WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s first major speech on Wall Street reform Thursday is unlikely to persuade skeptics on the left that she is committed to going further than President Obama on the issue.
For the most part, her ideas were the same ones that Obama has already touted in his seven years in office and which became a part of the Dodd-Frank Act. Though she explicitly said she wanted to go further than the financial reform law, the specifics she offered appear to be in line with what regulators are already doing.
The following is an annotated copy of Clinton’s speech in which American Banker fact-checks and analyzes her statements. Her words are in italics.
“Seven years after the financial crash, despite important new rules signed into law by President Barack Obama, there are risks in our financial system that could still cause another crisis. Banks have paid billions of dollars in fines, but few executives have been held personally accountable. ‘Too big to fail’ is still too big a problem. Regulators don’t have all the tools and support they need to protect our economy. To prevent irresponsible behavior on Wall Street from ever again devastating Main Street, we need more accountability, tougher rules and stronger enforcement. I have a plan to build on the progress we’ve made under President Obama and do just that.”
[What is interesting here is that Clinton is not claiming that Dodd-Frank solved “too big to fail,” a view the Obama administration generally espouses. And while it is popular to argue regulators do not have all the tools they need, that claim is questionable because Dodd-Frank gave them enormous powers, the majority of which they have not used.]
In the years before the crash, as financial firms piled risk upon risk, regulators in Washington either could not or would not keep up. Top regulators under President George W. Bush posed for a picture literally taking a chain saw to banking rules.
[On June 3, 2003, regulators posed for the photo Clinton references above. But American Banker was there when the photo was taken, and it’s not quite as ominous or radical as it sounds. Regulators are required by law to periodically review banking regulations that are obsolete and get rid of them. They are currently engaged again in this process. On this particular occasion, they just found a dramatic way to demonstrate what they were doing – but very little resulted from their efforts and their eventual suggestions were small-bore stuff, not big-picture deregulation.]
Before the crisis hit, as a senator from New York, I was alarmed by this gathering storm, and called for addressing the risks of derivatives, cracking down on abusive subprime mortgages and improving financial oversight. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress largely ignored calls for reform. The result cost 9 million Americans their jobs, drove 5 million families out of their homes and wiped out more than $13 trillion in household wealth.
Thanks to President Obama’s leadership and the determination and sacrifice of the American people, we’ve worked our way out of that ditch and put our economy on sounder footing. Now we have to keep going.
First, it’s time for more accountability on Wall Street. Stories of misconduct in the financial industry are shocking -- like HSBC allowing drug cartels to launder money or five major banks pleading guilty to felony charges for conspiring to manipulate currency exchange rates. This is criminal behavior, yet the individuals responsible often get off with limited consequences -- or none at all. I want to change that.
[Clinton is talking about the concept of “too big to jail,” for which HSBC has become the poster child. The bank paid nearly $2 billion in fines for serious anti-money-laundering lapses. Former Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that sometimes prosecutors do not go after large corporations because they fear the economic impact of doing so. Holder later backed off those comments and current AG Loretta Lynch has already vowed to take individuals, not just companies, to task if crimes are committed.]
People who commit serious financial crimes should face serious consequences, including big fines, disbarment from working in the industry and the prospect of imprisonment. As president, I will seek to extend the statute of limitations for major financial crimes, enhance whistle-blower rewards, and increase resources for the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate and prosecute individuals. We should also hold financial executives accountable for egregious misconduct by their subordinates. They need to lose their bonuses and, in some cases, their jobs.
[ The subtext of Clinton’s call for clawbacks refer to AIG which, after being bailed out by the government in 2008, later gave large bonuses to its executives. The bonuses outraged Obama and just about everybody else, but regulators were powerless to stop them from being granted. But it’s important to note that both the Justice Department and the SEC have repeatedly vowed to prosecute individuals. The problem doesn’t appear to be a matter of will, but being able to prove that a crime occurred. Clinton’s plan would face an uphill battle in changing that.]
Second, I will work with Congress and independent regulators to rein in the complexity and riskiness of major financial institutions. The Dodd-Frank Act that President Obama signed after the crisis has already made important reforms, but there’s more to do.
One serious approach being advocated is to pass an updated Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking, to reduce the size of the banks and the risk of a taxpayer bailout. I certainly share the goal of never having to bail out the big banks again, but I prefer the path of tackling the most dangerous risks in a different way.
[Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders back the approach above. But Clinton really can’t support it since the bill to repeal Glass-Steagall, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, was signed into law by her husband, former President Bill Clinton. To be fair to Clinton, it is unclear whether the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the crisis, though it probably made it more costly.]
To start, I will propose a new fee on risk that would discourage the type of excessive leverage and short-term borrowing that could spark another crisis.
[This is undoubtedly intended to comfort those on the left who question Clinton’s commitment to reform. But regulators have already finalized a capital surcharge on the largest and most risky banks. And that surcharge is higher if a bank relies on excessive leverage and short-term borrowing. Moreover, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Janet Yellen has suggested more should be done to target short-term borrowing. In other words, Clinton is pushing for something that is happening already.]
We should also strengthen and enforce the Volcker Rule so banks can’t make risky and speculative trading bets with taxpayer-backed money.
[Clinton goes further in her detailed proposal, suggesting that the Volcker Rule needs to be revamped to eliminate a “loophole” that allows banks to invest up to 3% of their capital in private equity and hedge funds. Clinton’s plan claims that banks “are already structuring their activities to avoid the Volcker Rule’s restrictions.” This would take legislation which, given GOP antipathy toward the Volcker Rule in general, would be highly unlikely to pass.]
And if a bank suffers losses that threaten its overall financial health, senior managers should lose some or all of their bonus compensation. That will ensure that financial executives have skin in the game and a real incentive to avoid reckless risk-taking.
[Clinton’s more detailed proposal makes it clear that she is using powers granted under Dodd-Frank to make this happen. She adds that she would apply these restrictions beyond just insured banks to nonbanks that are designated as systemic threats.]
My plan would also give regulators the authority they need to reorganize, downsize or even break apart any financial institution that is too large and risky to be managed effectively. It is a comprehensive and flexible approach. It allows regulators to adapt to changing markets and help ensure that large financial firms never pose a danger to our entire economy.
[While calling for more empowered regulators may play well with the base, Dodd-Frank already granted the Fed and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. wide-ranging powers to do just what Clinton is suggesting. It is unclear whether or how Clinton would go beyond what has already been done.]
We have learned the hard way that there is no substitute for tough, empowered regulators with the resources and support to do their job. That’s why I’ve supported Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s bill to restore trust in government and slow Wall Street’s revolving door. We need to find the best, most independent-minded people for these important regulatory jobs -- people who will put consumers and everyday investors ahead of the industries and institutions they’re supposed to oversee.
[A cynical person might point out that the revolving door was a centerpiece of the last Clinton administration. Robert Rubin, who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, was President Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary and, once he left office, he went to work for Citigroup. And even an ex-regulator widely liked by reformers, Gary Gensler, the former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, used to work for Goldman as well. He is now a top adviser to Clinton’s campaign.]
Third, we need a comprehensive strategy to reduce risk everywhere in the financial system. After all, many of the firms at the heart of the crash in 2008, like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and AIG, were not traditional banks. I’ll push for stronger oversight of the “shadow banking” sector, which includes certain activities of hedge funds, investment banks and other nonbank finance companies.
[This is a rare area that is unpopular with the base, yet Clinton is making a solid point. It is true that nonbanks played an outsize role in the financial crisis. It is also true that many of the rules put in place to rein in banks have had the unintended effect of pushing risk to the shadow banking sector.]
Fourth, we need to ensure that everyday investors and consumers can trust that our financial markets work for them -- and not just for insiders with the most sophisticated, specialized and fastest connections. That is why we should impose a tax on the high-frequency trading that makes our markets less stable and less fair. And we should reform the rules that govern our stock markets to ensure equal access to markets and information, increase transparency, and minimize conflicts of interest.
[Clinton is also on solid ground in taking a harder look at high-frequency trading, an area regulators have also expressed concerns about. Yet a new tax is also unlikely to play well with Republicans in Congress, suggesting she may have to address concerns about high-frequency trading in other ways were she to win the election.]
Finally, I will veto any legislation that would weaken Dodd-Frank. We can’t go back to the days when Wall Street could write its own rules. I believe we can defend Dodd-Frank while easing burdens on community banks so they are able to lend responsibly to the hardworking families and small businesses they know and trust. We also have to defeat Republican attempts to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- an agency dedicated solely to protecting Americans from unfair and deceptive financial practices -- and to exploit the upcoming budget and debt-ceiling negotiations for rollbacks in financial reforms.
[Both items above -- defending Dodd-Frank and the CFPB -- are things Clinton must say to win any support in the progressive community. Importantly, however, she’s providing a little wiggle room by saying she supports “easing burdens on community banks.” The trick is doing so in a way that also passes muster with Warren Democrats.]
The bottom line is that we can never allow what happened in 2008 to happen again. Just as important, we have to encourage Wall Street to live up to its proper role in our economy -- helping Main Street grow and prosper. With strong rules of the road and smart incentives, the financial industry can help more young families buy that first home, make it possible for entrepreneurs to create new small businesses and support hardworking Americans saving for retirement. My plan will help us unlock that potential. We’ll create good-paying jobs, raise incomes and help families afford a middle-class life, with less speculation and more growth -- growth that’s strong, fair and long-term. That’s what I’m fighting for in my campaign, and that’s what I’ll do as president.
[Once again, it is worth noting that the above could easily have been said by President Obama, suggesting that another Clinton administration is likely to be tweaks to the existing system rather than broader reform.]