Editor's note: A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
I shared a meal in Midtown Manhattan last week with an old friend who's worked in the risk management department of the same super-sized bank since before the bust. My friend is a straight shooter who years ago railed against the foibles of his own institution. As the crisis hit, he was merciless in fingering fellow bankers he’d observed close up.
When Washington responded by cooking up the Dodd-Frank Act, he waxed cynical about its prospects. (Me too, in a column in which I called it “regulatory overkill.”) How, he asked, did Washington possibly think it could slow the activities of giant banks and their armies of people whose job it was to circumvent regulations?
My friend’s tune has changed markedly since then. During our recent meal, he held his hands shoulder-width apart to illustrate the former size of his bank's prop-trading operations. Then, with his thumb and index finger, he made a small circle to show what it’s shrunken to under the Volcker Rule's prohibition on speculative trading.
“What happened to all those traders?” I ask.
“They’re gone,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Some retired. Some went to hedge funds. Others are unemployed or went back to school.”
What’s grown in their place, he continues, is an army of risk managers and compliance functionaries charged with compiling countless pages of regulatory documents. Handing a recent Wharton grad a small fortune to take a flier on the Indonesian rupiah is no longer an option. Among a gazillion other requirements, big banks must now show that all trading involves some sort of client order or risk hedge.
One absurdity in all this, my friend says, is that speculative trading is not what brought down giant banks. Instead, he pins the blame on imprudent mortgage lending and its many offshoots, with the government’s active encouragement.
"It would have made a lot more sense to bring back Glass-Steagall," he argues, referring to the law that for much of the twentieth century kept commercial lenders and investment banks separate.
The problem with such an elegant solution, I counter, is that it would short circuit one of Washington’s favorite pastimes: Making work for and increasing the power of Washington. No argument there from my friend.
Instead he noted that his own bank, and its mega-brethren, have themselves become bloated and bureaucratic in the wake of their crisis-era shotgun marriages.
“If you made these banks 20% more efficient, you’d unlock a huge amount of wealth,” he tells me.
Another thing that sticks in his craw: The way bankers and banking have been demonized while bureaucrats and bureaucracies have gotten off lightly. While Dodd-Frank has taken a meat cleaver to banks, the spaghetti pile of banking regulators has been left virtually untouched.
To my friend, the result makes a mockery of prudent risk management. Collateralized debt obligations, he notes, are still overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission, while many related products fall under the purview of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. (Legislation aimed at merging the two agencies got nowhere in a town where reform is seen as something to impose on other people.)
I conceded the point but add that it would seem the greater goals of so-called financial reform have been achieved. Banking, after all, is becoming a more boring and less profitable industry. On that point, my friend and I are in full agreement.
Neil Weinberg is the editor-in-chief of American Banker. The views expressed are his own.