Clinton vs Sanders vs O’Malley On Fixing Banking

Dave Johnson

How do we fix Wall Street, a.k.a. “the banks”? How do the candidates compare? This question came up in the first Democratic debate and there has been lots of online commentary on this since.

The first place to look, of course, is CAF’s Candidate Scorecard. “The Candidate Scorecard measures the positions of Democratic candidates for president against the Populism 2015 platform endorsed by organizations representing 2 million Americans.” On Wall Street – specifically, making “Wall Street serve the real economy” – the Candidate Scorecard rates the candidates as follows:
● Bernie Sanders: 100%
● Martin O’Malley: 100%
● Hillary Clinton: 63%

Note that Clinton’s 63 percent rating is primarily based on not having a position on a financial transaction tax – “Has yet to take a position, though has used rhetoric against high frequency traders who game the system” – as well as opposing reinstating some form of a Glass-Steagall Act and a lack of specific proposals related to the categories “Break Up Big Banks” and “Affordable Banking.”

Meanwhile, Sanders rates 100 percent. No one doubts Sanders’ determination to break up the big banks and protect 99 percent of the country from the excesses of Wall Street and “the billionaires.” But what if Clinton’s proposals will have the same positive effect as reinstating Glass-Steagall and breaking up the big banks? Paul Krugman at The New York Times, Democrats, Republicans and Wall Street Tycoons, writes that Clinton’s position might be as good as Sanders’:

For what it’s worth, Mrs. Clinton had the better case. Mr. Sanders has been focused on restoring Glass-Steagall, the rule that separated deposit-taking banks from riskier wheeling and dealing. And repealing Glass-Steagall was indeed a mistake. But it’s not what caused the financial crisis, which arose instead from “shadow banks” like Lehman Brothers, which don’t take deposits but can nonetheless wreak havoc when they fail. Mrs. Clinton has laid out a plan to rein in shadow banks; so far, Mr. Sanders hasn’t.

[. . .] If a Democrat does win, does it matter much which one it is? Probably not. Any Democrat is likely to retain the financial reforms of 2010, and seek to stiffen them where possible. But major new reforms will be blocked until and unless Democrats regain control of both houses of Congress, which isn’t likely to happen for a long time.

In other words, while there are some differences in financial policy between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders, as a practical matter they’re trivial compared with the yawning gulf with Republicans.

Krugman later writes that we can probably trust Clinton on this, because Wall Street is mostly giving money to Republicans these days.

Mike Konczal at Next New Deal, agrees with Krugman on the merits of Clinton’s policies, in “Structural Reform Beyond Glass-Steagall“:

My opinion is that reinstating GS isn’t an important goal for financial reform. I don’t think the story it tells is the one we want to tell, and the reforms it would bring aren’t particularly effective. I think in terms of structural changes, there are better aspirational objectives for the debate to focus on and better options for achieving those objectives. In particular, breaking up the banks through higher capital requirements would meet the same goals while building on the work that has been done—work that is already showing significant success and could use more of a spotlight.

[…] My general thought since the crisis has been that we should be extending the regulatory environment of commercial banking to shadow banking. … The goal, then, should be to expand that regulatory structure out into shadow banking while weakening the economic and political power of the largest players.

I don’t think reinstating GS would help with this. If separating investment banking from commercial banking split the regulatory structures, it would be a move in the wrong direction. If it didn’t, it’s still not clear that there would be much to gain for all the energy spent.

However Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone, in “Hillary Clinton’s Take on Banks Won’t Hold Up,” writes,

… First, it’s definitive now that Hillary has no intention of reinstating Glass-Steagall. [CNN’s Anderson] Cooper gave her a prime opportunity Tuesday night to announce otherwise, stories have filtered out of her campaign that she has no plans along those lines, and she’s explicitly stated that she wants to find a “different way” to reduce risk.

The second and probably more important observation is about Hillary’s rhetorical choices.

Clinton, like her close adviser Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman and co-author of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, has been pushing an idea that banks aren’t at the root of any financial instability problem. Last night, she pointed a finger instead at “shadow banking,” non-bank actors like AIG, and a dead investment bank in Lehman Brothers. (Interesting she didn’t mention a still-viable investment bank like Goldman Sachs, which has hosted her expensive speaking engagements.)

Taibbi looks at Clinton’s proposals and finds a few weaknesses. He points out that there are and have been regulatory tools but they are not used. But Clinton’s plan gives regulators leeway, and wonders if we can trust her administration to crack down and enforce.

But my reading of her proposal is that it doesn’t contain an automatic mechanism. Hillary’s plan would merely give regulators the authority to do something about risky companies.

“Clinton did say large firms should be required to ‘downsize or break apart,'” says Dennis Kelleher of the Wall Street watchdog group Better Markets. “But only if they can’t prove to regulators that they can be managed effectively.”

It’s a subtle difference. But such subtle differences between real action and ambiguous verbiage are what turned the Dodd-Frank bill into a mountain of legislative leprechaun tricks, as opposed to the sweeping, simple, FDR-style reform of a plainly corrupt marketplace that it should have been.

Whether or not you think Hillary Clinton plans on doing anything to fix Wall Street corruption really comes down to your read on her intentions.

So Taibbi says it all comes down to trust that a Clinton administration will enforce the rules – something we haven’t seen an administration do for decades. The Obama administration notoriously refuses to criminally prosecute banks and bankers. Instead they impose fine that are paid by shareholders and not the executives who did bad things. The Bush administration’s famous lack of enforcement brought us the financial collapse. The Wall Street-friendly Bill Clinton administration repealed Glass-Steagall. (His Treasury Secretary then left to head a firm created by that move – and received hundreds of millions of dollars for it.) But Krugman says maybe we can trust Clinton now because Wall Street lately is giving most of its money to Republicans.

Most of the public discussion has been focused on the top two contenders, but Martin O’Malley’s proposals also merit consideration. O’Malley says he has “independence” from Wall Street that Clinton does not. On” The Daily Show” on Monday, O’Malley

… accus[ed] the former senator from New York of being too close to Wall Street to protect Americans from the “excesses” of big financial institutions.

“I believe I have the independence to actually get that done, and I do not believe that Hillary Clinton does,” Maryland’s former governor told the show’s new host, Trevor Noah.

O’Malley’s position paper stresses enforcement and anti-corruption steps for regulators.

As President, Governor O’Malley will change the culture of our regulatory and oversight agencies and departments by immediately pursuing the following reforms to ensure that Wall Street megabanks don’t get to play by their own set of rules. He will provide real deterrents to recidivist behavior among the worst actors on Wall Street.

Martin O’Malley explains how to make an honest buck on Wall Street:

It Comes Down To Trust

Which Democratic candidate will take on the banks? They all have proposals that increase regulation and give voice to breaking up the biggest banks. But will their administrations enforce those as well as existing regulations if elected?

● No one doubts that Sanders, with his 100 percent Candidate Scorecard rating is independent of Wall Street and potential regulatory capture – his net worth after 25 years in the Congress is around $330,000 and that includes his residence – and will be extremely tough both with policy and enforcement.

● O’Malley is stressing his positions on and independence from Wall Street. He also has a 100 percent Candidate Scorecard rating and solid proposals. His position paper stresses enforcement. His net worth is less than $256,000. (“That’s after subtracting the $339,000 in student loans that he owes for his daughters’ college educations…”)

● Clinton is offering a comprehensive plan to bring the big banks under control. She has also offered a “revolving door” plan that goes after bonuses from Wall Street firms and delays for three years any lucrative compensation for people who leave government after doing favors for the companies that might hire them. But her own net worth is between $15.3 million and $55 million, and this does not include the assets of her husband Bill. Much of this is from giving extremely lucrative speeches to Wall Street firms (for which some of the proceeds are donated to the Clinton Foundation). Yet Krugman says we can probably trust her to enforce the rules because Wall Street isn’t giving her any money now.

It all comes down to trust. Which candidate do you trust to regulate the big banks and bring in people who will enforce the rules?

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