In the wake of the election, some have suggested that the Administration will come round and compromise with big banks on contentious Dodd-Frank reforms. I’m not sure what these happy folk are smoking – the industry’s attack on the Obama re-election bid has not exactly endeared it to a White House that was a far better friend to the industry than many realized when they took personally the President’s “fat-cat” comments. In fact, the White House and Treasury fought hard during Dodd-Frank to push back size limits, a very tough version of Volcker and a simple bankruptcy resolution regime – siding with big banks largely because senior policy-makers – including at the FRB – thought they were right. Will they care so much now given the scant thanks they got then? Given the election’s message and the strengthened hand of big-bank foes in the Senate, SIFIs face their most serious struggle yet, one they will be lucky to fight to a draw if community banks decide to take them on.
Will they? Some years ago, Ken Guenther, the then head of the community-bank lobby group, told me that anything good for big banks was bad for small ones. This view still guides much independent-bank thinking, as demonstrated by the e-mails I’ve received since releasing several regulatory studies a couple of weeks ago. One from a small-bank CEO told me that big banks were opposed to a TAG extension solely on grounds that it was good for banks like his. Many others hotly dispute my finding that Dodd-Frank meaningfully addresses too big to fail – an issue on which reasonable people might differ if the disagreements were not often voiced with such passion.
Can community banks take this anger and turn it into a legislative initiative in 2013? My guess is they can and will, and it’s a guess informed not just by the e-mails I’ve been getting, but also questions after the speeches I’ve been giving. Community banks feel that their backs are to the wall, many despairing of finding a path to robust profitability if big banks remain as is. Many in the industry believe not only that they face a personal challenge, but also a vital ideological one: Republican through and through though they are, bankers believe in the populist platform that, among other things, wants big banks to go bye-bye.
Which brings me back to the SIFI challenge: pushing back not just the most stringent versions of all the rules now challenging them, but also the even more significant proposals sure to come next. If the White House and Treasury stand with Wall Street against Main Street next year, it will only be because they are persuaded that Wall Street is right when it says that proposals will have counter-productive effects on the recovery, market integrity, financial stability and U.S. competitiveness. Making these arguments has always been a challenge to big banks, but never so hard as it is today after the election damaged whatever was left of the relationship between SIFIs and the Administration. To convince the White House and a new Treasury Secretary that SIFI fears are warranted will take more than just reiterating all the claims in all the comment letters – this time, the industry’s going to have to prove it.