Here’s an Inauguration Day rant for you:
They hadn’t even finished counting the ballots for the new POTUS when, on November 10, 2016, one of the great poster-children for modern-day douchebaggery, Alan Greenspan (@realGREENSPAN) said to CNBC “I’d love to see Dodd-Frank disappear; a “disastrous mistake.” Hasn’t this guy figured out that he is way past his sell-by date?
Anyway, just bookmark the timing of that statement while I set up today’s metaphor: Roll back the clock a few decades to the early 1980’s – height of the Reagan days – when those in the halls of power concluded that they could sell increasing levels of consumption to more of the masses (the “American Dream) by helping them lever their assets. The federal government played the game, too – of course.
This was the real-life birth of the Avengers Initiative. Collectively, we The People, asked (or allowed) our representatives in capitol buildings across the land to help make it easier for banks to engage in financial engineering so that people on Main St. could consume more fancy stuff with increasingly instantaneous gratification. In this version of the tale, the banks are the Avengers where groups of some the brightest people around were brought together to solve a critical and ubiquitous need.
Over the ensuing years, legislators hammered away at Great Depression-era regulations like the Glass-Steagall Act (aka the Banking Act of 1933 which prohibited commercial banks from engaging in the investment business) until it was eventually rendered obsolete during the Clinton years (and under our poster-boy, Fed Chairman Greenspan). Flash forward another 10 years or so, and we all know what happens: The realization that a concentrated roster of the largest global financial intermediaries had become too big to fail.
The Dodd-Frank (Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection) Act, one of the key regulatory responses to the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008 (and along with the Volcker Rule), was an approximate move back to where we were with Glass-Steagall. Yes, it has collectively burdened the banking sector with billions in governance, risk management and compliance (GRC) costs. (Boo effin hoo…) However, in reality, these costs were merely a delayed toll that the banking sector avoided over the years – and should have been incurring all along. Banks simply did not have a sufficient handle on their enterprise risk parameters and ended up creating a economically-existential mess – sort of like the invasion of Earth by the Chitauri fleet. (But, remember, we all tacitly encouraged them to do it because we were all having too much fun in our zero-down mini-mansions and our upside-down Range Rovers.)
Whether the new rules help create a better level of clarity on risks with seamless efficiency is not the point. Change of this magnitude is messy. The bottom line is that somebody had to do something and enterprise risk assessments for the biggest banks were woefully needed. In fact, over the past several weeks, bank heads from Barclays to JPMorgan have gone on record to support the maintenance of rules like those within Dodd-Frank.
Like the Avengers, the biggest banks saved the developed world from the horrors of low consumption growth; they successfully privatized wish-granting. And, like the Avengers, in their quest to provide financial solutions for every wish, banks also ended up creating risks and damages for the people that they were set up to help in the first place. Now the question is whether our real-life Avengers are equipped for self-regulation or better off being monitored by imperfect third-parties. I think we are all clear on the answer to this question, Alan.
Meanwhile, as we all gorge ourselves with perpetual distraction by the upcoming episodes of Snooki and Pauly D go to the White House, we are also missing the real threats. Front and center, a new and radical pace of technical innovation is permanently eliminating decent jobs by units equivalent to a packed University of Michigan football stadium. The top 60 global banks alone collectively shed roughly 100,000 jobs in each of the past 3 years while maintaining the same revenue levels. In part, this is the downside of technical leverage: The same or more revenue with fewer people. And, unlike a new gold rush for West Virginia coal mining jobs, those bank jobs are never coming back.
Bottom line: Not only do we remain clueless about the benefits of all this new technical innovation, we don’t seem to have a clue about the damage it is doing as well. Someone should turn off all their news feeds and figure out how to measure these impacts…