WASHINGTON ― As the nation’s capital has been consumed by the frothing chaos of President Donald Trump’s administration — botched Muslim bans, sudden personnel changes and the chief executive’s erratic behavior — a steady current of traditional right-wing orthodoxy is sweeping through the federal government. Whatever happens with Russia or the FBI, this tide is washing away former President Barack Obama’s second-greatest legislative achievement: Wall Street reform. And it’s all happening while you’re paying attention to something else.
Trump campaigned on conflicting promises about big banks. One minute, he was going to stick it to the corrupt financial insiders who had wrecked the middle class. The next, he’d vow to liberate our benevolent princes of capital from crushing regulations Obama had cruelly imposed.
Some of Trump’s populist rhetoric followed him into office. But the actual governing has been pure deregulation. Last week, a council of top regulators quietly met to discuss the future of the Volcker rule ― the most important structural change Obama established for the financial system. A few days later, a freshly installed Trump official went further, threatening to defang the rule “unilaterally” by “reinterpreting” its entire purpose.
The rule is basically dead, Keefe Bruyette & Woods analyst Brian Gardner wrote in a note to clients last Monday: “Examiners can start giving banks the benefit of the doubt regarding compliance with Volcker almost immediately.”
The Volcker rule was conceived as an update to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which banned traditional banks from engaging in risky, high-stakes securities ventures, which became the domain of investment banks, hedge funds and other firms that didn’t rely on federal support. Until its repeal in the 1990s, Glass-Steagall put an end to many conflicts of interest that had plagued banking during the Roaring Twenties, and prevented government subsidies from flowing into speculative securities schemes, which made it harder for big crazy asset bubbles to accumulate.
Glass-Steagall was as powerful as a sledgehammer, but only slightly more precise. The Volcker rule tried to draw a finer distinction. Instead of banning banks from the securities business outright, it only barred proprietary trading. Banks were no longer allowed to make reckless bets for their own accounts, but other types of trading to help clients meet legitimate market needs would be permitted. Done right, the Volcker rule would have been a technocratic improvement on Glass-Steagall, providing all the benefits of its New Deal predecessor without its costs.
It reflected the broader approach Obama and congressional Democrats took with Wall Street reform, treating the financial crisis as a mechanical malfunction best corrected by expert regulators who could write specific rules for nuanced situations. The economic system, they believed, could not be properly repaired with blunt instruments or lines in the sand.
Twenty-first-century banking is indeed a nasty thicket of money and numbers. But the financial crisis was more than a technocratic breakdown. It was an abuse of power. And the 2010 Dodd-Frank law didn’t really try to reshape the political dynamic between Wall Street and Washington. A handful of financial titans retained control over multitrillion-dollar institutions tasked with socially essential functions. They were not prosecuted for fraud, they continued to lobby both Congress and federal agencies with ferocity, and their firms continued to provide lucrative jobs for political operatives from both parties. Against this mountain, Obama set the willpower of individual regulators.
It didn’t work. Consider the Volcker rule, which ran into trouble almost immediately. “One of the world’s largest banking firms” enlisted the Podesta Group ― a lobbying powerhouse founded by Democratic power brokers John and Tony Podesta ― to water down the rule in Congress. The Podesta Group still boasts about the effort on its website, under “Wins.”
“The client’s desired language on the ‘Volcker Rule’ was passed into law,” reads the page, titled “Challenging Wall Street Reform To Defend Jobs.” The lobbying barrage continued at the regulatory agencies, whose final version of the rule stretched to 300 pages of loopholes, exemptions and special considerations. Bank lobbyists succeeded in delaying the implementation of key elements of Volcker for years. Now the beast is being put out of its misery by Trump appointees with close ties to the financial industry, demonstrating that Wall Street’s political clout remains as strong as ever. Volcker’s destroyers will include former bank lawyer Keith Noreika, along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, who served as Goldman’s bailout attorney.
A similar fate will soon follow for the derivatives regulations and other rules written during the Obama years. Even capital requirements, the simplest and last line of defense against bad bank behavior, are under assault following the resignation of Federal Reserve Governor Daniel Tarullo. We will never know if Obama’s tweaks and adjustments would have prevented or ameliorated another financial crisis. Today, big banks are bigger than they were before the crash, and are returning to pre-crash levels of oversight. The potential for financial turmoil under an erratic president is just as strong as the potential for foreign policy dislocation.
The one element of Dodd-Frank that will likely survive the Trump presidency is also the only aspect that seriously restructured the power relationship between government and finance. The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is important not because it involves a host of complicated new rules ― stealing from customers was illegal before, during and after the crisis ― but because it changes the way these protections are enforced. Prior to Obama, consumer banking products were regulated by five different agencies that competed with each other for “assessment” fees paid by the banks they regulated. This gave banks political power over their regulators ― an agency that was too tough on consumer protection risked losing its banks, and the funding they brought, to another regulator.
Obama scrapped this regime in favor of a single consumer finance overseer, the CFPB, and charged lifelong consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren with setting up the agency and hiring critical personnel. This established a new power center in Washington capable of challenging not only big banks, but also broken bureaucracy. When Obama’s Education Department turned a blind eye to student loan abuses, the CFPB took action. It has returned over $11 billion in ill-gotten bank gains to customers since its inception.
So the next meltdown probably won’t be caused by consumer fraud. Other than that, we’re pretty screwed.