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Imagine a future in which Sen. Chris Dodd’s financial reform bill was law and a firm like AIG or Lehman Brothers failed. Without a vote of Congress, the government could guarantee the firm’s debts or put money into the failing firm to keep it afloat and reduce the hit taken by creditors such as banks and pension funds that lent the firm money.
The temptation will be huge; after all, no government official will want to be blamed for allowing another post-Lehman meltdown. But so is the danger that risky behavior and bailouts will become more common.
This scenario is a key defect in the Dodd bill that the Senate has begun to debate. True, the shareholders of a failed financial firm would be wiped out, but creditors–the people who lent it the money that got it in trouble in the first place–will be bailed out. And this has real consequences, because if market participants know they can be rescued for imprudent behavior, they will likely behave more imprudently.
In coming days and weeks, as amendments to the Dodd bill are publicly offered and private negotiations proceed, removing the $50 billion bailout fund would be a good start. A more important way to address the problem of “too big to fail” is to have a resolution process centered on bankruptcy–and in which bailouts would require a vote of Congress. Bankruptcy would make it more likely that the division of resources would be in the hands of judges, not political officials using public money to support favored creditors. When GM and Chrysler were failing, the two firms were used as conduits for a transfer of TARP money to the auto unions.
Other aspects of the Dodd proposal are worrisome. One need not think too creatively to imagine a media-obsessed head of a new consumer financial protection agency looking to impose her will across all aspects of commerce, with attendant hits to lending for consumers and businesses, small and large. The idea of a systemic risk council empowered to gather data and ensure that no firm slips between regulatory cracks is useful–and on this there is bipartisan agreement. Yet regulators and bank supervisors have considerable power already and were not able to head off the recent crisis. Giving more power to a new regulatory agency is not a sure-fire solution and could have unintended negative consequences for jobs and growth.
The bill’s approach to taking derivatives trading out of banks is similarly problematic. This trading takes place in large financial institutions for a reason: These are the firms with the expertise and large balance sheets needed to carry it out. And while derivatives can be misused, the bottom line is that they have socially useful purposes, including for financial firms. A community bank, for example, might legitimately want to use derivatives to offset some of the risk it faces from its lending for housing and commercial real estate in a local community. By hobbling this activity, the approach espoused by Sen. Dodd and Sen. Blanche Lincoln threatens to increase rather than limit risk.
Administration officials dissolve into mumbles when asked about the derivatives piece of the bill, suggesting that they recognize the problem. Hopefully they will have the courage to fix this even if it gives the appearance of seeming to “weaken” the bill.
Finally, financial regulatory reform will not be complete without addressing the awkward status of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) whose loan guarantees contributed to the housing bubble behind the crisis. It was appropriate to take over Fannie and Freddie to avoid further risk to the financial sector, but the continued conservatorship of the two firms means that taxpayers remain on the hook for their losses, including losses suffered intentionally to support the administration’s public policy goals such as reducing foreclosures.
An appropriate future for Fannie and Freddie would focus them on the socially useful function of securitizing mortgages and thereby fostering housing liquidity. There might still be a role for a government backstop against another catastrophic decline in housing prices, but this public support should be made explicit and the GSEs should pay for it.
With the government standing behind Fannie and Freddie, their huge portfolios of mortgage-backed securities are no longer needed as a buyer of last resort for bundled mortgages to ensure that funding is available for housing. The portfolios were the channel through which Fannie and Freddie enjoyed private gains while imposing risks on taxpayers, and they were the source of systemic risk posed by the firms. The financial regulatory reform bill should ensure a new and sustainable model for Fannie and Freddie that makes explicit any public support for the firms and limits taxpayer exposure to future losses.
There is bipartisan agreement that financial reform is needed. But the details matter. On nonbank resolution, derivatives and consumer protection, the approach in the Dodd bill could well increase financial risks to the economy rather than heading them off. Fixing these issues, along with addressing the risks posed by Fannie and Freddie, will yield a reform that truly learns the lessons from the financial crisis.
Phillip Swagel is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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