Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Congress’ solution to the financial crisis: Fire, aim, ready!

Commentary by James H. Shott

Following the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. Congress rushed in on its white horse to save the day. Its solution: a huge bill designed to reign in those naughty big banks and Wall Street firms whose greedy executives created this crisis.

Never mind that Congress tried to fix problems a few times before, and in doing so contributed substantially to this crisis, and that many of its current members supported those efforts. Undaunted by previous failures, Congress yet again created a solution that would prevent this from happening again: the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, better known as Dodd-Frank, after co-authors Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and the new law has made things so much better, right?

“It's in the aggregate, in weighing benefits against costs and in pondering the unintended consequences, that Dodd-Frank starts to look like a threat to our financial system.” So wrote Neil Weinberg in American Banker a year ago. “At 2,319 pages, including 250 amendments, and with vastly more rulemaking to come, Dodd-Frank's costs are only now starting to mount,” he said.

“Whether all this will make our financial system safer is an open question. Even Barney Frank would likely concede that the hugely expensive Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, of which he is a fan, has not had the intended effect of wiping out corporate wrongdoing. What's not in dispute is that Dodd-Frank will impose a major drag on the business of commercial banking and have numerous knock-off effects that were neither intended nor necessarily desirable.”

Among those possible unintended consequences: Fewer and bigger banks, as the cost of compliance forces banks to merge; higher consumer costs, as banks must pass on their higher regulatory costs to their customers; and fewer mortgages, as banks flee the mortgage business in reaction to onerous elements of the law.

A month later co-author Sen. Chris Dodd, who retired after the law passed the Congress, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Five myths about Dodd-Frank,” in which he defends the law against criticisms, although different criticisms from those Neil Weinberg discussed. “After a worldwide financial meltdown — and a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout — the need for common-sense financial reforms was clear. But now, even though the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 … is only beginning to take effect, critics are launching false attacks against the law in an effort to undermine it. Whether they are intentionally misleading or just misguided, they are wrong about the law’s purpose and impact.”

Sen. Dodd may not view his work as harmful from his disconnected and distant perspective, but the people who are directly affected by it do.

American Bankers Association President Frank Keating, had this to say about the effects of the law in a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in June of last year: “While I appreciate that you share our desire that the law not operate to the harm of community banks, I must report and emphasize that in actual practice the Dodd-Frank Act is already operating to the detriment of community banks and promises community banks further harm. … I have spent the past six months meeting leaders of thousands of these small banks across the country. There is uniform concern, anxiety, frustration and anger among these community leaders, who feel betrayed by Washington,” the letter said.

“Though Congress and administration officials have attempted to reassure these bankers that Dodd-Frank is not about them – that they are held harmless by the law – the reality is quite different,” he continued. “True, the law on paper distinguishes between banks by size. But its $10 billion threshold – used to “exempt” smaller institutions from provisions in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Durbin debit-interchange amendment – is arbitrary and artificial and is not working.”

A truly dire warning about Dodd-Frank’s likely effects comes from former Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), Bill Isaac, who told Larry Kudlow on CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report” in March of this year that community banks have a lot to fear from the law’s financial reforms. “The bigger banks can absorb it, the smaller banks can’t,” he said. “I would not be surprised to see half of the community banks in this country go out of business if we don’t give some relief from Dodd-Frank for them.”

Community banks are owned and operated by people in their community, and still possess that local focus and personal touch that larger institutions usually do not have. They tend to focus on the needs of the communities where the bank has branches and offices. The people who make lending decisions understand local needs and are themselves members of the community.

Community banks did not create the problem, but as Bill Isaac, Neil Weinberg and Frank Keating demonstrate, they are suffering under the regulations that were supposed to target those who did.

If things at your community bank change for the worse, be sure to blame the U.S. Congress instead of the bank. Better yet, why not pressure members of Congress to takes steps to save those valuable local businesses before it’s too late.

Cross-posted from Observations

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