A seminar on the Dodd-Frank Act took a testy turn when John Allison, the former chairman and chief executive of BB&T, made an ardent pitch to abolish the Federal Reserve.
"The real cause of the financial crisis was a combination of errors," primarily related to the Fed, said Allison, who earlier this year became the president and chief executive of the Cato Institute. He then pushed to end the Fed or at least rein it in. "We're printing money willy-nilly all over the place."
Allison, who earlier this year published a book that delivered a scathing rebuke of the Fed and other Washington players, was hit with a backlash from other participants on the Friday panel held in Washington and hosted by the Federalist Society.
"We would all be worse off as a country if the Federal Reserve did not intervene when it did," said Michael Barr, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Michigan Law School. The Fed's decision to aggressively intervene during the 2008 financial crisis "is actually helping to sustain a recovery," added Barr, who helped draft Dodd-Frank as an assistant Treasury secretary during the Obama administration.
The Allison-Barr faceoff was intriguing because the panel, which included bankers, legal experts and a former lawmaker, was supposed to focus on Dodd-Frank. But it quickly veered off course, as panelists used their initial comments to argue the causes of the financial crisis, which zeroed in on the Fed.
"I'm not against the Federal Reserve Bank, but the panic of 1907 is not a good example, right" said former Sen. Phil Gramm, who tried to strike a diplomatic tone. The Republican lawmaker added that, "I think the Fed has learned something since then."
The panel's moderator, Neil Gorsuch, a federal judge who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals, repeatedly cut off arguments about the Fed. At one point, Gorsuch prefaced a question about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by noting that the question was not about "the existence of the Federal Reserve."
Panelists eventually settled into a discussion about the CFPB. The bureau "struck a reasonable balance in its structure," Barr said. "I don't think it's a radical departure on the legislative landscape from the range of structures."
Gramm, however, said he found it "extraordinary" that Dodd-Frank left Congress out of the oversight of the CFPB.
It was up to Allison to steer the conversation back to the Fed. "Since Dodd-Frank was passed, there's basically been no innovation or creativity in banking," he said, adding that the Fed's regulatory processes encourage consolidation among the nation's more than 6,000 banks. "I don't know if that's unintended or not, but it's a lot easier to control 20 players than 6,000 players," he said.