January 15, 2015
Mark Calabria, the Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute, has posted a very interesting paper, The Resolution of Systemically Important Financial Institutions: Lessons from Fannie and Freddie. This is a more formal version of what he presented at the AALS meeting early this month. I do not agree with all of Mark’s analysis, but this paper certainly opened my eyes about what can happen in committee when important statutes are being drafted. It opens,
There was perhaps no issue of greater importance to the financial regulatory reforms of 2010 than the resolution, without taxpayer assistance, of large financial institutions. The rescue of firms such as AIG shocked the public conscience and provided the political force behind the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Such is reflected in the fact that Titles I and II of Dodd-Frank relate to the identification and resolution of large financial entities. How the tools established in Titles I and II are implemented are paramount to the success of Dodd-Frank. This paper attempts to gauge the likely success of these tools via the lens of similar tools created for the resolution of the housing government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
An additional purpose of this paper is to provide some additional “legislative history” to the resolution mechanisms contained in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which established a resolution framework for the GSEs similar to that ultimately created in Title II of Dodd-Frank. The intent is to inform current debates over the resolution of systemically important financial institutions by revisiting how such issues were debated and agreed upon in HERA. (1-2)
As an outside-the-Beltway type, I found the “legislative history” very interesting, even if it wouldn’t qualify as any type of legislative history that a judge would consider in interpreting a statute. It does, however, offer policy wonks, bureaucrats and politicians an inside view of how a Congressional staffer helps to make the sausage that is legislation. It also shows that in the realm of legislation, as in the realm of fiction, author’s intent can play out in tricky ways.
The neglect of HERA’s tools and the likely similar neglect of Dodd-Frank’s suggest a much deeper reform of our financial regulatory system is in order. The regulatory culture of “whatever it takes” must be abandoned. A respect for the rule of law and obedience to the letter of the law must be instilled in our regulatory culture. More important, the incentives facing regulators must be dramatically changed. If we hope to end “too-big-to-fail” and to curtail moral hazard more generally, significant penalties must be created for rescues as well as deviations from statute. A very difficult question is that lack of standing for any party to litigate to enforce statutory prohibitions against rescues. (19)
I take a couple of lessons from this paper. First, tight drafting of legislation that is supposed to kick in during a crisis is key. If a statute has wiggle room, decision makers are going to stretch it out as they see fit. And second, I agree with Mark that even tight drafting won’t necessarily keep government actors from acting as they see fit in a crisis.
If Congress really want to constrain the choices of future decision makers, it will need to grant a third party standing to enforce that decision as it is unlikely that crisis managers will have the self-restraint to forgo options that they would otherwise prefer. Congress should be very careful about constraining the choices of these future decision makers. But if it chooses to do so, that would be the way to go.