The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yellen rejects Trump approach to Wall Street regulation, says post-crisis banking rules make economy safer

Haruhiko Kuroda, governor of Bank of Japan, from left, Janet Yellen, chair of Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, at the Jackson Hole economic symposium. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen offered a forceful defense of broad new banking regulations enacted after the 2008 financial crisis, saying the rules safeguard the economy against another crisis and rejecting assertions from President Trump and top aides that they should be rolled back.

Yellen’s speech, delivered here to an annual gathering of central bankers, finance ministers and economists, comes as Trump considers whether to reappoint her to a four-year term as head of the U.S. central bank.

Yellen, 71, made clear in her speech on Friday that she believes tighter regulations and standards have made the banking system safer and that while some improvements could be made, they should be modest, not structural.

“The evidence shows that reforms since the crisis have made the financial system substantially safer,” Yellen said, according to prepared remarks.

Trump’s economic adviser says president ‘must do better’ to denounce white nationalism

Trump has waffled on whether he would renominate Yellen to the post. She was first nominated by President Barack Obama for the four-year term, after having served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Trump has said he likes her cautious approach to raising interest rates, but declaring her opposition to rolling back new banking rules could put a wide chasm between her and the White House.

There are numerous banking regulators that have input in how the financial system is overseen, but none are as powerful or as influential as the head of the Fed.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the U.S. economy is healthy enough to absorb gradual rate increases and the slow wind down of the Fed's bond portfolio. (Video: Reuters)

Yellen’s speech comes just hours after the Financial Times published an interview with Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, in which he openly criticized the way Trump handled violence carried out by neo Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Cohn was also considered a front-runner for the Fed chairman post, and the separate decisions by Cohn and Yellen to distance themselves from Trump could mean that neither is interested in cozying up to him as a way to try to get the nomination.

Yellen’s speech reflected on the government’s response to the Great Recession.

A financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 caused a global panic, with some of the world’s largest financial companies wobbling or toppling and the U.S. government injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial system to prevent a collapse. Large financial companies were interconnected and had amassed large amounts of risk without cushions to absorb losses or access to cash to prevent bank runs.

Banks and financial companies were chasing profits by making loans to people who lacked the ability to repay, at times falsifying documents and betting on the false premise that the housing market would continue to soar. As the banking system began to falter, consumers panicked, the stock market crashed, hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their jobs, and the U.S. and many other economies went into recessions.

In 2008, the Bush administration and Congress passed a law that allowed the government to inject money into the banking system to try to arrest the crisis. In 2010, the Obama administration and Congress passed a law that imposed new consumer protection rules, required banks to hold bigger cushions against losses, put new limits on their ability to take risk, tried to establish a process to help wind down large financial companies.

Trump has said these changes went too far, calling the law a “disaster” that has made it hard for consumers and businesses to access credit and restricted economic growth. One of his arguments, supported by many banks, is that requiring banks to hold more capital to cushion against losses makes it harder for them to lend money.

President Trump signed three executive orders on April 21 at the Treasury Department which are meant to spark reviews of tax and financial regulations. (Video: Reuters)

Yellen addressed these criticisms head-on in her speech, saying that research is mixed but that Fed officials believe there were “sizable net benefits to economic growth from higher capital standards.”

She acknowledged, though, that some borrowers could see a decrease in access to loans because of the new rules.

“While material adverse effects of capital regulation on broad measures of lending are not readily apparent, credit may be less available to some borrowers, especially home buyers with less-than-perfect credit histories and, perhaps, small businesses,” she said.

She added that the Fed, one of the nation’s bank regulators, is taking steps to ease regulatory complexity that small banks face to help more small businesses obtain loans.

Yellen did not say in her speech whether she was interested in being appointed to another term. She also didn’t comment specifically on Trump or any conversations she has had with him.