Bipartisanship Is Needed on Bank Industry Reform

Posted November 13, 2009 at 4:00pm

With the panic over a potential economic collapse having subsided, financial services regulatory reform efforts are under way in Congress. The crisis revealed that our financial services marketplace is an antiquated, dangerous place in urgent need of reform. Yet familiar conflicts between Republicans and Democrats, and banks and consumers, are drawing attention away from the interconnected series of booby traps in our financial services marketplace that are a serious threat to consumers, investors and the economy as a whole. Changes must be made that prevent the conditions that precipitated last year’s economic chaos from recurring, and these changes must happen in a timely manner.

I believe discussions need to refocus on two items. First, to identify and eliminate risks, we need to address the “too big to fail— problem. This can be accomplished by creating an effective systemic risk regulator, composed of a board of the financial services regulators, to identify potential problems within specific institutions and across the sector and economy as a whole. This body would identify unsound practices, give the systemic risk regulator the ability to take actions to eliminate these risks and make institutions take responsibility for their own risky behavior.

I have also previously written and spoken about the need to create a resolution authority that allows us to unwind failed non-bank financial institutions so our government is not forced to prop up troubled financial institutions with taxpayer funds. These steps will go a long way in identifying and eliminating risks, preventing another crisis and changing how the government would respond in the face of a crisis.

Second, while I certainly share the anger of most Americans at these Wall Street firms, we cannot let that anger dictate our response. But the time of the industry playing by their own rules is over.

The financial services industry needs to acknowledge that serious changes, not just superficial adjustments, are needed to our financial infrastructure. Legislation must refocus our regulators, and more importantly the CEOs, on the necessity of consumer protection, accountability and responsibility while doing business.

While it’s been said before, it’s worth repeating: Community banks and credit unions, for the most part, have lent responsibly and did not contribute to the crisis. Yet these institutions are feeling the effects of the crisis, and many have failed over the past year, with more failures expected. Safe and sound banks are a needed component to our nation’s economic recovery and job creation.

We cannot afford to pass legislation that would further imperil small community banks and thereby hurt consumers and small businesses. That doesn’t mean these institutions shouldn’t have to follow the rules, but any changes should be mindful of the regulatory and compliance burden these small institutions already face.

Legislation shouldn’t make it impossible for financial institutions to operate, especially small community banks. We all know who the bad actors were, and frankly many of these firms don’t even exist because their business decisions drove their companies into the ground. Legislation shouldn’t just be a way to inflict further punishment on those who didn’t cause the crisis.

I believe there is much common ground between both political parties regarding the types of reforms our financial services marketplace needs. I hope that we won’t let disagreements on any single item, whether it is within or among committees, derail or delay bipartisan efforts. I think we can all agree that we need reforms to guarantee better consumer and investor protection; to consolidate and streamline our numerous regulatory agencies where duplicative; to change how credit default swaps and other derivatives are traded and regulated; to more closely monitor hedge funds; to reform how credit rating agencies are used; and to change how companies think about corporate governance, especially executive pay and compensation.

I commend Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) for his hard work on the draft proposal he released last week, and I am looking forward to working with Chairman Dodd and my other Banking Committee colleagues as the legislative process moves ahead.

There is a lot we need to do, and no bill will be perfect. But what counts most is that we move forward making the right policy changes, and not the wrong political ones. Reforms will be with us for decades and affect our economic future for many years. Yet the time to put in place the building blocks of our reform effort is now, while the disastrous consequences of the economic crisis remain fresh in our minds. These reforms are urgent, and it would be irresponsible to enter another year of this crisis without taking any steps to improve the system.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) is chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Financial Institutions.