WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidates managed to get in several barbs over banking policy during the party's primary debate on Wednesday night, largely aimed at the Federal Reserve and government more broadly.
Still, the contenders mostly skirted around banking issues yet again, the third GOP debate in a row that has failed to substantively address the Dodd-Frank Act, mortgage finance or other pressing financial policy matters. If anything, the candidates were relatively unified in their positions that regulatory bureaucracy and government bumbling are at the root of the country's problems.
"I think the Fed has been a great problem in our society," said Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's authored legislation to audit the Fed, which would give Congress more oversight over the central bank. "What you need to do is free up interest rates. Interest rates are the price of money, and we shouldn't have price controls on the price of money."
He added that analysts should "examine how the Fed has really been part of the problem," citing concerns over income inequality and the financial crisis.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another vocal critic of the central bank, also reiterated his support for Paul's proposal.
"If you look at a single mom buying groceries, she sees hamburger prices have gone up nearly 40%. She sees her cost of electricity going up. She sees her health insurance going up," said Cruz. "And loose money is one of the major problems. We need sound money. And I think the Fed should get out of the business of trying to juice our economy and simply be focused on sound money and monetary stability, ideally tied to gold."
Other candidates touched on worries over "too big to fail" in passing, with a focus on the role government has played in exacerbating the problem, whereas Democrats have often focused on the banks themselves.
"So why are the pharmaceutical companies consolidating? Why are there five even bigger Wall Street banks now, instead of the ten we used to have on Wall Street?" said Carly Fiorina. "Because when government gets big and powerful, the big feel like they need to get even bigger to deal with all that power, and meanwhile, the small and the powerless – in this case, 1,590 community banks – go out of business."
(Fiorina's figure appears to be a reference to the smallest banks with less than $100 million of assets. There were 1,583 banks of that size as of June 30, 2015, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That said, the forces driving industry consolidation remain up for debate.)
Fiorina went on to warn that "government causes a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem," noting that "big and powerful use big and powerful government to their advantage."
"It's why you see the banks consolidating," she said. "And meanwhile, small businesses are getting crushed. Community-based businesses and farms are getting crushed. Community banks are going out of business."
Dr. Ben Carson summed up the problem of "too big to fail" more succinctly, calling it "crap."
"All of this ‘too big to fail' stuff and picking and choosing winners and losers – this is a bunch of crap, and it is really causing a great deal of problems for our society right now," he said. "It goes back to the whole concept of regulations, which are in everything. The reason that I hate them so much is because every single regulation costs in terms of goods and services."
Meanwhile, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, stood up for Wall Street, defending his own time as a banker at Lehman Brothers (and quickly correcting Donald Trump's accusation that he sat on the now-failed bank's board of directors).
"I was a banker and I was proud of it. And I traveled the country and learned how people made jobs," he said. "We ought to have politicians who not only have government experience but know how the CEOs and the job creators work."