market over the government. The Reagan-Thatcher era is famous for this. Obama took office with the promise of change, and he has made some, but they have not signaled the full repudiation of the Reagan Era. Ronald Reagan is dead, but we do not see a real return to regulatory behavior anywhere near the like of the New Deal or close to the scope of what is needed for the economy.

The 2009 economic stimulus was too small and we are now paying the price with a sluggish economy on the verge of a second recession. We never addressed the core problem with the economy–the collapsed residential home market–and now it is slipping again and defaults continue. The health care bill ensures more but does little to address cost containment or quality. Consistently, Obama and Congress have gone less the distance to fixing the problems.

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