ABCs of Politics: Addicted to Banker Cash

Sunday, January 8, 2012 7:00 PM

Should we be surprised that Sarbanes-Oxley did nothing to prevent the irresponsible behavior of banks in the run-up to the credit crisis? Or that Dodd-Frank is an incoherent shambles even before it’s fully implemented? Or that the Vickers recommendations in the UK were dead on arrival?

None of these is surprising when you consider the heft and the might of the banks’ lobbying. Wrongheaded regulation remains entrenched because real reform can only be written into law by politicians who are, sadly, addicted to bankers’ cash.

Sometimes the dependency is overt, odious and entirely self-serving: think of the leaders and lawmakers who coddle financiers for campaign contributions or to line up lucrative retirement gigs as board members and no-show consultants, and as speakers pulling in $/£/€100k a pop to drone at delegates in smart resorts.

Other times the dependency feels softer and may even be sincere, as with politicians who crave tax revenues from banks’ staff and all that trickles down from bloated bonuses to service sectors and shops and showrooms. These politicians, earnest if also naive, may genuinely believe that regulation, if too onerous, will disadvantage their constituents.

Without a competitive financial industry, goes their argument, all of society suffers. Surely, though, even the best-intentioned leaders must look at this in the harsh light of these last few years. When a “competitive” financial industry goes off the rails it costs more than it contributed along the way. To gaze ahead only as far as the next tax day is unacceptably shortsighted.

That’s why these businesses need to be regulated effectively. In the long term, a better regulated financial system will represent a competitive advantage, bearing real benefit to society by connecting capital to ideas and invention while avoiding the pitfalls of reckless risk and racketeering.

I’ve argued in an earlier article that the financial industry would be more appropriately regulated if subject to a model like the one applied to the pharmaceuticals industry and that, under controls analogous to drug approval, capital markets would operate productively for society, not the other way around.

Whatever form it takes, though, the regulatory regime of the future needs to be designed urgently, starting today. For effective regulation to rule the day, the political system has to finally be wrested from the throes of its addiction to banks and their money.  When that happens, civic minded industry experts, burdened neither by dependencies nor financial links to the banks, can counsel politicians on a clean-slate basis to reformulate a coherent code of financial regulation.