Among the many obfuscations of Mitt Romney last night, this was perhaps the biggest laugher of them all:
ROMNEY: Dodd-Frank was passed, and it includes within it a number of provisions that I think have some unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy. One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they’re effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that’s been given to—to New York banks I’ve ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them. There’s been—22 community and small banks have closed since Dodd-Frank. So there’s one example I wouldn’t designate five banks as too big to fail and give them a blank check. That’s one of the unintended consequences of Dodd-Frank. It wasn’t thought through properly.
Romney—the private equity veteran running a presidential campaign funded by Wall Street, on a platform that contains a full repeal of every financial regulation over the past four years—positioning himself as an opponent of those big “New York banks” was a historic moment in presidential debate cravenness. (And a real missed opportunity for Obama to wallop his opponent).
So what exactly was Romney talking about? It’s a complicated answer, but understanding it reveals the true perversity of Romney’s posturing.
Dodd-Frank has two provisions regarding too-big-to-fail that Romney is talking about here. The first is the ability of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, created by the legislation, to name financial institutions “systemically significant.” This means they are so big that their failure could threaten the health of the financial sector, and that designation subjects them to heightened regulation and higher capital requirements.
The big banks hate this requirement, for obvious reasons—they come under increased scrutiny and restrictions. So Republicans have been dutifully attacking it. (Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, repeatedly blasted it before joining the ticket). The GOP argument, as you heard Romney deliver it, is that by giving them the “systemically significant label, the government is officially “designating” banks as too-big-to-fail—a very bad-sounding thing indeed!
But this is nonsense—these firms are too big to fail. The FSOC designation doesn’t make them so, and is in no way a “kiss” to the big banks—again, it subjects them to higher regulation. Romney and his party would prefer to repeal this provision, full stop, and thus effectively stick their heads in the sand about too-big-to-fail institutions. It’s like saying a doctor who diagnoses someone with cancer has given it to him.
Interestingly, a key feature of this provision is that FSOC can name non-banks as systemically significant, and just this week news broke that AIG is on the verge of receiving this label. Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee have been trying to amend Dodd-Frank to protect AIG from that designation, which to me raises an interesting question about Romney’s timing here.
In any case, when Romney spoke about “guaranteeing” a bailout, and of “blank checks,” he’s echoing another GOP complaint about the resolution authority provision of Dodd-Frank. That gives the federal government the power to wind-down big banks in the event of a failure. The idea is to dissolve the bank, without taxpayer money, not save it—Rep. Barney Frank has called this a “death panel” for big banks. (Pat Garofalo wrote on this issue for us here).
Banks also hate this provision, preferring instead the inevitable ad hoc, blank-check bailout that we saw in 2008. So Republicans have been going after resolution authority—the 2012 Ryan Budget would repeal it—by arguing that the provision somehow guarantees bailouts. This is the same flim-flam as before: the bailout is going to happen either way if the firm is too big to fail, and by repealing resolution authority, you take away the increased power of the government under Dodd-Frank to deal the problem. (Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson said he “would have loved to have had” resolution authority in 2008 instead if issuing straight-up bailouts).
Many progressive critics have legitimate complaints about the failure of Dodd-Frank to be tougher in dealing with too-big-to-fail firms, but to be absolutely clear, that’s not what Romney and the Republicans are trying to do. They’re trying to get rid of the limited reforms that have been made. To do it while preening as tough-on-Wall-Street politicians is deeply, deeply cynical.
For more on Romney’s posturing last night, read John Nichols on the Republican candidate’s debate with… himself.