US Financial Regulations: Not Perfect, but Maybe a Beginning

Regarding the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, one can debate whether the “glass is half empty or half full,” but the verdict may not be known for years. If the Act is the beginning of the end of years of laissez-faire and deregulation, then ultimately the verdict will be positive. In the 1930s, the New Deal legislation was not accomplished through one law, but through a series of laws and regulatory measures.

I fully understand Jeff Madrick’s critique. The Act’s approach is far from being perfect, as it focuses more on plugging holes than on creating a new paradigm for financial markets. But, it has several redeeming features: reducing proprietary trading by banks; shifting an important part of derivative trading to central counterparties; providing consumer protections; and requiring reporting by extractive industries in ways that can significantly advance transparency.

European reforms are still nascent. Many laws are still in the pipeline – quarrelling between member state governments and the European Parliament has postponed the timetable for passage. In addition, reforms face opposition everywhere, especially from the financial services lobby. To top things off, the European Union struggles with its inadequate institutional structure when it comes to dealing with the financial crisis.

Therefore, Europe is still battling over whether the new European supervisory agencies will have only weak coordinating functions or enforcement powers. Member state governments, mainly in Britain, but also in Germany, are unwilling to transfer the necessary powers and competencies to the European level. Still more ridiculous is the fact that the planned supervisory authorities for banks, insurance companies and securities will probably be set up in different countries – thus weakening their capacity to work together closely. This demonstrates how national egotism impedes rational solutions.

The US reform – even with its weaknesses – puts pressure on the European Union to follow suit. The Dodd-Frank-Act is a clear sign to European countries and others that their corporate subsidiaries in the US will be imperiled if they fail to adopt similar provisions.

Without a doubt, one of the disappointing facts is that the compromise struck in the US Congress does not include the levy on banks intended to raise up to $90 billion. The intention — to make the institutions responsible for the crisis foot the bill for it — was not realized and taxpayers are left “holding the bag.” Comparable resistance to proposals is evident in Europe. For instance, some European governments are blocking the introduction of a European Financial Transaction Tax. To me, this is, together with the loopholes in the Volcker rule, the clearest example of how powerful banks fend off reform.

The priorities for the future are clear. In my opinion, we have to work more intensively on the root cause of weak legislation – namely, regulatory capture and lobbying. We find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle: As long as the financial sector retains its influence on financial market reform, regulators will not enact and enforce the desired rules. But to reduce this influence, we would need financial market reform to diminish the sector’s grip on its regulators. As the Dodd-Frank Act opens the way for hundreds of new rules to be set by the regulators within the next 6 to 36 months, a large part of the work still lies ahead and its quality will depend very much on how much regulators conform to the industry’s will.

In Europe, lawmakers of all the major political parties called out for help in countering the power of the financial services industry. As this “call” states, it is fine if “[financial] companies make their point of view known and have discussions on a regular basis with legislators. But it seems to us that the asymmetry between the power of this lobbying activity and the lack of counter-expertise poses a danger to democracy. Indeed, this lobbying activity should be balanced by that of others. […] As European elected officials in charge of financial and banking regulations, we therefore call on civil society (NGOs, trade unions, academic researchers, think-tanks…) to organize to create one (or more) non-governmental organization(s) capable of developing a counter-expertise on activities carried out on financial markets by the major operators (banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, etc …) and to convey effectively this analysis to the media. […]”. We hope for a strong response to this call.

Dr. Gerhard Schick is a member of the German Parliament and spokesperson for financial issues for the faction of Alliance 90/The Greens. He deals mainly with financial market regulation, national and international tax policy as well as consumer protection on financial markets.