Of Banks and Over Taxed Regulators

Banks, who needs them? A quick question and a quick answer: a thriving, prospering banking system is essential for a thriving, prospering modern economy. Banks bring together the resources of savers and the needs of borrowers, particularly borrowers who seek funds to establish or expand businesses or families and individuals who use occasional borrowing to smooth out their income (good banking principles penalize people who would borrow in order to live beyond their means, but more on that at another time).

Banks also created and maintain the payments system, the means by which money is transferred quickly and accurately throughout the nation and even internationally. Bank services include as well a variety of wealth management tools by which individuals, families, businesses, and governments can store, grow, and make best use of their financial wealth.

Without banks, almost none of these services would be available. Many non-banks provide bank-like services, but they all come to find the need to rest their own services at some point on a bank.

Banking in the United States has grown with the nation, from very simple institutions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to a wide variety of bank types, charters, and business models, as diverse as the financial demands of the customers of the largest and most diverse economy in the world. I once presented at a meeting in Chicago a list of about two-dozen different types of banks in the United States. We have national banks, state chartered banks, small community banks, larger regional banks, and very large banks with extensive national and international business products and services. All of these operate and compete together, with a body of customers behind each one who think that their bank offers the best available choice of services that they want. No other nation in the world has a banking industry like ours.

The recent recession and financial panic—and the inevitable politicizing of finance that came in its wake—have thrown much into confusion and imposed upon sound and prudent bank supervision harmful ideas born of reckless sloganeering and hubristic financial engineering. The complexity of banking—no more complex than information technology, communications systems, or modern manufacturing—has been superseded by even more complex bank regulation.

The rules governing banking are too much and too many to function reasonably. They have become more than the very human people in the multitude of bank regulatory agencies can manage. The disciplining role of markets and the valuable service of banker judgment have in large measure been replaced by bureaucratic procedures and the judgments of government officials. These officials have had little if any practical experience making loans, taking deposits and putting them to work, building financial wealth, or otherwise providing products to customers. Government officials cannot run businesses. Now, their government jobs have become so demanding and complex, that they will not be able to do their own jobs, either. Too much has been placed upon them.

Those most harmed by all of this are bank customers. For the moment, bank profits are up, but that is because their losses are down as they recover from the recession, not because services to customers are expanding. As a result of government interest rate policies, depositors earn almost nothing on the money that they place in banks. The expanding oversight involvement of bank regulators makes it dangerous for banks to offer new services to customers; the risk of breaking any of thousands of pages of regulations has become too great. It takes almost half an hour to open a new bank account, something that used to take minutes. Fewer credit-worthy borrowers today qualify for mortgages than just a year ago, before new regulations went into effect. The number of banks has been declining in recent years, dropping at the rate of nearly one for every business day, week in and week out. Only one new bank has been opened since 2010. We have fewer banks today than the nation had in 1893. A stagnant industry is less able to evolve to meet changing customer needs and preferences.

For the good of all of us who rely upon banking services, and for the sanity of financial regulators, we need to return to the principles of good banking. We need to restore a system of supervision that is measured, not by how much banker judgment it takes over, but by how it adds value to the ability of banks to serve customers. Government agencies—and the laws that they administer—that are derived from a founding document that begins with the words, “We the People,” should do nothing less, and nothing more.

On another day I would like to share some thoughts about how banks are being goaded to become their own enemies.

Of Limited Freedom and Limited Government

I live and work near the belly of the beast, and I can report that these days he is not happy. His belly is rumbling. He has eaten more than he can digest. Watch out, he may throw up. He is already belching.

The federal government is not working, we know and see. Not only is it not working as was intended when it was created by the States, it is not working as designed and over designed in subsequent years. The federal government cannot manage the national parks, the welfare system is breaking down, the national transportation infrastructure takes in more money and yet the signs of dysfunction and decay on roads, rails, and bridges are increasingly apparent. Banks are regulated with thousands of rules while the banking industry continues to shrink: we have fewer banks today than we did in 1891, and their share of the financial markets has been dwindling for decades. So much of what the federal government touches turns to rust and ruin.

Yet the federal government keeps reaching out for more, undeterred by its failures. The Environmental Protection Agency aggressively imposes restrictions on the air we exhale, the Food and Drug Administration announces plans to control the fat in our foods, the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection has decided what kind of mortgages lenders can make and what kind of people can get them (acknowledging that many who qualify today will be outside the boundaries of federal standards in 2014).

You can augment this brief sampling of a longer list from your own experiences. This is nothing new, other than perhaps in frequency and intensity. If there is a virtue in Obamacare it may be that its unworkability and its increasingly universal hurt are demonstrating broadly what many have been feeling individually.

Demonstrating the hurt is not the same as redressing it. The beast, however ill, will not cheerfully surrender its prey. During the debate over ratification of the Constitution, one commenter, writing in the Philadelphia newspaper Independent Gazetteer (October 12, 1787), observed, “People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it”, and then warned that the Feds could not be counted on, by their own volition, to do “any thing which shall derogate from their own authority and importance . . . or give back to the people any part of those privileges which they have once parted with”. If that was predictable in 1787, it is painfully apparent today. Perhaps the clearest example is how the Washington power elites have exempted themselves and their cronies from the application of Obamacare while continuing to inflict it on the rest.

And yet, Obamacare is the hurt that keeps on hurting. People will not get over it or get used to it. Its pain and suffering will be felt again and again with each new illness, every new tax, as its strictures reduce availability, affordability, and quality of wellbeing. Wave after wave of new harm will come, astonishing its supporters and augmenting the ranks of its victims until it is addressed.

Americans, much like other people, will put up with much before they are roused to action. Unlike for many other people, our Constitution gives us avenues for action. The Constitution embodies the concept of continual redress within the rule of law to make appeal to extremities outside of the rule of law unnecessary and unthinkable, so long as the principles of the Constitution retain their vitality.

The core principle of the Constitution is limited government, designed to protect the growth and expansion of human freedom. Increasingly, for about a century, the “progressives” in Washington have turned public affairs on their heads. Human freedom has been the focus of limitation, while government enjoyed constant growth and expansion. The end seems approaching, either of the ability of government to manage what it has taken on, or perhaps (and hopefully) when the holders of power can no longer convince enough people that it is all for their own good. Limitation on government may return in vogue as promises of government solutions to feed the beast ring ever more hollow.

The Philadelphia writer of 1787, whom I cited above, was a critic of the Constitution, because he believed it impossible that the power gathered in by the federal government could be wrested from its hands. I remain hopeful that it still can be. Nothing else will work.