Nocera Blasts Obama’s Regulation Reform

Joe Nocera of The New York Times has the must-read of the day on Obama’s regulation-reform plan. Let’s just say he isn’t impressed.

And really, why should he be? As Nocera says, Obama ain’t exactly pulling an FDR here:

Rather, the Obama plan is little more than an attempt to stick some new regulatory fingers into a very leaky financial dam rather than rebuild the dam itself. Without question, the latter would be more difficult, more contentious and probably more expensive. But it would also have more lasting value.

We know somebody’s being sandbagged all right.

The problems, Nocera says, are in what the plan ignores. It does a whole lotta nothing about Too Big to Fail, for instance, which means we can expect to pay tens of billions of dollars down the line (probably not too far down that line) to bail out the giants again.

This is what happens when you build your team from inside the bubble. The only member that appears to be able to crain his neck outside is Paul Volcker, who’s become more like the waterboy than a starter on Obama’s economic team—an incredible dis for someone’s who is generally accepted as the best Fed chairman of all time. He appears to at least halfway get it:

In a recent speech in China, the former Federal Reserve chairman — and current Obama adviser — Paul Volcker called on the government to limit the functions of any financial institution, like the big banks, that will always be reliant on the taxpayer should they get into trouble. Why, for instance, should they be allowed to trade for their own account — reaping huge profits and bonuses if they succeed — if the government has to bail them out if they make big mistakes, Mr. Volcker asked.

Why indeed. And why should their even be institutions too big to fail? Nocera says even some at the Fed, of all places, agree they shouldn’t:

Many experts, even at the Federal Reserve, think that the country should not allow banks to become too big to fail. Some of them suggest specific economic disincentives to prevent growing too big and requirements that would break them up before reaching that point.

Yet the Obama plan accepts the notion of “too big to fail” — in the plan those institutions are labeled “Tier 1 Financial Holding Companies” — and proposes to regulate them more “robustly.” The idea of creating either market incentives or regulation that would effectively make banking safe and boring — and push risk-taking to institutions that are not too big to fail — isn’t even broached.

Nocera also criticizes Obama’s plan for derivatives, which would require standard ones to be exchange-traded, but allow customized ones to avoid that.

But standard, plain vanilla derivatives are not what caused so much trouble for the world’s financial system. Rather it was the so-called bespoke derivatives — customized, one-of-a-kind products that generated enormous profits for institutions like A.I.G. that created them, and, in the end, generated enormous damage to the financial system.

This assertion could have used some more fleshing out. Explain, please. Nocera just quotes a guy saying derivatives ought to be subject to “antigambling statutes,” which would kill bespoke derivatives. How? Why are they different than regular ones as far as gambling goes?

But it’s overall a good show here, and the Times is good to give this important piece play on page one.

One key to understanding why this reform doesn’t go nearly far enough is that it doesn’t really tick off the bankers, Nocera writes. That sounds like a reasonable metric to me.

Here’s a Wall Street Journal headline this morning:

Relief and Resignation Spread Across Wall Street

If they’re resigned to it, that means it must not be that tough. Even more evidence: Some “insiders” say it’s weak sauce:

Some Wall Street insiders criticized the Obama plan as timid, citing a retreat from a proposal by former President George W. Bush’s administration to merge the Securities and Exchange Commission with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

It’s so timid, it barely touches the credit-raters, which is astonishing. Here’s a separate Times story:

While the administration is proposing some modest changes, none addresses what many see as the central problem: Services like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s are paid by the companies whose securities they are evaluating. It is as if Hollywood studios paid movie critics to review their would-be blockbusters.

Good for reporter Eric Dash for focusing on this and bringing the heavy criticism.

Here’s a nice summation from Nocera:

Everywhere you look in the plan, you see the same thing: additional regulation on the margin, but nothing that amounts to a true overhaul.

After the biggest financial failure in eighty years—actually, probably the biggest ever—that just doesn’t cut it.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.