Sheila Bair recently made the weird proposal that bank examiners should serve for life, to keep them from going to work for banks—where she suspects her former regulatory colleagues would favor them unfairly. Not a very flattering view of the FDIC! Furthermore, such a requirement of lifetime employment would be legally unenforceable.
If authors are free to promote their books with silly sound bites for fun and profit, examiners should likewise be free to use their own more modest skills to best advantage. Let's put reasonable restrictions on a former government employee's going to work for an institution supervised by the same regulatory office where he was recently employed. That's enough.
The worse abuse runs the opposite way. Elite individuals who made their fortunes at big institutions turn to "public service" offering splendid opportunities to benefit the institutions where they previously worked. Maybe Robert Rubin should be the poster boy for these. From Goldman Sachs to Secretary of the Treasury. (I'm not complaining about his subsequently becoming prime architect of Citigroup's ruin, where he insisted for years that the bank wasn't taking enough risk. Having bailed out Mexico, maybe Rubin saw that Citi, too, would have to be bailed out.)
How about Henry Paulson (31 years at Goldman)? William Dudley (20 years)? Gary Gensler (18 years)—who came with exceptionally heavy baggage and has been ineffective. How about Jamie Dimon, rebounding after a brief burp from London to promote himself as a business statesman uniquely suited for a top Washington job? It would be unduly cynical to argue he's done such a poor job for shareholders that he'd do less harm in Washington. Let those shareholders keep him.
Such people can sell their stock or put their assets into blind trusts. What they can't shrug off are their values, attitudes, and their ingrained belief that their former employers are the indispensable bulwarks of the U.S. economy, to be coddled, relied upon, and when possible, saved. The underlying idea: We have the cleanest, deepest capital markets in the world. Don't mess with them.
So, where can we draw the line? Here's a simple rule. After you've worked for a TBTF (SIFI, GSIB's or whatever) in any capacity including director, you can't serve (or disserve) the U.S. in any capacity, for a number of years equal to triple the years you spent working for the TBTF. Triple, like antitrust damages. After all, this is an oligopoly.
Such a rule would have the additional benefit of at least modestly reducing the wrong incentives that render the TBTF's so noxious. If you work for one, expect to be labeled, stigmatized, contaminated, and to give up some rights. It's not a badge of greatness, only of great wealth. This might even dissuade some people from choosing or staying with TBTF career paths, reducing these firms' unfair advantage in recruiting top talent.
Will this rule deprive us of the indispensable services of individuals whose selfless sacrifices can enable government to crash through market and legal obstacles like a greased pig? No. In the past most key federal financial officials, whether FDIC chairpersons, Comptrollers of the Currency, or Secretaries of the Treasury, were not veterans of the TBTF's. Geithner wasn't. And who's to say he's been a worse Treasury Secretary than Paulson or Rubin?
There are actually people—seldom heard from, but I'm among them—who think Ed DeMarco is an exceptionally able public executive, who deserves our gratitude. He didn't have to be a veteran of Citi or Morgan Stanley to do the good things he's done as cleaner-up of the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac train wrecks. Obama may fire him now that the election is over, but the President shouldn't be able to replace him with someone who marshaled mega campaign contributions at a TBTF.
The overgrowth, the immensely excessive share of the economy and the unprecedented, dangerous concentration within the financial sector have been remarked upon. What is seldom mentioned is that along with this unmanageable size comes not just regulatory capture, but inordinate influence on government. It inevitably follows that when the going gets rough, the reflexes of a Paulson or a Dudley are always going to be to look to the TBTF's for a "solution," and to pay handsomely for it. That's the easy way. And after all, the TBTF's have such great people.
Call logs as well as transactions document these habits. It's our recent history. Let's not repeat it.
Andrew Kahr is a principal in Credit Builders LLC, a financial product development company, and was the founding chief executive of First Deposit, later known as Providian.