No more regulations, please. That was the message from top executives at four of the nation's largest financial firms on Wednesday, spoken to a commission set up by an act of Congress to investigate the causes of last year's credit crunch. But more than a year after poor lending standards, unregulated products and bonus bonanzas helped spark the worst recession since the Great Depression, many say that reining in Wall Street is the only way to prevent another financial crisis.
"The big lesson of the past year is that mistakes made on Wall Street can have real bad side effects on the rest of the economy," says Robert Johnson, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a former chief economist of the Senate Banking Committee. "And that's adequate grounds to put in restraints before we have to have the next bailout."
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), the bank executives tried to paint a picture that the failures that caused the crisis were missteps by management, sometimes even themselves, but not the result of faulty regulation. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, told the panel, "After the shocks of recent months and the associated economic pain, there is a natural and appropriate desire for wholesale reform. We should resist a response, however, that is solely designed around protecting us from the 100-year storm."
Even Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, who has seemed to be more open to new regulations, sought to deflect attention away from lax regulation as the sole cause of the crisis. "I want to be clear that I do not blame the regulators," Dimon testified. "The responsibility for the company's actions rest with the company's management."
At times, the top executives did contend that regulation might have been too loose leading up to the crisis, but they stressed that that was no longer the case. All thought that the government needed the power to resolve large troubled institutions. Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, said the resolution authority could be based on the way the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. closes down smaller banks, which involves auctioning off troubled institutions to stronger competitors, often with a government guarantee for risky assets. Also questioned by the panel was Morgan Stanley's chairman, John Mack.
Blankfein even seemed to show some support for a consumer financial-product regulator, saying he thought there should be more attention paid to how financial markets interact with the retail market. But when it comes to more restrictions on the way large Wall Street firms like Goldman do business, Blankfein said there were already too many constraints. He said that since his firm began to be regulated by the Federal Reserve and not the Securities and Exchange Commission a switch that happened when Goldman became a bank-holding company in late 2008 the oversight of his firm had increased to a level that, given all that had happened, seemed right. "Perhaps there should have been more [regulation] than there was before September 2008," he said in response to a question about whether regulators had done their job leading up to the crisis. "But now it feels like a lot, and appropriately so."
Some of the members of the FCIC seemed to agree that more regulation was not the answer to avoiding another financial crisis. John Thompson, chairman of security company Symantec and a former adviser to President George W. Bush, said to the executives, "Some of this oversight is management's responsibility, and not regulation."
One of the more interesting exchanges came when FCIC members asked the CEOs if they thought that Wall Streeters should get a portion of their compensation in the products they were selling to customers, like mortgage bonds or stocks. In late 2008, investment bank UBS instituted such a plan. The executives, however, said forcing banks and other employees to hold on to products they were selling would cause conflicts of interest and limit their ability to do business. Instead, the executives said they instituted so-called clawback provisions, which allow banks to reclaim compensation from bankers who sell products that cause the firm losses down the road. Because of time constraints, the executives were asked to respond to the panel in writing whether clawback provisions have ever been used.
Still, many believe the government needs to do more to rein in risky behavior on Wall Street. Among the proposals that have been promoted by President Barack Obama and Congress are a systemic regulator that would be on guard for markets and participants that were creating unseen risks in the financial system. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would create a new agency to protect consumers and regulate products like mortgages and credit cards. Even the Independent Community Bankers Association, which has fought new regulations of the financial sector, says the government needs to do more to rein in the nation's largest banks.
Johnson, of the Roosevelt Institute, says the single most important reform would be to force unregulated financial products, such as credit-default swaps (CDSs) and collateralized-debt obligations (CDOs), onto government-watched public exchanges. CDS contracts are widely blamed for the demise of insurer AIG. Johnson says that making the CDS, CDO and other markets like them more transparent would limit the ability of financial executives to take the extreme risks that can cause their firms to fail when markets go awry.
"We need more supervision, more examination and much more enforcement of regulations that are already on the books," says Johnson. "But most of all, we need a system that punishes stock holders and managers before taxpayers."