In a wonderful article in the latest Atlantic, Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger track the continuing major problems with the major banks, which makes for very scary reading. They then offer a new approach to bank regulation:
Until the 1980s, bank rules were few in number, but broad in scope. Regulation was focused on commonsense standards. Commercial banks were not permitted to engage in investment-banking activity, and were required to set aside a reasonable amount of capital. Bankers were prohibited from taking outsize risks. Not every financial institution complied with the rules, but many bankers who strayed were judged, and punished.
Since then, however, the rules have proliferated, the arguments about compliance have become ever more technical, and the punishments have been minor and rare. ...
What if legislators and regulators gave up trying to adopt detailed rules after the fact and instead set up broad standards of conduct before the fact? For example, consider one of the most heated Dodd-Frank battles, over the “Volcker Rule,” named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. The rule is an attempt to ban banks from being able to make speculative bets if they also take in federally insured deposits. The idea is straightforward: the government guarantees deposits, so these banks should not gamble with what is effectively taxpayer money.
Yet, under constant pressure from banking lobbyists, Congress wrote a complicated rule. Then regulators larded it up with even more complications. They tried to cover any and every contingency. Two and a half years after Dodd-Frank was passed, the Volcker Rule still hasn’t been finalized. By the time it is, only a handful of partners at the world’s biggest law firms will understand it.
Congress and regulators could have written a simple rule: “Banks are not permitted to engage in proprietary trading.” Period. Then, regulators, prosecutors, and the courts could have set about defining what proprietary trading meant. They could have established reasonable and limited exceptions in individual cases. Meanwhile, bankers considering engaging in practices that might be labeled proprietary trading would have been forced to consider the law in the sense Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. advocated.
Implementing this approach, they argue, requires just two simple rules:
First, there must be a straightforward standard of disclosure ...: describe risks in commonsense terms that an investor can understand. Second, there must be a real risk of punishment for bank executives who mislead investors, or otherwise perpetrate fraud and abuse.
Today's must read.