Hillary Versus Bernie on Financial Reform: The Pragmatist Versus the Radical?

Despite equally fiery rhetoric, the Democratic candidates offer vastly differing visions for regulating Wall Street.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have begun to sound increasingly alike this campaign season, especially in their attacks against Wall Street. Both have warned about the excesses of the biggest banks and the need to extinguish dangerous risks to the financial system.

But under the similarly fiery rhetoric, Clinton and Sanders are offering dramatically different approaches to the question of financial regulation and how to prevent a repeat of the financial crisis. While Clinton’s plan is pragmatic and seeks to tweak the current system, Sanders’ plan is radical and, most likely, unrealistic. But while Clinton might have it right on the facts, Sanders is winning on the story.

Broadly speaking, Clinton’s plan offers incremental reforms to build on the status quo, to perhaps make it better. She wants to “facilitate the kind of responsible, long-term investment that drives broad-based economic growth” by instituting “strong rules of the road.”

Her platform is in many ways a measured response to the financial crisis that aims to build on the progress of the Obama presidency. In fact, it hews so closely to the strategy of the current White House that it can be hard to distinguish between the two. She frequently mentions the Dodd-Frank reform act, passed in the wake of the financial crisis, and is focused on both protecting the law from ongoing Republican attacks as well as strengthening it in various ways. Many of her proposals are familiar to the industry. Clinton wants to charge risky banks more money through added fees, tax high frequency trading and strengthen the Volcker Rule, which was intended to ban banks from gambling with house money. She hopes to shine a brighter light on the elusive shadow banking industry – the hedge funds, online lenders and others who operate outside of the regulated system. Above all, she comes off as practical, with a relatively nuanced view of the financial industry.

Sanders, meanwhile, wants to take a hatchet to the status quo. He wants to remap the rules of the road entirely. The starting point for his most ambitious plans presumes a blank tablet, not the interconnected, deeply entrenched, politically connected system we have. He’s not shy about admitting that what he desires is nothing short of a political revolution.

The Sanders platform is easier to digest, in part because it can be boiled down to this: “break up the banks.” Under his proposal, the Treasury Secretary would be required to compile a list of all financial institutions that “pose a catastrophic risk to the United States economy without a taxpayer bailout” within the first 100 days of a Sanders Administration. The Secretary would then have to split these institutions up within a year.

The approach is, in a word, “cuckoo,” according to American Banker editor Rob Blackwell (and my former boss) in a recent column. Blackwell highlights several reasons why existing law under Dodd-Frank would seriously hinder the candidate’s effort to take apart the financial system at its seams: the law only permits regulators to take a carving knife to banks in cases of severe financial distress and Sanders would need to win over most of the Federal Reserve Board and a majority of the other financial regulators to move forward with his plan – a rather unlikely proposition.

Even those considerations might be taking the Sanders approach – based on his Senate bill, which spans all of four pages – too seriously. Breaking up the largest institutions on such a compressed timeline would cause massive disruption and displacement within the financial industry, even if done in a controlled way. As Sanders himself has noted, the six largest U.S. banks hold more than $10 trillion of assets on the books, handle more than two-thirds of all credit card transactions, and control more than 95% of the $240 trillion in derivatives held by commercial banks. Dismantling that kind of wealth and power would represent a radical restructuring of the banking system as we know it, a system that’s evolved, for better or worse, over decades. That could severely curtail access to loans and other forms of credit in the short term – and even spur bank runs. Given the American financial system’s impact across the world, it would likely have global knock-on effects, too, that could be hard to predict. To paraphrase one financial analyst, a Democrat, I asked about the plan: folks may be supportive of busting up the big banks, up until their Bank of America ATM card stops working.

Sanders’ plan would also set off intense jockeying from the financial services industry. Presumably, the Treasury Department would be required to come up with criteria for evaluating whether a particular bank poses too much risk to the system, a trick that requires taking into account size, complexity, interconnectedness and a host of other factors. That sounds awfully subjective, music to a lobbyist’s ears. For a case study on what this might look like, consider that the financial sector has reportedly spent billions of dollars first trying to derail the passage of Dodd-Frank and then working to defang its rules. You can only imagine the magnitude of pushback that a mandate to break up the banks would inspire.

The Vermont senator has also said he would reinstate a Depression-era law that’s made a surprising comeback in recent years, the Glass-Steagall Act, which would separate commercial banking from riskier investment activities. The proposal is a nod to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who popularized the idea several years ago in a bill of her own. But even Warren has conceded that the change may not have stopped the financial crisis, because many of the firms that led to the meltdown, including AIG and Lehman Brothers, were not connected to depository institutions anyway. She made this point in an oft-cited 2012 interview with New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Theoretical arguments about whether Glass-Steagall could have stopped some of the damage persist to this day, but they overlook what I consider the most significant part of that 2012 interview, that Warren “considers Glass-Steagall more of a symbol of what needs to happen to regulations than the specifics related to the act itself.”

For his part, Sanders is speaking in symbols, too. And he’s tapped into a very real vein of frustration among voters. Everybody’s fed up. It’s populism, yes, but for those worried about rising inequality and the power the banking industry wields, the ideas spur a kind of vague hope. It’s an emotional appeal to those who feel disenfranchised, and if the poll numbers are to be believed, the strategy is working.

Clinton, meanwhile, has also tied her banking proposals to the plight of the middle class, but the picture she paints lacks the same kind of compelling vision as Sanders’ consistent efforts to tie rising inequality to the financialization of the economy. Statements by Clinton like, “U.S. capital markets represent a national asset and offer a substantial international competitive advantage” are true, but they require a forceful, persuasive narrative that has yet to shine through – one that ties back to voters and their struggles to get a loan or find a job that pays enough. There’s more for the policy wonks to dig into in her plan, but less for the average worker seeking answers. (That’s made it that much easier, by the way, for critics to attack her for accepting millions of dollars in campaign donations from bankers.) Sanders might not have the best answers, but he’s addressing a crucial concern. Being president requires a nimble understanding of policy options and a competent, grounded understanding of the facts. But being elected president is about storytelling.

At its core, the rift between Clinton and Sanders comes down to the difference between “can” and “should.” What can we actually do to improve the banking system given the last crisis and our flawed political system, and what kind of banking system should we ideally want to have? It’s why the candidates often appear to be speaking past each other. They’re essentially answering two different questions.

Policymakers and the financial industry alike have been in crisis-mode for the past eight years, and the economy still hasn’t righted itself. But the dust has settled enough that it’s time for the next conversation – a proactive discussion about what kind of financial system the country needs, one that extends beyond a look over our shoulders at the past. That may involve simplifying key parts of the financial system, an effort that is already underway thanks to Dodd-Frank. It will also continue to require innovative and constantly evolving ways of managing different kinds of risk. This should be central to what the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are offering, but it’s not.

Victoria Finkle

Victoria Finkle is a Washington writer, previously with American Banker.