Washington’s uneasy dance with Wall Street: 2011 in financial regulation
It was a long, hard slog this year for financial reform-- both for the federal agencies tasked with carrying out Wall Street reform and the politicians fighting over its future. Industry lobbyists swamped regulators in an effort to shape the new regulations, while Republicans tried to use the confirmation process and the budget to rein in Dodd-Frank. At the same time, outside events, both in the United States and Europe, added a new sense of urgency to the financial overhaul. Here’s a closer look at three biggest developments in 2011:
1) The battle over Wall Street reform largely shifted to the agencies who have to write the regulations. Though Dodd-Frank passed in July 2010, it only created a blueprint for the 400-odd regulations that represent the biggest financial-sector overhaul in recent history. They were initially slated to be finished by this summer, but it soon became clear that wasn’t going to happen.
Perhaps the most extreme and prominent example was the fight over the Volcker Rule, which was intended to cut down on speculative trading by firms. Originally three pages, the Volcker rule ballooned into a 300-page tome as regulators struggled to distinguish between trading that was needlessly speculative and transactions that were at the core of firms’ services to their customers. Lobbyists pushed for exceptions and loopholes that added to the complexity, spending more than $100 million in the first seven months of the year on Dodd-Frank advocacy. But internal disagreements also arose between the federal agencies that have overlapping responsibilities for carrying out the major parts of reform — five agencies, for example, are responsible for the Volcker rule alone.
The protracted process has soured even some Dodd-Frank supporters on parts of the law, and only 74 out of 400 regulations had been finalized by Dec. 1, according to an analysis by law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell. But that hasn’t stopped the regulators from pushing the ball forward — or from some early parts of the law from taking effect. New rules now limit the swipe fees that banks can charge retail merchants, albeit amid a strong backlash from the financial services industry. By the end of the year, the Federal Reserve had rolled out its proposal for how much capital banks will be required to back risky assets. So though it’s been a slow, at times painful process for those involved, Dodd-Frank is slowly inching toward implementation.
2) Republicans blocked nominations and funding to curb Dodd-Frank. In the meantime, Republicans have used different aspects of the legislative and political process to express their opposition to Dodd- Frank and slow the process down even further. Most notably, they preemptively blocked Elizabeth Warren from heading the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she helped create. Senate Republicans filibustered President Obama’s nominee for CFPB chief, Richard Cordray, blasting the agency as the epitome of government overreach. The GOP resistance kept the CFPB from fully getting off the ground in 2011 and signaled potential troubles for other nominations that will be key to implementing Wall Street reform. Dodd-Frank also became a rallying cry for the 2012 Republican presidential candidates, who almost unanimously vowed to the repeal the law entirely after taking office.
In a year in which federal spending and the deficit were at the fore, Republicans also used the budget process to tie the hands of regulators. Republicans pushed for significant budget cuts to both the Securities Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, two agencies taking on many new responsibilities under Dodd-Frank. Both agencies had complained that insufficient funds would hamper their ability to write and enforce the new financial regulations, needlessly prolonging and complicating the implementation process. Democrats ultimately managed to squeeze out a funding increase for the SEC, but the CFTC received 40 percent less funding for 2012 than Obama had wanted.
3) Financial crises outside the Beltway put the spotlight on Treasury, the Federal Reserve and regulators. First, and most significantly, the euro-zone crisis raised alarms about the potential fallout for the US economy, its financial sector, and the role of U.S. taxpayers. Dodd-Frank was intended to strengthen the stability of the U.S. financial system and better protect consumers. But as the law has only just begun to take effect, few of those tools and measures are in place, to the frustration of some of the legislation’s supporters. The United States, however, stepped up its support by lending to the European Central Bank, though the measure also raised concerns among some about the risk to U.S. taxpayers. Ultimately, the euro crisis triggered neither a global meltdown nor a U.S. financial crisis in 2011, largely due to our low exposure to the most volatile countries, although the threat remains present as Europe is still struggling to resolve its problems.
Second, two major Wall Street scandals had big reverberations. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s insider-trading case against Rajat Gupta, the former McKinsey managing director, was an early demonstration of the agency’s expanded powers under Dodd-Frank. In late October, the FBI arrested Gupta on charges of conspiracy and fraud, while the SEC filed suit on the same day. Regulators and law enforcement also played a leading role in investigating MF Global’s bankruptcy and $1.2 billion in customer funds that went missing under former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine’s leadership. Federal regulators were in the hot seat, pressed to prevent such debacles from happening in the future, and the CFTC passed firmer rules for futures trading in the early weeks of the investigation. Finally, Occupy Wall Street put pressure on the movement to rein in the country’s financiers and cast renewed skepticism on the government support that big banks received during the 2008 financial crisis.