President Trump directed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to begin two new reviews of banking rules, wading deeper into a deregulation effort that the White House has promised will gut Obama-era regulations on Wall Street.
The first new review directs the Treasury Department to look at a process known as “orderly liquidation review,” which was set up by the 2010 Wall Street regulation law Dodd-Frank to create a process for winding down a large, failing financial company in a way that protects taxpayers from large bailouts such as the ones paid out in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
The second ordered review will look at a separate part of the Dodd-Frank law that called on federal regulators to identify which financial institutions were large enough to merit enhanced regulation, as their collapse could destabilize the economy as a whole. This provision was a direct response to the near collapse of massive insurance company AIG in 2008, which triggered a $182 billion taxpayer bailout.
In a signing ceremony at the Treasury Department, Trump said he wanted Mnuchin to “review the damaging Dodd-Frank regulations that failed to hold Wall Street firms accountable.”
He added that the financial regulations that were put in place after the financial crisis have “done really in many cases the opposite of what they were supposed to. These regulations enshrine 'too big to fail' and encourage risky behavior. We are taking steps to make our economy more fair and prosperous for all.”
Additionally, the president signed an executive order calling for a review of recent tax rules issued in 2016 under President Barack Obama.
There are now three separate reviews of banking rules — Trump also asked Mnuchin for a broader review in February — but the White House’s steps so far have been uneven, leaving many questioning its approach and strategy.
Administration officials have signaled they want to crack down on Wall Street, but some of the steps they have taken suggest they will be clearing back Wall Street regulations. And after blasting Goldman Sachs during the campaign, Trump has picked several veterans of the firm for senior roles in his administration. Adding to the confusion, the White House has identified regulations that it says are impeding lending but not moved to undo them.
Meanwhile, House Republicans are hoping to vote in May on a plan to roll back much of Dodd-Frank. The first Treasury Department review of banking regulations won’t be submitted to the White House until June, and these two reviews won’t be complete until later in the year.
Mnuchin said for the first time Friday that the White House supported the House Republican effort. He suggested it would not impede the reviews the White House has launched on its own.
“We are supportive of [House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling] bringing forward this legislation and look forward to working with … Congress,” he told reporters on Friday.
The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — passed with Obama's signature in response to the financial crisis — became law with almost zero Republican support. It created a new consumer watchdog agency, put new restrictions on risk at large banks and made changes to address the way some financial companies tried to shop for lighter regulation. But many community banks have complained that the regulations imposed too many burdens on them, and large banks have complained about what they see as excessive compliance costs that get in the way of lending.
Under the law's “orderly liquidation” provision, the FDIC could take over a failing firm and manage its collapse to ensure its problems don’t bleed into the rest of the financial system.
Many congressional Republicans want to eliminate this provision, arguing it would allow regulators to keep failing institutions operating with taxpayer money. Mnuchin, briefing reporters on Friday, said the review could look at whether the regular bankruptcy process should be changed to handle such liquidations.
“President Trump is absolutely committed to make sure taxpayers are not at risk for government bailouts for entities that are too big to fail,” he said.
Supporters of the provision, though, have said repealing it without another system in place could put taxpayers on the hook the next time there’s a financial crisis.
“If you get rid of [orderly liquidation authority] without a realistic mechanism to liquidate a [mega bank] then you’re setting yourself on the road to taxpayer bailouts,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform, a group that supported the passage of Dodd-Frank.
The kind of changes Republicans advocated to replace “orderly liquidation” are unrealistic, Stanley said. “It is a total fantasy that you’re going to fix the problem of a failure of too big to fail financial institution through the bankruptcy code,” he said.
“If everything else fails and the system is collapsing then OLA authority can be triggered,” said Dennis Kelleher, chief executive of Better Markets, a financial market policy group. “It’s structurally created to be a last gasp, break-the-glass fail safe and even then only when everybody in the government agrees it’s necessary.”
The other new Treasury Department review takes aim at regulators’ ability to label certain financial firms “too big to fail” and subject them to tougher federal scrutiny. The regulators, who make up the Financial Stability Oversight Council, can identify financial firms, outside of banks, that could pose a threat to the economy. FSOC has, so far, labeled several firms — including Prudential and MetLife — “systemically important financial institutions,” subjecting them to tougher government rules.
But Republicans and the business community have long-complained about the process. MetLife launched — and won — a public battle against the designation.
The Treasury Department won’t designate any new company as “systemically important” while it is conducting its review, though there were not any companies seen as being vulnerable to the designation at this time.
Trump promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to “dismantle” Dodd-Frank, but so far the Treasury Department’s review of existing regulations has been overshadowed by delayed efforts to overhaul the tax code and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Mnuchin said Friday that his agency has held more than 16 meetings about financial regulations, and participants said Trump administration officials were particularly interested in ways to ease mortgage and small-business lending.
Those meetings were launched in response to a Feb. 3 executive order that called for “core principles for regulating the United States financial system.”
Trump said earlier this month that he planned get rid of much of Dodd Frank, though he hasn't said how he would do it.
“We're doing a major elimination of the horrendous Dodd-Frank regulations, keeping some obviously, but getting rid of many,” he said April 11 in the White House.
Mnuchin said on Thursday that the review he will present Trump in June will include recommendations for new legislation, changes to regulation and new executive orders.
The executive order that Trump signed Friday is not directed at specific aspects of the tax system. Instead, the order instructs Mnuchin to review all significant tax regulations issued last year to determine whether any are excessively complicated or burdensome or whether any went beyond Obama's executive authority as president.
One of the most controversial rules issued last year was designed to prevent multinational corporations from shifting their headquarters overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. In this practice, known as “inversion,” U.S. companies merged with foreign firms domiciled in countries with very low corporate tax rates.
Besides the rule on inversions, the Treasury Department issued several other important regulations in Obama’s final year in office. One set of proposed rules was designed to prevent wealthy families from understating the value of their estates when a member dies. Other rules were designed to clarify the difference between a loan to a business and an equity investment — for example, by a shareholder or a venture capitalist.
Max Ehrenfreund contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the size of the AIG bailout due to an editing error.