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Bernie Sanders Wants to Overhaul Wall Street

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, only wants to tinker.

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders delivered his speech on reforming Wall Street in New York on Tuesday. It was not solely a speech about breaking up the banks and restoring the firewall between investment and commercial banking, although you wouldn’t know that from the headlines. It was also not merely a speech about who, precisely, was responsible for the last crisis.

Sanders’ additional points of emphasis—the ones you didn’t hear so much about—illustrated that he recognizes the fundamental choice in financial reform, between a go-slow approach to tweak up weak points in the system and a radical alteration in design. That recognition matters, even if the Vermont senator doesn’t always focus on what’s currently wrong with the industry—and even if he cannot accomplish everything he laid out.

Hillary Clinton and her top surrogates have tried to obfuscate the larger divide—between technocratic tinkering and overhaul—throughout the campaign. They inevitably steer the debate back to whether banks were solely responsible for the financial crisis, to prove that restoring the Glass-Steagall firewall (so named for the authors of the Depression-era reform) is an insufficient protection. They highlight the “shadow banking” system, the groups of hedge funds and special lending vehicles that sit outside the regulatory perimeter, to attest that their ideas are more comprehensive.

In truth, writing banks out of the 2008 story is deeply wrong. After all, the largest banks all funded mortgage originators with warehouse lines of credit. They all packaged and sold mortgage-backed securities, bought pieces of those securities to create credit derivatives, and fueled the rotten lending and magnification of risk that heralded the collapse (to say nothing of servicing most of the mortgages, which produced the most predatory practices of the entire crisis). Selling a flawed version of the financial crisis leads to bad choices about what risks to prevent in the future.

But focusing on the past distracts from the real cleavage inside the Democratic Party on financial reform: propping up the current system or throwing it out. We know where Sanders stands on that. He sees banks as an antitrust problem that needs resolving for reasons of political economy as much as financial instability. He wants to ring-fence deposits away from investment banking activity, so the savings of ordinary workers aren’t caught up in what amounts to a gambling ring.

All Clinton’s talk on shadow banking, on the other hand, translates into little actual action. Does Clinton strive to break up hedge funds or private equity firms, which she believes represent a greater threat than banks? No. Does she cut off the sources of capital for these shadow banks, primarily from big banks themselves? Partially, but her fix wouldn’t stop the ways investment banks are becoming shadow banks in their own right.

Similarly, Clinton proposes a high-frequency trading tax—but it’s one that is easily gamed, because it only affects cancelled orders, which would merely cause traders to change strategies and evade payment. Sanders, by contrast, goes simply with a tax on all trades, which he would make a funding source for education. This might sound like a bad idea, given that you ideally would want the tax to bring in less revenue over time—because you want it to discourage excessive speculation. But the philosophy behind it makes sense: attacking unproductive trading activity and reducing risk, rather than trying to micromanage it.

Another Sanders proposal concerns credit-rating agencies, to whom investors outsource their due diligence on securities offerings. With tremendous power as a source of information, the fact that rating agencies get paid by the issuers of securities creates all kinds of bad incentives to produce AAA ratings and attract more business, no matter the quality of the underlying bond. This is not limited to mortgage-backed securities during the housing bubble; the Justice Department fined Standard and Poor’s last year for lying about credit ratings in securities issued after the financial crisis.

“No longer will Wall Street be able to pick and choose which credit agency will rate their products,” Sanders said on Tuesday. That sounds similar to the proposal of Senator Al Franken, a Clinton supporter, for an initially random assignment of securities for ratings—with more accurate ratings leading to more business for the better agencies. Even though the Franken reform passed the Senate in the Dodd-Frank Act, Dodd and Frank reduced it to a study and the SEC never effectively implemented it. Sanders is right to bring it up again.

It also makes sense to focus on consumer credit, which typically gets too little attention in financial-reform debates and is absent from the Clinton proposal. Sanders, for one thing, wants to reinstate a usury cap on credit cards and consumer loans, essentially reversing 1970s Supreme Court rulings that allowed banks to adopt the interest rate-setting laws of the state where they headquarter, rather than the state where they issue the loan. (This is why all your credit cards come out of South Dakota and Delaware, two states with no usury cap.) Sanders would install a federal usury cap across consumer loans, putting payday lenders in peril along with reducing high interest rates from credit cards.

To serve the unbanked, Sanders wants to return to postal banking, allowing the post office to offer savings accounts, online banking services, and small loans. This would shore up postal service budgets while saving thousands of dollars a year for the one-in-four households with little or no access to financial services.

One more way that Sanders separates himself from Clinton: he calls out a deeper shadow-banking issue in the country, that of the Federal Reserve. He laid out most of the ideas in Tuesday’s speech in a prior op-ed in the New York Times, which even Larry Summers praised as correctly targeting how “financial policy is overly influenced by financial interests to its detriment.” There’s a long-dormant but recently reviving movement on the left willing to talk about structural reform at the Fed, and whether it makes sense for it to be a hybrid public and private institution. Sanders aligns with that—once again putting him on the side of overhaul over tinkering.

I do wish that both Sanders and Clinton paid more attention to how the financial industry, far from being stuck in amber in 2008, has adapted since—making some of their proposals incomplete if not obsolete. Neither, for instance, has spent a minute on “fintech,” or financial technology, the attempt by Silicon Valley to disrupt the industry with redesigned payment systems, peer-to-peer lending, and digital banking. Sanders, for his part, thinks banks should lend more to small businesses, but such lending is down nearly 40 percent since 2006, with tech firms like Lending Club and Prosper picking up the slack. Banking incumbents are learning from and incorporating fintech ideas, but large sections of the space remain outside the regulatory perimeter and too deeply in the dark. 

Similarly, Sanders and Clinton never talk about exchange-traded funds, which are growing at a record pace while almost breaking entirely last August—a situation that could have led to cascading risk.

Much of this parsing of presidential candidates’ proposals is academic in nature; you need a willing Congress, and I don’t know where you’ll find one (although it should be noted, as Sanders did, that Dodd-Frank’s Title I gives regulators the authority to break up banks already). In this sense, arguing about Glass-Steagall is irrelevant (for the record, I feel that restoring it doesn’t go far enough to prevent hazards from a “tightly coupled” system that leaves no tolerance for error), and replaying old tunes about the financial crisis amounts to little more than a distraction.

But one thing a president does control is the staff at the regulatory agencies, and their posture. Therefore, where you end up on the technocracy-versus-overhaul spectrum informs how your underlings would react to a near-term crisis or revelations of misconduct. I simply believe that Sanders, who shows through his rhetoric that he clearly wants to redesign a system that has grown too complex and interconnected, would have a better team around him in those moments.