This new Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled today. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.
Inflation-crushing former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker has been blazing an independent trail within the Obama administration. He's not content with financial regulations as currently proposed; he also wants commercial banking separated from trading risky securities. Essentially, his plan would lead to a modern-day Glass-Steagall Act.
The plan isn't popular on Wall Street. It would force Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) to divest Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) to give up Bear Stearns, and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) to end its "bank holding company" charade. Citigroup (NYSE: C ) would have to further break apart its business and, depending on the terms, even relatively pure commercial bank Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) would have to clear out valuable portions of its Wachovia acquisition. So yeah, it faces just a bit of opposition from the financial services industry.
Not surprisingly, Volcker's calls for additional financial reforms have hit a roadblock. The administration isn't open to this line of thinking. Volcker's playing coy about the snub, telling The New York Times, "I did not have influence to start with." The chairman of the White House's Economic Recovery Advisory Board doesn't have any influence? Sounds like a problem to me.
Why you should be indignant:
When Volcker speaks, the administration should listen. The man is a giant. I mean that both figuratively and literally. Volcker stands 6-foot-8 and had he not decided to spend his life body-slamming inflation, he probably could have spent it body-slamming men in spandex for a living.
But he's also someone who carries a legacy of independence and not following the herd. His far-sighted decision to aggressively raise interest rates in the early 1980s put long-term economic gains ahead of short-term benefits. Whether or not this administration would like to acknowledge it, most of its major decisionmakers are seen as Wall Street-connected. Volcker doesn't suffer from this criticism, and he's earned that distinction by following his instincts and standing up to Wall Street even when his opinions were met with healthy criticism.
While I'd like to give this administration credit where credit is due -- they've shown an increased level of transparency and given time to answer questions about new financial regulations from the community -- this is one area where the temporary benefits of ignoring dissent in order to promote an orderly passage of the current financial reform isn't warranted. Paying little heed to its most vocal internal dissenter doesn't exactly give off the vibe that the White House is truly committed to cleaning up the systemic causes of our banking failures.
And isn't that what we should be addressing here, the core flaws of our banking system that caused this crisis? If planned reform goes forth without heeding Volcker, and if Wall Street continues to be adept at circumventing weakly enforceable regulation, then we'll be stuck with a broken system for the long run. As Volcker put it, "Memories grow dim, and you want to make a system where you don't have a still bigger crisis 10 years from now."
We've been listening to our Foolish community. When we ran a bracket-style competition back in March of who was most to blame for the financial crisis, it wasn't Greenspan, Madoff, Bernanke, Congress, or any of the usual suspects that won. Nope, the winner of the bracket was none other than the repealers of Glass-Steagall. Our readers have openly displayed their belief that Glass-Steagall is central to our financial system's woes.
Detractors of Volcker's plan will point out that such regulations will make the U.S. financial industry less globally competitive by inhibiting financial innovation. The flip side of the argument would be that such incremental gains in innovation aren't worth the risks and conflicts of interest that occur when banks with large consumer deposits function with a high-risk investment banking division. It's an interesting debate, one that we should have between the two camps.
But that's just the problem. There never was a discussion or even a debate. Even with a respected leader like Volcker within the administration advocating for Glass-Steagall-like reforms, such a reasonable request isn't on the table. Former Citigroup chairman and CEO John Reed, the very man who led the push to repeal Glass-Seagall, has now come out and agreed that a separation of banking houses is needed. Still, the administration sits firm and hopes Volcker tires himself out running in fruitless circles.
There's a reason for the healthy mistrust in Wall Street; it's the same reason one of the most discussed articles on finance this year was Simon Johnson's "The Quiet Coup," a tale of how finance has captured our government. People feel as though the interests of the financial industry are put above what benefits the economy as a whole. If the White House wants to show us that it's committed to real reforms going forward and that its financial regulations will actually address the fundamental causes of the crisis, it would be listening less to National Economic Council Director Larry Summers and more to Paul Volcker. I won't hold my breath.
Disagree with my sentiment? Think the White House should listen up when Volcker speaks? Sound off in the comments section below.