Sherrod Brown Takes On Megabanks — And The Obama Administration


Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) says his latest effort to address the problem of Too Big To Fail banks faces two large but deeply intertwined challenges: Wall Street banks and the Obama administration.

“It’s clear there’s too much Wall Street in this administration,” he told me during a Thursday interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Obama’s Treasury department is just as unfriendly to the idea of breaking up big banks, or limiting their destructive potential, under Jack Lew as it was under Timothy Geithner, Brown said.

He was particularly unhappy with a recent speech in which Treasury undersecretary for domestic finance Mary Miller argued that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill already addressed the Too Big To Fail problem.

But Brown, and strange bedfellow Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), are pressing ahead anyhow with a new bill to impose much stricter capital requirements on megabanks, which they define as institutions with over $500 billion in assets.Six U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase., Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — meet that criteria. The Brown-Vitter legislation wouldn’t break these institutions into smaller ones, but rather require them to finance at least 15 percent of their investments with equity, to reduce the likelihood that they become insolvent and require a bailout due to an asset plunge.

Thus far, there’s no obvious legislative vehicle for Brown’s bill. “It’s not going to be law by this summer,” he acknowledged. But an ideologically diverse set of elite opinion and policymakers are coming around — suggesting an easier legislative push than at any point since Congress passed Dodd-Frank.

“It’s Peggy Noonan and George Will writing about it. It’s [Fed Board member] Dan Tarullo and [former FDIC director] Sheila Bair speaking about it regularly. It’s [Dallas Fed Chair] Richard Fisher and [former Kansas City Fed Chair] Tom Hoenig instructing us you better do something,” Brown explained. “We’re in a much better place today in terms of this bill advancing than we were a year ago.”

His bill would, he claimed, do more than stabilize the financial system and protect the economy from another 2008-style crisis — it would also dilute these institutions’ political power, which they’re currently using to delay and weaken other key regulations.

“These six banks are from $600 [billion] to $2.2 or $2.3 trillion in assets, and you know it’s really … way more than the economic power these six banks have. It’s also the political power they have. The power to slow down the rules coming out of Dodd-Frank,” he said. “If we do nothing here and things continue — these six banks will have 65 then 70, who knows what percent of GDP their assets will represents. Their political power and their economic power go together.”

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