Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

The Long Path to Director Cordray’s Removal

I have been vigorously recommending that President-elect Trump replace Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). I still think that replacing Director Cordray is necessary for reasons I’ve enumerated elsewhere; but on Friday the CFPB filed a petitionfor a rehearing of a recent and crucial case. So it’s time to talk about the legal hurdles President Trump will have to clear before he can install a new director. It is possible that there will be a long road ahead.

To understand these hurdles, we have to go back to the CFPB’s founding document, the Dodd-Frank Act. In Dodd-Frank, the Bureau was established as an independent agency. That means that although the President appoints the Director, and although that appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, the President’s ability to remove the director is very limited. Under Dodd-Frank, President Trump would be able to remove Director Cordray only for cause — e.g., for neglecting his duty or actual bad behavior. He would not be able to remove him because the two disagreed on policy or the direction the agency should take.

The rules for an independent agency can be contrasted with those for an executive agency, such as the Department of Justice or the Department of the Treasury. The Attorney General, for example, can be removed by the President at will. And there have been examples in the past when a cabinet member has resigned over policy disagreements with the sitting President.

The CFPB is not the only independent government agency. But it is unusual in that it is headed by a single individual. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, is an independent agency. Its Commissioners can be removed by the President only for cause. The Chair of that agency, however, serves as Chair at the President’s will. If President Obama wanted to remove the current Chair Mary Jo White, he could remove her from her position as Chair but could not prevent her continuing as a member of the Commission for the duration of her term.

All of this changed, however, last month when a federal appeals court ruled the CFPB’s structure unconstitutional. In that case, the court found that, unlike a multi-seat commission where commissioners must work together, there is no check on the Director’s power. The court ruled that, to cure the constitutional defect, the Director must serve at the will of the President. That is, the court said that the President can fire the Director for any reason at all, including a disagreement on policy.

The Return of Glass-Steagall

With both major party platforms calling for a return to some version of Glass-Steagall, it was a given that, whoever won the Presidential election, the issue would return to the public debate. However, we still need to do considerable work ending bailouts, and a return to Glass-Steagall would most likely divert us from that goal.

In order to help clarify this debate, the Cato Institute is proud to today offer a new paper on the topic, The Repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act: Myth and Reality by Oonagh McDonald, CBE. Dr. McDonald is an international financial regulatory expert, having held senior positions in several U.K. financial regulatory agencies. She was also a member of the British Parliament from 1976–87. Her most recent book details the failure of Lehman Brothers.

The new paper lays out a legislative history of Glass-Steagall, pointing out that of the provisions relating to the separation of commercial and investment banking (sections 16, 20, 21, and 32) only two of those four (sections 20 and 32) were repealed in 1999 by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Two remain current law today. Dr. McDonald further demonstrates how the two repealed provisions had already been largely eliminated by court and regulatory decisions long before 1999.

Dr. McDonald also reviews the economic literature, concluding that Glass-Steagall was not even the appropriate response to the banking problems of the 1920s and 1930s in the first place. What’s more, had Glass-Steagall remained fully in force after 1999, the financial crisis of 2008 would have largely looked the same. As I’ve written elsewhere, Glass-Steagall has essentially become a symbolic lens—a “Rorschach Test” that reflects one’s views on the power of big banks. However, if we truly wish to end bailouts, we need to get the history, law and economics right. Dr. McDonald’s paper makes an important contribution in that direction.

New President. New SEC. Less Regulation?

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is poised to have the majority of its seats filled by Trump nominees.  Earlier this week SEC chair Mary Jo White announced she would be stepping down at the end of President Obama’s term. This is not in itself surprising.  The chair serves at the will of the president and it’s customary for the current chair to step aside and let an incoming president install a chair of his or her choosing.  What is remarkable however is the number of vacancies that leaves president-elect Trump to fill. 

The five member commission has had two empty seats for over a year and a half now, following Republican Dan Gallagher’s resignation in May 2015 and the expiration of Democrat Luis Aguilar’s term the same month. Although President Obama nominated two candidates to fill those seats, Republican Hester Peirce and Democrat Lisa Fairfax, their confirmations have been stalled in congress.  (Like many similar commissions, the SEC must be politically balanced with no more than three seats filled by members of the same party.)  White’s resignation will therefore leave only two commissioners in office, Republican Michael Piwowar and Democrat Kara Stein. Until a new chair can be confirmed, it is likely that president-elect Trump will name Piwowar acting chair.  In the meantime, however, with only two commissioners, it is unlikely that the SEC will pursue any kind of ambitious agenda.

Looking forward to what the SEC might look like with its new members in place, it would be reasonable to hope for a less aggressive and more market-friendly agency than we have had under White’s direction.  Trump has sounded a decidedly deregulatory tone both in the course of the campaign, vowing to dismantle Dodd-Frank, and in the days since the election.  His pick of Paul Atkins, a former SEC commissioner known for his strong free-market bent, to head up part of his transition team also signals a commitment to paring back the voluminous regulations that have plagued the financial sector in recent years. 

A Message for Trump: Basel IV Will Kill Dreams of an Infrastructure Boom

Ever since the Financial Crisis, regulators have tightened their grip on banking activities (read: beaten up on banks) without taking note of unintended consequences. Prominent amongst these misguided regulatory interventions have been the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) mandates, which are touted as promoting global financial safety and economic stability. John Dizard of the Financial Times has seen through the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s smoke and mirrors display and correctly concludes that the proposals provide background noise for the next crisis.

First, the new “Basel IV” reforms will dampen economic growth globally. The European Banking Federation claims that increased capital requirements will cause European Banks to raise an additional €850bn of capital. This will exacerbate the credit crunch because banks can increase capital-asset ratios by either shrinking assets or raising capital. In both scenarios, deposit liabilities are reduced and money is destroyed. Slower growth in the money supply, broadly measured, slows the expansion of nominal GDP. The implications are dire because Basel IV seeks specifically to increase capital requirements on project lending and banks account for 80 percent of lending to the real economy in Europe.

Second, Basel IV’s push to standardize risk weighted asset calculations will actually increase risky activities. Unbelievably, Dizard reports, “under the current version of the Basel ‘standardized approach’, unsecured lending to a non-public, below investment-grade corporate borrower requires the same bank capital commitment as project financing secured by assets, liens on equity and cash lockbox arrangements.” With all corporate risk considered the same, incentives will exist for bankers to lend for a risky, high-yield project instead of a safer, more productive one. The result will be a push away from revenue-producing infrastructure projects. 

The secretive Basel Committee on Banking Supervision continues to create systemic risks, which threaten to plunge the world into a slump. Thanks to the BIS mandates, we might experience the horrors of Quantitative Tightening (QT).

What Will Donald Trump’s Presidency Mean for the Federal Reserve?

On election night, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told MSNBC interviewer Chris Matthews that Donald Trump’s victory, after a campaign against the elites and insiders, was like Andrew Jackson’s first presidential victory. At the end of his first term in office, Jackson cut the federal government’s ties to the Bank of the United States (by vetoing an Act to renew its charter), an institution that was in some respects the Federal Reserve System of its day. Might Donald Trump’s presidency have equally dramatic consequences for the Federal Reserve?

During his campaign, candidate Trump mulled an idea for thoroughgoing reform of our monetary system: a return to the gold standard. As Ralph Benko noted, Mr. Trump told a New Hampshire television station in March: “We used to have a very, very solid country because it was based on a gold standard.” He added that a return would be difficult because “we don’t have the gold. Other places have the gold.” He similarly told GQ magazine that “Bringing back the gold standard would be very hard to do, but boy, would it be wonderful. We’d have a standard on which to base our money.”

It should be pointed out to the president-elect that in fact the US government does have enough gold in Fort Knox and its other depositories, at least if the US Treasury has been reporting its holdings honestly. At the current market price of about $1,280 per fine Troy oz., the U.S. government’s 261.5 million ounces of gold are worth $335 billion. Current required bank reserves are only $168 billion. Looked at another way, $335 billion is just a bit more than 10 percent of the $3,347 in current M1 (the sum of currency and checking account balances), which is more than a healthy reserve ratio by historical standards. In that respect, restoration of the gold standard is eminently feasible. After unwinding the QEs, the Fed could swap commercial banks’  required reserves for gold, and hold gold against its own currency liabilities, Federal Reserve Notes, which would once again be made redeemable in gold. Better yet, the federal government could allow commercial banks to issue their own currency again (or, if it already technically legal, promise not to penalize them).

Whether restoration of the gold standard will be politically feasible depends of course on how serious the new president will be about pushing it, and how receptive the Republican majorities in Congress will be.

The Election’s Bearing on Monetary Freedom

No matter who wins this year’s presidential election, believers in monetary freedom will have their work cut out for them.

A newly-elected president Trump will quickly turn from making the Fed a scapegoat for his own campaigns’ tribulations to blaming it for his economic policy failures — starting with the equities market nose dive that’s likely to follow his surprise victory. But instead of continuing to rail against the Fed’s supposedly easy policy stance, you can bet that president-elect Trump would soon be blaming it for keeping money too tight.

In any event, a newly-elected Trump administration, through its unveiled hostility toward the Fed, could not fail to make that already “political” institution even more so, for the Fed knows very well that, if it wants to preserve its vaunted independence, it had better heed the administrations’ wishes. That’s what former Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin, who understood the true nature of the Fed’s independence better than anyone, meant when he explained that the Fed was independent, not “from,” but “within,” the government.

And if it doesn’t? Then at the very least we can expect President Trump to make life very unpleasant for Chair Yellen, in the hope of making her resign before the end of her term in January 2018. And even if she resists, we can expect to have a Trump-appointed Fed chair in place for at least half of his term. If you think that might be an improvement, then presumably you believe that Trump is a better judge of monetary policy experts than he is of economic policy experts generally.

In any event, it is another Clinton presidency that champions of monetary freedom are most likely to have to contend with. And what will that mean? Although the Fed would be bound to accommodate her own administration’s wishes to some extent, Clinton’s championing of Fed independence during her campaign would at least make it necessary for her administration to proceed relatively gingerly in trying to sway its conduct. But while the Clinton administration is unlikely to influence Fed policy directly, it can be expected to do so indirectly, in the name of “diversity.”

Does Monetary Policy Have a Future?

I have chosen a provocative title, but it is fully justified. Fed officials are flying on autopilot, but the controls don’t work anymore, or at least not reliably. Fed watchers are largely clueless. The investment community and the economy may be collateral damage.

Let me begin by briefly reviewing the recent past. All through last year, Fed officials were signaling they would begin a program of rate increases. At first, there were going to be 8 increases of one quarter point. As the year progressed, the first increase faded into the future. Finally, in December 2015, the Fed finally hiked its new interest-rate targets by 25 basis points. In my opinion, the FOMC did so largely to keep its credibility.

At the time, I wrote that “the chief effect of Wednesday’s action and accompanying statement is to once again increase uncertainty in financial markets” (O’Driscoll 2015). I became convinced that, promises to the contrary notwithstanding, the Fed would not raise interest rates again before December 2016. Instead, policymakers would dither all year. I forecast the earliest rate hike would be in December 2016. Note, I did not predict the Fed would actually raise rates this December, just that they would not do so before. I think I have been vindicated.