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Good news from Washington, maybe

And it’s about time.

Just when I started to admit to myself that maybe the Obama administration really doesn’t stand for anything — a forgivable sentiment after watching it deal away just about everything that was worthwhile about health care reform — the President tells us that he intends to fight for commonsense banking regulations.

Up until now, there was no indication that he would do this.  “[T]his is a major policy change and a good idea” was how Simon Johnson put it.  Who knows why Obama suddenly decided to listen to reason?  Maybe it was Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, in which case we all owe Brown a big thank you.  And who knows if Obama will actually fight for these reforms?  The sad course of health care reform suggests he won’t.  But I didn’t think he’d ever bring Volcker up on stage and basically say that Volcker has the right idea, either.  Maybe it means something that as Obama spoke, Volcker was standing at the President’s right shoulder and Larry Summers was three people away from Obama on his left.  One can only hope.

Here’s some of what the President said with added emphasis on the good parts:

As part of these efforts, today I’m proposing two additional reforms that I believe will strengthen the financial system while preventing future crises.

First, we should no longer allow banks to stray too far from their central mission of serving their customers. In recent years, too many financial firms have put taxpayer money at risk by operating hedge funds and private equity funds and making riskier investments to reap a quick reward. And these firms have taken these risks while benefiting from special financial privileges that are reserved only for banks.

Our government provides deposit insurance and other safeguards and guarantees to firms that operate banks. We do so because a stable and reliable banking system promotes sustained growth, and because we learned how dangerous the failure of that system can be during the Great Depression.

But these privileges were not created to bestow banks operating hedge funds or private equity funds with an unfair advantage. When banks benefit from the safety net that taxpayers provide — which includes lower-cost capital — it is not appropriate for them to turn around and use that cheap money to trade for profit. And that is especially true when this kind of trading often puts banks in direct conflict with their customers’ interests.

The fact is, these kinds of trading operations can create enormous and costly risks, endangering the entire bank if things go wrong. We simply cannot accept a system in which hedge funds or private equity firms inside banks can place huge, risky bets that are subsidized by taxpayers and that could pose a conflict of interest. And we cannot accept a system in which shareholders make money on these operations if the bank wins but taxpayers foot the bill if the bank loses.

It’s for these reasons that I’m proposing a simple and common-sense reform, which we’re calling the “Volcker Rule” — after this tall guy behind me. Banks will no longer be allowed to own, invest, or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit, unrelated to serving their customers. If financial firms want to trade for profit, that’s something they’re free to do. Indeed, doing so — responsibly — is a good thing for the markets and the economy. But these firms should not be allowed to run these hedge funds and private equities funds while running a bank backed by the American people.

In addition, as part of our efforts to protect against future crises, I’m also proposing that we prevent the further consolidation of our financial system. There has long been a deposit cap in place to guard against too much risk being concentrated in a single bank. The same principle should apply to wider forms of funding employed by large financial institutions in today’s economy. The American people will not be served by a financial system that comprises just a few massive firms. That’s not good for consumers; it’s not good for the economy. And through this policy, that is an outcome we will avoid.

My message to members of Congress of both parties is that we have to get this done. And my message to leaders of the financial industry is to work with us, and not against us, on needed reforms. I welcome constructive input from folks in the financial sector. But what we’ve seen so far, in recent weeks, is an army of industry lobbyists from Wall Street descending on Capitol Hill to try and block basic and common-sense rules of the road that would protect our economy and the American people.

So if these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have. And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can’t lend more to small business, they can’t keep credit card rates low, they can’t pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout without passing on the cost to shareholders or customers — that’s the claims they’re making. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.

We’ve come through a terrible crisis. The American people have paid a very high price. We simply cannot return to business as usual. That’s why we’re going to ensure that Wall Street pays back the American people for the bailout. That’s why we’re going to rein in the excess and abuse that nearly brought down our financial system. That’s why we’re going to pass these reforms into law.

4 Comments

  1. how much of this is a respond to the Massachusetts vote?

    That vote’s ‘meaning’ feels like a Rorschach free-for-all, but what’s your take on it?

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Carey wrote:

    The vote in Massachusetts was best described by Steven Pearlstein in the WaPo, who said something like, “it’s all local politics, and Brown was the more exciting candidate.”

    But I should stop paraphrasing.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/19/AR2010011904346.html

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  3. psst, you should install ‘subscribe to comments’ so that the reader can be notified when you have responded to a comments

    please or feel free and delete this comment,btw

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  4. Carey wrote:

    You’re right — so long as this blog remains small, the comment email function would be a good one.

    I’ll work on putting it up when I get some free blog-maintenance time. (Translation: when I get some time that’s not devoted to exercising my dog.)

    Damn dog.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

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