At a Senate banking committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on too-big-to-fail banks—financial institutions that are so large that their failure would endanger the entire financial system.
"How big do the biggest banks have to get before we consider breaking them up?” she asked.
Too big to fail is far from over. The largest financial institutions are still ballooning in size. In the past few years, banks have been beset by one scandal after another—from money laundering, to rate-fixing, to foreclosure fraud, and have mostly received wrist-slaps as punishment—probably because, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently warned, prosecuting too-big-to-fail banks for bad behavior might spook the entire financial system.
Too big to fail almost died three years ago. Warren noted that as the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law was being crafted, an amendment was proposed that would have broken up the banks, but it didn't pass—in large part, she reminded Lew, because the Treasury Department (then under Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner) was against it.
"Have you changed your position," Warren demanded, referring to the Treasury department. "Or are you still opposed to capping the size of banks?"
Lew responded that "ending too big to fail is our policy and we're aiming to do it." But Warren wouldn't let him weasel out of the question with generalities. "I want to focus you in here," she pushed. "My question is about capping the size of largest financial institutions."
Lew refused to commit. "Our job right now is to implement…Dodd-Frank," he said. "I think this is not the time to be enacting big changes."
"Let me try the question a different way," Warren persisted. "How big do the biggest banks have to get before we consider breaking them up?" she asked, adding that the largest American banks are 30 percent larger than they were five years ago. "Do they have to double in size? Triple in size? Quadruple in size? Before we talk about breaking up the biggest financial institutions?"
Lew said that too big to fail "is an unacceptable policy", but urged Warren to have some patience.
She'd have none of Lew's excuses: "What we've seen…is one scandal after another in these largest financial institutions," she said. "It's clear they have not changed their risk bearing practices nor have they decided that they're suddenly going to start following the law."
Despite the 37 bills to repeal it and the scores of lawsuits filed against it, Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act, is going to be in full swing soon. But the historic health insurance reform law is going to face many more bumps in the road as it is rolled out. One corner of Obamacare that hasn't gotten much attention is the fact that it will not require employers to cover spouses, which experts say could lead some employers to drop coverage for Americans' significant others.
The Affordable Care Act mandates that employers offer health insurance to workers and their dependents. But the law defines dependents as children, not spouses. And although some health care law experts say this is not going to result in any big changes in the way that employers provide insurance for husbands and wives, others contend that implementation of the law could end up leaving some spouses out of family plans, forcing them to buy insurance elsewhere.
"Right now there are virtually no employers that just offer coverage for the employee and their children," says Tim Jost, a health care law scholar at the Washington and Lee University School of Law who regularly consults with Obama administration officials on implementation of the Affordable Care Act. "Whether that will change or not, who knows. We will probably see at least some employers who will offer individual and child coverage, but not coverage for spouses."
If you live in a household that is in the upper-income range—one that takes in more than $94,000 a year (above 78 percent of households)—and you get dropped from your spouse's coverage, you won't be able to get a government subsidy to purchase insurance on the government-run insurance exchanges being set up by the health law. So, say there's a family in which each parent makes $47,000 a year, but only one has coverage. The spouse that is not covered would have to buy private insurance, which costs hundreds of dollars a month.
If you're middle income or poor, and your spouse's employer drops you from her health coverage, you'll be able to shop on the exchange with a subsidy. Even though your coverage would not be free, the idea is that at least it would be kind of affordable. Unless it's not. When people buy coverage on the exchange, their subsidy will be based on household income. As Jost points out, the problem is that household income for people using the exchanges will be measured before the household pays for the employer-provided health insurance. So the employee could be paying up to 9.5 percent of her income on health insurance for herself (the most that Obamacare will allow insurers to charge for employer-sponsored plans), or an even greater share of her income for individual and child coverage, and still her spouse's subsidy on the exchange would be based on that much higher pre-health-care-costs income level.
"It's a potential problem," says Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, a group that backs Obamacare. "There could be some folks that get lost in the shuffle. And that is not insignificant…If you're one of few people adversely affected by something, it doesn't matter that everyone else on the planet is getting the benefit." (The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment for the story.)
But Rome adds that the situation "has to be put in context." He points out that this potential glitch doesn't change the fact that some 30 million people currently without insurance will get coverage under Obamacare. And Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who helped craft Obama's health care law, notes that "we're still a hell of a lot better off than we are today."
Judy Solomon, vice president for health policy at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, adds that it's unlikely that too many employers will drop spouses anyway. "Family coverage is valued employee benefit," she says. "I don't see that this provision is going to change what employers do." Rome agrees: "If you are an employer and you provide good quality health care for your employees, including dependent coverage, it's because you understand that a good benefits package is the best way to recruit and retain top-notch employees."
Still, Rome says that Obamacare advocates would like to be able to address technical issues in the law, such as this potential spousal coverage problem, but that the Republican-controlled House makes that impossible. "It is an imperfection in the law and there are some things many of us want to fix," Rome says. "And we could if we did not have a GOP House of Representatives obsessed with repealing the law."
The Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 law aimed at preventing another financial crisis, "put in place a variety of measures that work together as a system to protect consumers, hold big banks accountable, and reduce the risk of future crises," Warren said in a statement. "It is dangerous for Congress to amend the derivatives provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act." (Derivatives are financial products that have values based on underlying numbers, like crop prices or interest rates; some economists believe these products helped cause the 2007 financial collapse.)
Warren's condemnation of the bills, which just passed out of the House Financial Services Committee (HFSC), echoes a May 6th letter from Treasury secretary Jack Lew to House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling attacking the bills. "The derivatives provisions in the Wall Street Reform Act constitute an important part of the reforms being put into place to strengthen our financial system by improving transparency and reducing risk for market participants," Lew wrote in the letter. "These reforms should not be weakened or repealed." Last year, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner denounced a series of nearly identical bills.
"Wall Street's aggressive determination paid off last week" when the bills passed out of committee, Warren said. The bills also have bipartisan support, and have a good chance of being taken up in the Senate. If they do, Warren says she'll go to battle: "Now is no time to go backwards," she said. "I will do what I can in the United States Senate to stand up to those who would chip away at reform."
A bill designed to tie the hands of a key Wall Street regulator is headed for a vote in the House this week.
The SEC Regulatory Accountability Act, introduced by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and co-sponsored by 23 other Republicans, sounds innocuously administrative. The bill would direct the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) "to conduct cost-benefit analyses to ensure that the benefits of any rulemaking outweigh the costs," according to a statement by the House Financial Services Committee. Plus, says Garrett, the bill is good for jobs, job-creators, and people who want jobs. "The American people are hungry for common sense reform that will help unleash the economy," he said in a statement. "I regularly hear from constituents, especially job creators, about how Washington red tape needs to be cut."
But financial reform advocates say the bill could kill tons of new regulations designed to rein in the industry that crashed the economy a few years ago. "Cost-benefit has become a favorite club used by industry to try and kill legislation," Dennis Kelleher of the financial reform group Better Markets told me earlier this year. The SEC is in the process of finalizing scores of new rules required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and reformers say Garrett's bill would force the agency to study the impacts of regulations before they are known, and require analysis that would delay final rules. Not only that, says Kelleher, but the cost-benefit analysis the bill calls for includes only "industry costs," not potential longer term costs to the broader economy that could result from killing these rules. For example, the SEC would have to consider the cost of to industry of making foreign banks adhere to US regulations, but not the cost to the global economy of allowing those banks to be regulated by potentially weaker foreign rules. (Many federal agencies are required to consider cost-benefit analyses when developing major rules, but the SEC and other independent agencies—those outside federal executive departments that are headed by a Cabinet secretary—are exempt.)
The White House slammed Garrett's bill when it was approved by the House rules committee Wednesday, arguing that it would keep the SEC from doing its job. "The Administration believes in the value of cost-benefit analysis," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. "However, [the bill] would add onerous procedures that would threaten the implementation of key reforms related to financial stability and investor protection." Still, the president stopped short of saying he'd veto the bill.
As my colleague Tim Murphy reported Wednesday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House rules committee, attempted to stymie the deregulatory bill by attaching an amendment that would have required political intelligence operatives to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and disclose their clients. It was voted down.
Now the GOP bill is headed to the House floor for a vote by Friday. Kelleher has his fingers crossed that the bill doesn't make it into law. "Financial reform does not exist to minimize cost on the industry that almost caused a second great depression," he says.
It looks like one of the primary causes of the 2007 financial crash may be here to stay.
Before the crisis, the credit-rating agencies (such as Fitch, Moody's, and Standard & Poor's) that evaluate the relative risk of investment products offered by Wall Street banks, routinely assigned their highest ratings to bonds built out of junky, high-risk mortgages. Because of those ratings, the bad bonds sold like hotcakes, which in turn encouraged lenders to make more high-risk loans to sell to the banks to package into more risky bonds—and so on until the house of cards came down. (For a great read on all of this, see Michael Lewis' "The Big Short.")
Part of the reason the ratings agencies behaved so recklessly is that they were (and still are) paid by the banks whose products they rate. Yet even now, years after the financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission isn't sure what it wants to do, if anything, about this loaded situation. So it held a roundtable discussion on Tuesday to think about it some more.
Credit-rating agencies "effectively took huge bribes from banks to misinform people about risk," says Marcus Stanley, policy director of Americans for Financial Reform. "This is a critical issue and [the SEC] has taken a complete pass on it" so far.