Hillary Clinton’s Weak Plans for Changing Wall Street

She’s proposing tweaks when it needs an overhaul.

Scott Morgan / Reuters

The 2008 financial crisis handed Barack Obama a clear mandate to fix a broken system. But Obama and his key economic advisers, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, didn’t opt to go that route. Instead of undertaking structural reform, they proposed a long list of incremental improvements that eventually became the Dodd-Frank Act.

Seven years later, with her new proposals to reform Wall Street, Hillary Clinton is sticking with that strategy. There is plenty to feel vaguely positive about in Clinton’s plan: Tax high-frequency trading! Close the Volcker Rule loophole! Require firms to admit wrongdoing when agreeing to sweetheart settlements! Increase the maximum penalties that regulators can impose! What’s not to like?

Let’s start with what the Clinton plan isn’t. In less than two years, Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the Glass-Steagall Act, the Securities Act, the Securities Exchange Act, and the Federal Housing Act—defining pieces of legislation that overhauled the regulatory framework for mortgage lending, banking, and the securities markets.

By contrast, the Clinton plan is small-scale. It’s Dodd-Frank 2.0: a list of regulatory tweaks requiring various agencies to write complicated new rules governing obscure corners of the financial markets. Here are a few examples:

  • margin and collateral requirements on repurchase agreements

  • public disclosure requirements for repurchase agreements

  • increased reporting requirements for hedge funds and private equity funds

  • more transparency for exchange-traded funds

  • greater disclosure requirements for large banks

  • increased attention to cyber-preparedness by regulators

  • permanent funding for the SEC and CFTC

This is technocratic incrementalism, the idea that the best way to approach a very big problem—a complex, interconnected financial system anchored by large banks that are so poorly managed they are not even aware of the risks they are taking on—is with better disclosure here and stronger incentives there. That was the philosophy of Dodd-Frank, which, with the exception of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, largely amounted to giving existing regulators a handful of complicated new tools (living wills, hedge fund registration, the Office of Financial Research, derivatives clearinghouse regulation, and so on). Now Clinton is offering more of the same.

But what about the large, highly interconnected banks whose failure cost 8 million jobs and trillions of dollars of lost output? Here Clinton offers two promising-sounding ideas. One is to charge a “risk fee” on large banks that rely on volatile short-term funding, which could evaporate in a crisis. The other is to give regulators the power to force large financial institutions to “reorganize, downsize, or break apart” if they cannot manage themselves effectively.

Unfortunately, there’s less here than meets the eye. The Federal Reserve and the Financial Stability Oversight Council can already force a large financial institution to scale back its operations if it poses a grave risk to the financial system. (That’s the Kanjorski Amendment, or Section 121 of the Dodd-Frank Act). And per Dodd-Frank, regulators also have the power to make life difficult for systemically important financial institutions in all sorts of ways—they can impose capital requirements, leverage limits, liquidity requirements, disclosures, or short-term debt limits. (For the most part, though, these tools haven’t been widely used.) In short, when it comes to too-big-to-fail banks, Clinton is proposing very little beyond what currently exists—nor does she explain how she will get regulators to use the powers they already have.

It sure sounds good, though—which is the whole point. Clinton is losing ground to Bernie Sanders, of all people, whose biggest political asset is his willingness to say what he actually believes. In response, Clinton is trying to portray herself as the responsible adult who really understands the complexity of the financial system and how to fix it—as opposed to an ignorant Luddite who just wants to dismantle things. Hence the long list of regulatory “enhancements”: The premise of Clinton’s plan is that sweeping reforms such as restoring Glass-Steagall are childish, so instead she has to use complexity to communicate seriousness.

If the past seven years—the ones since the financial crisis—have demonstrated anything about the financial system, however, it’s that regulators have little chance of containing the risks posed by large banks such as JPMorgan and Citigroup. Even the CEOs of those banks, by their own admission, cannot grasp the risks they face. What do the London Whale, money laundering, LIBOR fixing, currency manipulation, bribery, the Bernie Madoff scandal, and foreclosure fraud have in common? The CEOs of the banks involved—according to their own statements—had no idea they were going on.

Why do politicians persist in thinking they can change the way the world works by forcing regulators to write some more rules and then try to enforce them? What’s needed are structural changes that reduce the sources of risk directly—for example, by breaking up large banks or increasing capital requirements by a factor of three—not more regulatory discretion. Yes, those types of structural changes will be impossible to get through a Republican House, but so will every item on Clinton’s wish list. Change will take years, and it will take leaders who are willing to make the case over the long term.

Clinton’s supporters will argue that their candidate understands what she is up against, and that’s why her strategy is to give incremental powers to regulators and encourage them to use those powers (even if they aren’t actually new). But that was the Obama-Geithner-Summers strategy, and it has had little impact on either the concentration or the mismanagement of the financial system.

In the end, the Clinton plan looks like a laundry list of marginally better-than-nothing reforms that are likely to vanish into an abyss of rule-writing and regulatory dithering. If she wanted to position herself as the heir to President Obama—who talked a good game while leaving Wall Street largely as he found it—she couldn’t have done a better job.