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Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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More Super Powers For Turbo Tim

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February 18, 2010

I shouldn’t have been shocked when I read about this.  It’s just that it makes no sense at all and it’s actually scary — for a number of reasons.  On Wednesday, February 17, Sewell Chan broke the story for The New York Times:

The Senate and the Obama administration are nearing agreement on forming a council of regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to identify systemic risk to the nation’s financial system, officials said Wednesday.

They’re going to put “Turbo” Tim Geithner in charge of the council that regulates systemic risk in the banking system?  Let the pushback begin!  The first published reaction to this news (that I saw) came from Tom Lindmark at the iStockAnalyst.com website:

Only the Congress of the United States is capable of this sort of monumental stupidity.  It appears as if the responsibility for running a newly formed council of bank regulators is going to be delegated to the Treasury Secretary.

Lindmark’s beef was not based on any personal opinion about the appointment of Tim Geithner himself to such a role.  Mr. Lindmark’s opinion simply reflects his disgust at the idea of putting a political appointee at the head of such a committee:

The job of overseeing our financial system is going to be given to an individual whose primary job is implementing the political agenda of his boss — the President of the US.

Regulation of the banks and whatever else gets thrown into the mix is now going to be driven by politicians who have little or no interest in a safe and sound banking system.  As we know too well, their primary interest is the perpetuation and enhancement of their own power with no regard for the consequences.

So there you have reason number one:  Nothing personal — just bad policy.

I can’t wait to hear the responses from some of my favorite gurus from the world of finance.  How about John Hussman — president of the investment advisory firm that manages the Hussman Funds?  One day before the story broke concerning our new systemic risk regulator, this statement appeared in the Weekly Market Comment by Dr. Hussman:

If one is alert, it is evident that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have disposed of the need for Congressional approval, and have engineered a de facto bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at public expense.

What better qualification could one have for sitting at the helm of the systemic risk council?  Choose one of the guys who bypassed Congressional authority to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with the taxpayers’ money!  If Geithner is actually appointed to chair this council, you can expect an interesting response from Dr. Hussman.

Jeremy Grantham should have plenty to rant about concerning this nomination.  As chairman of GMO, Mr. Grantham is responsible for managing over $107 billion of his clients’ hard-inherited money.  Consider what he said about Geithner’s performance as president of the New York Fed during the months leading up to the financial crisis:

Timothy Geithner, in turn, sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks.

Mr. Grantham should hardly be pleased to hear about our Treasury Secretary’s new role, regulating systemic risk.

The coming days should provide some entertaining diatribes along the lines of:  “You’ve got to be kidding!” in response to this news.  I’m looking forward to it!



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