Marketplace Scratch Pad

What took so long?

Scott Jagow Jan 21, 2010

Now that he has the extra political motivation of having one less senator in his corner, President Obama is charging ahead on financial regulation. Some of the things he proposed today are ideas we’ve been tossing about on this blog for months.

Obama’s measures would give the government the ability to limit the size of the nation’s banks and the scope of their risk-taking. More from CNBC:

Obama proposed new rules to prevent banks or financial institutions that own banks from owning, investing in or sponsoring a hedge fund or private equity fund.

The rules would also bar institutions from proprietary trading operations, unrelated to serving customers, for their own profit.

Proprietary trading refers to a firm making bets on financial markets with its own money, rather than executing a trade for a client.

In the video from today’s announcement, you’ll notice a tall, older gentlemen standing to the left of President Obama:

It’s Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve. We’ve talked about him before. In September we discussed Volcker’s testimony before Congress. Here’s what Volcker said:

As a general matter, I would exclude from commercial banking institutions, which are potential beneficiaries of official (i.e., taxpayer) financial support, certain risky activities entirely suitable for our capital markets.

Ownership or sponsorship of hedge funds and private equity funds should be among those prohibited activities. So should in my view a heavy volume of proprietary trading with its inherent risks.

That’s almost word-for-word what we heard today. But why is Obama listening to Volcker now, when he previously seemed to ignore his advice? Perhaps the public pressure got to him. Perhaps the senate seat lost in Massachusetts lit a fire. Perhaps the Obama team just can’t stop playing “throw it against the wall and see what sticks.”

Or maaaaybe the president finally stopped waiting on Wall Street to “join in” the reform effort.

If you watched the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings last week, you’ll know what I mean. People like Paul Krugman wrote that the bank CEOs seemed clueless about what caused the crisis and how a future crisis might be prevented. Why is that? Are they dumb people? Are they just playing dumb?

Neither. They simply don’t care to know. The best explanation I’ve seen is from an anonymous M&A guy who writes the blog, The Epicurean Dealmaker.

In this post, The Epicurean Dealmaker explains why government and Wall Street will never figure these things out together:

Investment bankers’ job is to surf the wave of financial and economic activity and make money from it, not convene a committee to discuss the design of dikes and levees.

That is the job of regulators, politicians, and public intellectuals like you, Mr. Krugman. So get crackin’.

We’ll be over here in the corner, making money, until you get back to us.

More on the bank CEOs themselves:

They are damn smart; scary smart, in fact. You don’t get to the top of the greasy ladder of a major global investment bank’s executive suite by being dull, incurious, or lethargic. People like that get sliced to ribbons and thrown into the chum bucket in my industry before they reach Managing Director, if they ever get inside in the first place. These guys got game, people. Serious game. You would be foolish to doubt it.

But they also have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the whys and wherefores of the financial crisis, the proper size and role of banks and investment banks in the domestic economy, or the moral imperatives inherent in stewarding the financial plumbing undergirding the daily lives and livelihoods of six billion people.

Maybe the president has finally figured that out.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.