As advocates for shareholder rights, we strive to make sure our members are heard on important matters that affect all of our portfolios. That’s why the White House asked for feedback from The Motley Fool community and agreed to answer your questions. Here is the final installment of our interview with Austan Goolsbee, chief economist for the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Economists have a term for what happened to Washington's regulatory watchdogs during the financial crisis. What looked to outsiders like an eight-year nap -- or, less pointedly, wild indifference or ignorance to Wall Street shenanigans -- was what learned market watchers call a raging case of "regulatory capture."
Regulatory capture happens when an agency tasked with acting in the public interest becomes a spokesperson for the industry it's supposed to be overseeing. In the most extreme cases, political finagling can completely de-fang the watchdog. That’s what happened in the 1880s, when the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission -- which regulated railroad freight rates -- was watered down under the guidance of Grover Cleveland's attorney general, who happened to be a former bigwig railroad-industry lawyer.
When David Gardner and I met with Austan Goolsbee, chief economist for the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, he sounded the alarm about letting the topic of financial regulation slip out of the public sphere: "The farther out of the public eye we are, the less transparency we have … the more the rules are being written by the people who are being regulated themselves," Goolsbee said.
Where exactly where the regulators when we needed them?
Red tape, laziness, unclear jurisdiction, obsolescence, corruption -- we can play the blame game ad nauseam. But it's clear that playing hot potato with the onus of responsibility does not protect investors or the overall health of our economy from systemic failures in our financial system.
Fool.com members had a lot to say about regulators' weak oversight of the institutions (and individuals) whose recklessness brought down the markets. Here are a few comments David Gardner and I brought to the White House on your behalf:
- Afthought wrote: "Greater regulation is not the answer. Enforcement of existing regulations through prosecution and imprisonment of violators would bring a higher degree of honesty to the financial world."
- Edfinn1 wrote: "[Ensure] transparency. The key to risk evaluation and reasonable risk taking is transparency. Derivatives are securities and should require at least the same levels of disclosure and transparency for offerers, underwriters and sponsors."
- LessGovernment wrote: "Congressional legislation and lack of oversight had at this point put the entire economy on a course to disaster, and -- surprise surprise -- that is just what America got … Somewhere along the lines, members of Congress forgot why they are in Washington."
The White House's approach to better policing
President Obama’s regulatory reform proposal (links to PDF document) consolidates the regulatory power that had been spread out across a handful of agencies under one roof, and one central agency. Included in the proposal are plans to:
- Establish a new Financial Services Oversight Council (FSOC), which is responsible for coordinating the efforts of all regulators. Make regulators more accountable, and put one person in the hot seat to answer for anything that slips through.
- Clearly define what agencies will police what products. No more passing the buck.
- Make hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds register with the SEC and submit to more regulation.
- Give the Fed the power to not only regulate parent companies, but also all their offshoots, including unregulated and overseas subsidiaries.
Here, Goolsbee describes the new regulation regime and why the administration says that the right kind of oversight is good for individual investors.