The Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), the unelected oversight group created by the Dodd-Frank Act to monitor and regulate firms deemed to pose systemic risk to the economy (ie. “too big too fail”), has decided begun to expand its remit beyond what even the law’s authors had imagined.
Conceived as a means of circumscribing the actions of the large financial institutions whose failures could crater the economy, the FSOC is now sticking its label on any financial services firm they can get away with. This week they finished their investigation of MetLife, an insurer. Even though MetLife poses no systemic risk to the economy by any empirical measurement, it is likely to be enveloped by the grubby hands of FSOC anyway.
The MetLife episode demonstrates the huge difficulties in administering an extremely complex regulatory mechanism. Rather than looking for actual systemic risks, FSOC just wants to control as much of the economy as it can. Barney Frank has feigned surprise at this turn of events and has apparently said he never envisioned such a wide scope for FSOC. Well, Mr. Frank, this is what happens when you hand a huge amount of nonspecific powers to a virtually unaccountable organization.
The whole idea behind Dodd-Frank is wrongheaded. It relies on the idea that systemic risks can be accurately calculated before a financial shock is experienced. The solution it prescribes is more red tape for the financial services industry to stumble over. It is unlikely to succeed in anything but choking off economic growth and expanding government power over the economy at the expense of the people.
There is an alternative solution to dealing with vulnerable, systemically important institutions: nationalize them.
The very idea of nationalization naturally raises the bile in the throats of any supporter of the free market, but bear with me on this one.
I propose a law that would require any large financial institution seeking emergency funds from the federal government, as happened during the financial crisis through the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) and government subsidized mergers, to instead be taken over by the government. The law would also stipulate a process by which the firm would be broken up into smaller pieces and sold back to the market as quickly as possible.
This radical proposal would be better than what has occurred for two reasons. First, in terms of the actions of the big banks, they would necessarily factor the prospect of being cracked open and sold off piecemeal into their future risk calculations. This would mean firms would take actions less likely to cause systemic shocks to the economy and removes the perverse incentive from banks like Goldman Sachs to deliberately make themselves systemically necessary as a sort of insurance policy. When a firm is too big too fail, that means it does not need to factor the true risk of failure into their calculations. My proposal allows for a mechanism to deal with firms that are systemically important in an orderly way that does not promote bad actions from the institutions in question.
Second, my proposal would prevent the sort of concentration that the government’s response to the financial crisis produced. The big banks were glutted with federal cash to keep them afloat while smaller banks were left largely in the lurch. The result has been that the big institutions that were at the center of the financial collapse have only gotten larger and more profitable, while the smaller institutions with no such blame getting sunk or, if they survive, playing on an even more unfair field.
There is nothing wrong with big banks. There is something wrong with those big banks using their political clout to skew the free market in their favor. My proposal is a means by which the people can reassert control over their economy without giving undue regulatory powers to the government.
My proposal could find support on both sides of the aisle in Congress. For the left, the policy is punitive against firms that take risks while being extremely important to the economy. For the right, it benefits Main Street and only takes effect when institutions are at risk of going under and taking everyone with them.
The government is not to be trusted when it comes to regulating the economy day-to-day. It’s ability to interfere should be strictly defined and the steps it may take clearly delineated. My proposal demands very specific actions in response to specific shocks. In the end, the economy benefits from fewer systemically risky firms, the taxpayers benefit from not writing a blank check to crony-capitalist bankers, and the industry benefits from a more level playing field.