If only our financial regulations were dumber! It's not a cry you hear often. But phrased a little differently, it may be the most cogent criticism of the convoluted regulatory approach of recent decades--and one that applies to most of the Obama Administration's financial-reform proposals.
The argument goes like this: the biggest flaw in current financial regulation is not that there is too little of it or too much, but that it relies on regulators knowing best. We regulate because financial systems are fragile, prone to booms and busts that can have harmful effects on the real economy. But regulators aren't immune to the boom-bust cycle. They have an understandable habit of easing up when times are good and cracking down when they're not. In doing so, they often amplify the ups and downs of markets rather than modulate them.
You can spin this into a case for reduced regulation--regulators are likely to mess up, so why bother? But it can also point toward an approach based not so much on discretion as on rules, the simpler the better. I first encountered this argument last fall in the work of left-leaning blogger Matthew Yglesias--he advocated "crude measures" like the old ban on interstate banking. Lately, though, I've been hearing similar suggestions from those of a conservative, University of Chicago bent. "When you give a lot of discretion to regulators, they don't use the tools that are given to them," Chicago economist Gary Becker said at a conference this spring. His prescription: rules, not leeway.
The antidiscretion case has been made for years with regard to Federal Reserve monetary policy. Becker's Chicago teacher Milton Friedman thought that instead of tweaking interest rates, the Fed should just automatically increase the money supply 3% to 4% a year. Measuring the money supply in an era of financial innovation has turned out to be awfully hard, so in recent years believers in an automated Fed have turned to an equation concocted by Stanford economist John Taylor that takes in inflation, current economic growth and long-term-trend growth and churns out a suggested Fed interest-rate target. Taylor and some other conservatives have said that if the Fed had followed his rule in the early 2000s, all would be well today. There's no way of knowing if this is true, but it's hard to see how it could have led to a worse outcome than the monetary course chosen by the smarties at the Fed.
As for other forms of financial regulation, many conservatives long thought that few, if any, were needed, but the crisis has changed some minds. Alan Greenspan's famous October admission that his antiregulation ideology had failed was a landmark on this front. Federal judge and Chicago Law School professor Richard Posner's new book, A Failure of Capitalism, is another. In it, Posner fingers financial deregulation as a major cause of the crisis. He's less clear about what we ought to do now, although one of his suggestions very much fits the crude-measure standard: we should consider raising income taxes on high earners "in order to reduce their appetite for risk-taking."
Capital requirements are an area in which many observers think dumbing down is in order. Regulators spent decades fine-tuning their risk-weighted capital rules, in some cases using the supposedly sophisticated risk models developed by banks themselves. The result was ratios of debt to capital that topped 35 to 1 at some investment banks. Oops! A simpler, cruder standard (say, 10 to 1) surely would have worked better.
Then there's the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from other financial endeavors. By the time Congress repealed the law in 1999, it seemed utterly out of step with the times, but now many economists are wondering if there is something to the idea of separating risky financial activities from essential ones. Or we could tax financial transactions, a policy suggested as far back as 1929 by Virginia Senator Carter Glass (he of the Glass-Steagall Act) and now identified most closely with the late Yale economist James Tobin. In the 1970s, Tobin proposed a tax on currency trades to throw "sand in the wheels" of international finance and damp speculation.
Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama White House, was a proponent of such taxes in the 1980s and early 1990s. There's no hint of them in the Administration's 88-page white paper on financial regulation. There is talk of higher capital requirements, tougher consumer-protection standards and new rules for derivatives. But taken as a whole, the document sketches a regulatory approach that still relies heavily on judgment and smarts. Maybe it's time for some dumbing down.