Although many financial-industry executives have decided against a second date with Barack Obama, the differences between the GOP and Democratic conventions was more a matter of tone than substance. In fact, where there is substance, the Republicans go in directions many large financial institutions would, on reflection, staunchly oppose. Given the bet banks are making on the GOP, the industry had better hope that Gov. Romney doesn’t mean it.
To be sure, the industry’s preference for Republicans is understandable. No one likes to be yelled at, let alone chastised for picking consumer pockets and all the other sins cited in a high-profile speech in Charlotte by Elizabeth Warren. The Democratic platform also heaped a lot of blame on banks for “irresponsible” practices that, it said, not only seduced vulnerable mortgage borrowers, but also caused the global financial crisis. Republicans, in contrast, eschewed casting big banks as evil-doers and positively portrayed community institutions as bulwarks of the free-enterprise system touted throughout the Republican statement.
Go beyond the praise-versus-blame rhetoric, though, and the GOP poses substantive strategic challenges to large financial firms. Most important of these is the assertion that Dodd-Frank did nothing to address too big to fail and, indeed, validated it through its new systemic resolution regime. The platform plans to repeal this, arguing that doing so protects taxpayers from programs like TARP. However, TARP was deployed – by the Bush Administration, by the way – because there wasn’t an alternative orderly-liquidation authority in place to prevent systemic failures or handle them if any occurred. If the GOP wants to throttle OLA, it needs a replacement insolvency protocol or it will be TARP all over again or an even bigger bail-out next time around.
What about big-bank break-ups? The GOP platform and subsequent statements are, at best, coy. The platform decries over-regulation and the uncertainty of too many problematic financial-reforms, but says nothing about which it wants to keep and which would be scrapped. All one can tell is that some rules would be kept or even tightened. The more detailed statement argues, like the platform, for higher capital requirements on big banks. It goes on, though, to add two new ideas: “transparency” for inter-bank exposures and restrictions – unspecified – on complex financial products – left undefined. These three ideas – capital, transparency for inter-connectedness and something that sounds like a Volcker Rule under a blanket – might be the outlines of a Romney Administration systemic-regulatory agenda.
The GOP platform is similarly tantalizing on another industry priority: the future of housing finance. Perhaps because President Obama has done so little in four years on this critical issue, his platform and convention said nothing about it. And, because of this inaction, the GOP had another club with which to beat the Democrats. Flail they did, but with few specifics on which to judge the actual policy course the GOP might take if bankers get their wish and Mr. Romney wins the White House. If Fannie and Freddie are rapidly wound down as many Republicans demand, the industry could well be left in a very large lurch.
When we look back at the last four years, we see a Treasury and White House that, for all the rhetoric about “fat cats,” did a lot better by big banks than most bankers reckon. Given all the political pressure on the Administration, the initial Treasury draft of what came to be called Dodd-Frank had few of the provisions excoriated by the industry. The CFPB came far down the road in Congress, the Volcker Rule was anathema at first and – most important – Treasury stoutly resisted all of the size limits and break-up talk then widespread among key Administration allies. Given the hatred – that’s not too strong a word – many liberals at the time of the crisis felt towards big banks, the Administration took as measured a position as it could and caught a lot of heat for this from its base.
Viewed from a pragmatic, not political, perspective, the industry – especially large banks – has friends on both sides of the election and, if the GOP platform has teeth, worries regardless of the winner. Over the last two hundred years, U.S. policy on banking has been a constant struggle between big-city financial interests – think Alexander Hamilton for a start – and agrarian, populist interests – thanks, Mr. Jefferson. These sides cross party lines, aligning far more on ideological than partisan factors – that’s why a libertarian conservative like Ron Paul can agree with a socialist like Bernie Sanders in combined ferocity against the Fed. It’s hard to date someone who disses you, but sometimes the cheerleader isn’t the charmer she seems.