Meet the Justice League of bank regulation.
In a world ruled by powerful bankers, where politicians and regulators are compromised and weak, only a vigilante team of heroes with super-regulatory powers can keep us safe from rolling financial crises. Hopefully, at least.
This team, called the Systemic Risk Council, will be led by the financial world's Wonder Woman, Sheila Bair, former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Since the financial crisis, Bair has earned a reputation as one of the few bank regulators not completely captured by the industry. She has been less likely than most to fall on her fainting couch at the thought of breaking up the mega-banks, curbing banker pay or other taboo subjects.
The goal of the Council -- which is not a government agency but a private group -- will be to look out for risks building up in the financial system and to keep pressure on regulators to curb risk-taking by giant banks. Such a group already exists, under the auspices of the Treasury Department: The Financial Stability Oversight Council, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But it shockingly hasn't exactly been the fiercest watchdog. Nor have other bank regulators such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, recently under fire for its "oversight" of JPMorgan Chase while that bank lost billions in the derivatives market.
"The great challenge is to devise a system to identify risks that threaten market stability before they become a danger to the general public," Sheila Bair said in a press release. "As evidenced by the 2008 crisis and even recent headlines, we need a more effective and efficient early-warning system to detect issues that jeopardize the functioning of U.S. financial markets before they disrupt credit flows to the real economy. And two of the most critical tasks are how to impose greater market discipline on excess risk taking and effectively end the doctrine too-big-too-fail."
Joining Bair will be Brooksley Born, who single-handedly fought Alan Greenspan and the forces of deregulation in the 1990s. They didn't listen to her warnings about unregulated derivatives, and the world paid a dear price in the financial crisis.
The world is still at risk of another crisis, with many key Dodd-Frank financial reforms lobbied half to death or banished to limbo. Regulators still don't have the financing, motivation or technological chops to keep much of a watch on financial markets and avert the next crisis. Memories of the last disaster have been eroded by the banking lobby's fiendish Memory-Erasing Ray. That's where Bair's team comes in.
"Despite the magnitude of the financial crisis, prospects for major reform of regulatory systems are inadequate and vague," John Rogers, CEO of CFA Institute, which is sponsoring the SRC along with the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in the release. He's also an SRC member. "This council will serve as an essential sounding board for systemic risk reforms focused on strong investor protection, and offer a critical voice to promote the enforcement of regulations, financial disclosure and transparency."
A senior advisor to the SRC will be former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who fought runaway inflation to the death in the 1980s and came up with the Volcker Rule against federally insured banks gambling with their own money.
The group will also include some voices that may be friendlier to the banking industry, including former Republican Senators Chuck Hagel and Alan Simpson, former Citibank CEO John Reed and President George W. Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill. That raises the risk that the group will be mired in conflict or drift toward centrist mush that doesn't help anybody.
But a little tension always makes superhero teams more interesting. And the group's mere existence is encouraging to those who want to keep Wall Street on a short tether -- though it's also stark evidence of just how badly our actual, elected leaders have failed to do anything to prevent the next crisis.