Monday, September 7, 2009

Is Time Running Out On Financial Reform?

With so many issues on the plate of legislators, is financial reform falling down the list of priorities for lawmakers? Economists Alan Blinder and Mark Thoma express concerns that the window of opportunity for financial reform may be closing. See the following post from Economist's View for more.

Alan Blinder is worried that the will to reform the financial sector is fading:

The Wait for Financial Reform, by Alan S. Blinder, Commentary, NY Times: ...We are barely emerging from the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s. From last September to March, it was downright frightening. Yet by the time Congress left town for its summer recess, financial reform appeared to be losing steam. ... Why is the pulse of reform so faint? I see five main reasons:

IT’S YESTERDAY’S PROBLEM People have an amazing capacity to forget. Our financial system is now functioning much better than it was in March or last fall. ... You can see public attention shifting elsewhere... I want to scream, “Stop!” The financial regulatory system needs fixing, and to accomplish it, Congress will have to hold a lot of feet to a lot of fires. It’s not clear that many members have the stomach for that.

LOST IN THE CROWD The problem of short attention spans has a first cousin: the overcrowded legislative agenda... There is a budget to pass, health insurance to reform, energy to cap and trade, schools to overhaul, two wars to watch over and others to avoid — and more. Amid all of this, the Treasury has sent Congress 16 pieces of financial reform legislation... What are the chances that these 16 bills will surface to the top of the legislative agenda?

THE MOTHER OF ALL LOBBIES Almost everything becomes lobbied to death in Washington. In the case of financial reform, the money at stake is mind-boggling, and one financial industry after another will go to the mat to fight any provision that might hurt it. ...

BUREAUCRATIC INFIGHTING Industry lobbyists are not the only problem. Regulatory deck chairs need to be rearranged, and various government agencies are scrambling to maintain or expand their turfs. ..The bureaucratic turf wars have grown intense...

A LACK OF FOCUS Perhaps worst of all, it’s hard to keep the public engaged in something as complex, arcane and — frankly — as boring as financial regulation. ... Today, the electorate has a vague sense that it has been ripped off and that change is needed. But the sentiment is unfocused and inchoate — with these two exceptions: People clearly want greater consumer protection and restrictions on executive pay.

By no coincidence, those are the two pieces of financial reform that seem most likely to survive the Congressional sausage grinder. Don’t get me wrong; we need both. But the two don’t constitute the entirety of reform, or even its most important parts.

I’d attach greater importance to at least three major Treasury proposals that may wind up on the cutting-room floor:

First, we need a systemic risk monitor or regulator. ... In my last column, I explained ... why the Fed should get the job.

Second, we need a new mechanism to euthanize or rehabilitate giant financial institutions whose failure could threaten the whole system. ...

Third, something serious must be done to tame — though not to destroy — the derivatives markets. ...

And there is a great deal more... So let’s get on with the job...

Here's my view on the tension between imposing regulation before the will to do so fades, and delaying to avoid upsetting already unsettled financial markets and to carefully consider the changes before putting them into place:

While it's possible that regulation will go overboard in response to the crisis, there are powerful interests that will resist regulatory changes that limit their opportunities to make money (and Nobel prize winning economists willing to back them up), so my worry is that regulation will not go far enough, particularly with people ... arguing that we should wait for recovery before making any big regulatory changes to the financial sector. They may be right that now is not the time to change regulations because it could create additional destabilizing uncertainty in financial markets, and that waiting will give us time to see how the crisis plays out and to consider the regulatory moves carefully. But as we wait, passions will fade, defenses will mount, the media will respond to the those opposed to regulation by making it a he said, she said issue that fogs things up and confuses the public as well as politicians, and by the time it is all over there's every chance that legislation will pass that is nothing but a facade with no real teeth that can change the behaviors that go us into this mess.
This post has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.

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