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Anti-Regulation Senator Pounds Regulators. . . for Not Regulating

The Senate Banking Committee hearings on Tuesday enlightened the public on one extraordinarily important fact. Politicians can be expected to lie, bully, and engage in character assassination to serve the basest of motivations.

The Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs partner with deep experience in government service. Many progressives resisted his appointment in 2009, fearing that he would be subservient to industry interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gensler has worked tirelessly to implement the Dodd-Frank Act mandate that the CFTC assume the regulatory responsibility for the $30 trillion per year swaps markets. Regulation of derivatives, called by Warren Buffet “financial weapons of mass destruction,” became Gensler’s mission.

Controlling the enormous risks in this market is critically important. The staff of the CFTC, working with fervor that can only be elicited by inspired leadership, has turned out more than 50 regulatory initiatives in a little over 18 months. At the same time, Gensler set a new standard for regulatory transparency, hosting countless meetings and a succession of roundtables in which industry representatives and advocates of the public interest could debate the ongoing rulemaking. If you are interested, just go to the CFTC website and view any of these events.

Gary Gensler is a dedicated public servant, open with his views as only a person who is thoroughly confident and certain of his or her ethics can be.

So Senator Shelby of Alabama chose to attack Gensler using the style of a totalitarian bully, seeking to intimidate with lies so extreme that they just might persuade the casual listener. The contrast with the coolly confident and meticulously honest Gensler is astounding.

The exchange concerned the JP Morgan Chase trading debacle. The level of aggression and misrepresentation is the very best indication that this episode is potential political dynamite for the Republican Party. After all, the main experience of its presidential candidate is a career in the most predatory form of capitalism. He and the congressional Republican have advocated the repeal of financial reform law.

It is not that JP Morgan Chase lost two, three, five or more billions of dollars, depending on the final count. It is that the loss occurred via a “hedging” operation in a department that was tasked with eliminating risks. If a hedge is truly risk reducing, and nothing more, the bank cannot lose money on it. The whole episode calls into question the integrity of bank trading behavior. How on earth can Jamie Dimon and his bosom buddy Senator Shelby be believed when they proclaim that the banking industry should be trusted to monitor their own behavior? (I assume they are bosom buddies since the second largest source of campaign cash for the Senator is JP Morgan Chase.)

Shelby asked Gensler how he had learned of the JP Morgan Chase trades, and Gensler replied that he had first seen them in press reports. The Senator went after this like a pit bull, berating Gensler for the failures of his agency to oversee the markets and the gross inadequacy of the Dodd-Frank Act. Gensler pointed out that the relevant portion of Dodd-Frank had not yet been implemented by final regulations, but the Senator simply ignored the point and kept pounding.

It should be no surprise that Senator Shelby ignored the implementation process. Chairman Gensler has spent more than a year trying to steer his agency between the Scylla of congressional Republicans and the Charybdis of the banks’ countless lobbyists and attorneys. Senator Shelby’s colleagues in the House hold the purse strings and have starved the CFTC of cash. The agency simply lacks the resources to do its assigned duties without proper funding. If Gensler’s agency fulfills its statutory mandate by promulgating proper rules, it risks further punishment at the hands of the Republicans via the budget.

But the Senator’s attack can be analyzed differently. The motivation may not simply be animosity to regulation of the financial interests that contribute so generously to the Shelby campaign effort. By criticizing Chairman Gensler and his agency, Senator Shelby shifts the discussion away from Jamie Dimon, the financial sector figure who is most closely associated with resistance to regulation under the Dodd-Frank Act. In a twisted way, Shelby pounds the table and complains of lack of oversight (that is to say, oversight that is being actively frustrated by his party), all in order to further the goal of industry to avoid oversight.

It is fascinating that politicians like Shelby reference the protection of future generations to evoke fear of deficits, yet seem perfectly willing to expose the next generation to the potential of a new Great Depression. That outcome was avoided in 2008 by throwing trillions of dollars in cash and guarantees at the problem. The next time the banks inadvertently cause the financial system to seize up there may not be sufficient resources to jumpstart the system.  

It sort of makes one wonder what it would have been like for a Soviet citizen to make sense of the Orwellian doublespeak spewing from Stalin’s government.

Rational and respectful treatment by Republicans of this admirable public servant, Gary Gensler, can only be hoped for in a time beyond the election horizon. But, far too often, progressives have misdirected their criticisms of flaws in financial reform in Gensler’s direction. The CFTC’s effort to implement Dodd-Frank is far from flawless. I, personally, spent over a year working on dozens of comment letters on proposed rules, pointing out concerns both large and small.

Nonetheless, Gensler deserves the support of progressives. He is a bulwark protecting the policy of Congress expressed in the Dodd-Frank Act. Under circumstances in which one party actively seeks to restore the deregulated casino that banking had become prior to the financial crisis of 2008, nit picking Chairman Gensler is an unwise path.