Conservatives for Smaller Banks?

James Pethokoukis has an extensive article in the Weekly Standard arguing for a conservative approach to financial reform that both rejects Dodd-Frank and calls for a massive overhaul of the banking industry. Instead of calling for specific new rules on what certain financial institutions can do and empowering regulators to oversee too big to fail bank, Pethokoukis argues that conservatives ought to support getting rid of the too big to fail problem by simply breaking up the mega-banks that dominate financial system:

But America doesn’t need 20 banks with combined assets equal to nearly 90 percent of the U.S. economy, or five mega-banks​—​JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs​—​with combined assets equal to almost 60 percent of national output, three times what they were in the 1990s. That amount of complexity and financial concentration​—​which has grown worse since the passage of Dodd-Frank​—​is a current and continuing threat to the health of the U.S. economy. Now don’t blame market failure or unintended results of deregulation. Banks that big and complex and interconnected are both the unsurprising outcome of Washington’s 30-year expansion of the federal safety net and the cause of its ongoing existence. When you combine a “too big to fail” guarantee from Uncle Sam with the natural human tendency toward irrational exuberance, you have the key elements in place for another unaffordable financial crisis.

What’s interesting here is how this agenda largely fits into the current Republican effort to eviscerate Dodd-Frank and render it as ineffectual as possible. While there are a few Republican lawmakers who have talked about limiting bank size as an alternative to Democratic-lead regulatory reform, in reality, much of the opposition has been part of both a partisan effort to eviscerate a genuine Democratic achievement for both political reasons and as an effort to serve a financial industry that has near-total sway over both parties, but especially the Republicans . Spencer Bachus, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee summed it up best when he said that “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

So, on one hand, conservative intellectuals can call for a fanciful, radical plan that will never be implemented by either party (can you imagine the Weekly Standard or the Republican leadership standing pat or being supportive if President Obama called for the dreaded federal government to break up the biggest American banks?), all while at the same time supporting the very real effort to ensure that actual existing banks not be forced to change their behavior in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.