Anat Admati: Regulatory reform effort is an unfocused, complex mess

Telling it like it is. Anat Admati is Finance and Economics Professor at Stanford GSB and coauthor of The Bankers’ New Clothes.

Anat Admati

The financial system is not serving society well right now, certainly not as well as it can. It is a drag on the economy. Finance is fraught with governance problems. Free markets don’t solve these problems. Effective laws and regulation are essential.

……the regulatory reform effort is an unfocused, complex mess, both in design and in implementation. Some regulations end up as wasteful charades. They provide full employment and revolving opportunities for numerous lawyers, consultants, and regulators without producing enough benefits for society to justify the costs. Some of the complaints from the industry about these regulations have merit. In this category I put living wills, stress tests, risk weights, TLACs/cocos/bailinable debt (whatever the term for today), and liquidity coverage ratio. I am also concerned that, as implemented, central clearing of derivatives does not reduce, and may even increase, the concentration of dangerous risk. In all these contexts we see the pretense of action, the illusion of “science,” a false sense of safety, over-optimistic assessments of progress, and counterproductive distortions [emphasis added].

Lost in this mess are simpler, more straightforward regulations that would counter the incentives for recklessness and bring enormous benefits to society by making the system safer and healthier, as well as reducing unnecessary, unproductive risk that is a key source of system fragility, and the many distortions……..

Banks are not acting in society’s interests but their own. Not even primarily in the interests of shareholders but those of senior management. And they are doing their best to frustrate, obfuscate and capture regulators.

Finance is about money and power. Money and power can corrupt. So unlike in the airline business, in finance it is possible for the industry, regulators and politicians, to harm and endanger, to spin narratives and cover up the harm, and to be willfully blind, without any accountability. DoJ and the SEC must do their job, but they can’t deal with nonsense and capture.

So the biggest challenge in regulation is political. The details hardly matter if there is no political will. Unfortunately, most politicians put other objectives ahead of having a stable and healthy financial system. Ordinary people, meanwhile, may not be aware of what is going on or get confused by the spin. Not enough people understand why regulation is essential and what type of regulation makes sense.

What can be done? Here are some concrete ideas. First, increasing the pay of regulators may reduce revolving door incentives. Second, effective regulators might be industry veterans who are not inclined to go back. Third, we must try to reduce the role of money in politics.

To fix this, we need to break the feedback loop between Wall Street and government — the revolving door between regulators and the financial sector and between lobbyists and elected representatives. Otherwise the system will remain hijacked to enrich a few at the expense of the many.

Read more at Making Financial Regulations Work for Society: Comments by Anat Admati | Finance and Society INET Conference

Washington Inc.

This extract is from a 2011 opinion I wrote titled Has democracy failed us or have we failed it?

Elections are an expensive business and no candidate is likely to achieve re-election without financial backers, making them especially vulnerable to outside influence. The finance industry alone made $63 million in campaign contributions to Federal Candidates during the 2010 electoral cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That will buy you a lot of influence on the Hill, but is merely the tip of the iceberg. Interest groups spent $3.5 billion in that year on lobbying Congress and federal agencies ($473 million from the finance sector). While that money does not flow directly to candidates it acts as an enticing career path/retirement plan for both Representatives and senior staffers.

The revolving door between Capitol Hill and the big lobbying firms parachutes former elected officials and staffers into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists — while infiltrating their best and brightest into positions within government; a constant exchange of power, influence and money. More than 75 percent of the 363 former senators or representatives end up employed by lobbying firms, either as lobbyists or advisors.

Revolving doors continue to plague Washington and financial market regulators. Enforcing lengthy “restraint of trade” periods between the two roles would restrict this. Preventing politicians from joining lobbying firms for two to three years — and financial regulators from joining Wall Street for a similar period — would reduce the risk of “captive regulators”.