WASHINGTON, DC – America’s financial sector has shown renewed strength in recent months – political strength, that is – by undermining most of the sensible proposals for banking reform that remain on the table. If we are still making any progress at all, it is because of the noble efforts of a small number of United States senators.
Most notable has been the work of Senator Ted Kaufman, a Democrat from Delaware (yes, a pro-business state), who has pressed tirelessly to fix the most egregious problems in the US financial sector. Kaufman understands that successful reform requires three ingredients: arguments that persuade, the ability to bring colleagues along, and a good deal of luck in the form of events that highlight problems at just the right time. On two fronts, Kaufman has – against long odds – actually managed to make substantial steps.
Long before it became fashionable, Kaufman persisted with the idea that the US real estate boom was fueled in part by pervasive fraud within the mortgage-securitization-derivatives complex, effectively at the heart of Wall Street. This thesis is now gaining much broader traction – major newspapers now report a broadening criminal probe by the federal government – and by New York’s state attorney general – into the US financial sector’s residential lending and related securities practices.
With Senators Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley, Kaufman worked last year to pass a bill providing timely resources to federal law enforcement agencies working on recent financial fraud. More recently, Kaufman was devastating in his cross-examination of Goldman Sachs executives. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the subcommittee that heard their testimony, evidently seeing eye to eye with Kaufman, was just as tough after a year-long investigation of Washington Mutual, Goldman, and the abject failures of bank regulators and credit rating agencies.
Kaufman scored an even bigger coup with his warnings about the dangers of the explosive growth of high-frequency trading, which is little understood by America’s main financial watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and poses systemic market risk. His concerns appear to have been vindicated by the 20-minute shutdown of trading in New York on May 6, when the stock market completely failed in its most basic function: price discovery between buyers and sellers.
We do not yet know what combination of black-box computer programs and electronic trading algorithms, interacting across more than 50 market centers, caused this catastrophe. But our lack of knowledge itself confirms how far our regulatory and surveillance capabilities have fallen behind “financial innovation.”
Kaufman’s approach – with speeches on the Senate floor as a central feature – seemed irrelevant or even quaint to critics even a few weeks ago. No significant Wall Street voices acknowledged his concerns – preferring instead to praise the equity markets as a shining example of well-functioning technology.
Now people get it. As Senator Mark Warner graciously acknowledged, “The Senator from Delaware sounded an early warning signal that the massive amounts of investments that had been made by certain firms to try to get what appears to be a fractional millisecond advantage in the trading process might come back and haunt us all… I’ve been proud to follow his lead.”
The SEC was once a great and powerful independent agency. It fell on hard times in recent decades and is only beginning to get its act together under new leadership. Yet it still does not routinely collect the data that it needs – trades by time and customer – to understand the actions and impact of large traders. Kaufman has consistently pressed them to do more – and do it much faster; to be sure, they and many others are now listening.
On a third issue, the results so far are mixed. Kaufman championed the case for making America’s biggest banks smaller, as part of comprehensive financial-reform efforts. His advocacy helped build support and forced a Senate floor vote on an amendment, co-sponsored with Senator Sherrod Brown that would have imposed a hard cap on banks’ size and leverage (debt relative to assets).
The amendment was moderate and entirely reasonable, yet it went down to defeat, 33-61, also on May 6. It might have gained more support just a few days later – after senators witnessed the bailout of the giant eurozone banks. Still, it has strengthened backing for another amendment, sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley and Carl Levin, which would restrict proprietary trading by megabanks for their own account – coincidentally a practice that is presumed to be a large and “dark” part of high-speed trading.
The deeper and overriding point of Kaufman’s critique of our system is the need for tough laws. We cannot merely rely on regulators to do the right thing. In particular, regulators have no chance to look over the horizon and act preventively when markets are opaque, and when powerful Wall Street interests (and their Capitol Hill allies) can circle the wagons and claim that there is no problem.
Unfortunately, despite his newfound prominence on the national stage, Kaufman will be out of office at the end of this year – he was appointed to fill Vice President Joe Biden’s seat at the end of 2008 and committed at that time not to run for re-election.
When he goes, dangerous elements on Wall Street will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief. Let’s hope that by then he will have helped move the consensus permanently among his colleagues – preparing the ground for further congressional action aimed at a serious tightening of safeguards over the financial sector.
Kaufman’s lasting legacy will be a simple and powerful idea that reasonable people increasingly find to be self-evident: relying on deregulation and self-interest in today’s complex, opaque markets will manifestly fail to produce a reasonable allocation of capital or support entrepreneurship and growth. We must write and enforce laws that restore credibility to our financial markets.
Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, is co-founder of a leading economics blog, http://BaselineScenario.com, a professor at MIT Sloan, and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. www.project-syndicate.org