The financial industry is obsessed with President Obama’s second-term regulatory appointments. Who will be Treasury secretary? Who could head the Federal Housing Finance Administration? But hardly anyone is paying much attention to the Office of Financial Research.
This entity was created by the Dodd-Frank Act to conduct independent research on the sweeping risks to the financial system. Ah, right, another group of Washington wonks who will issue reports carrying vague warnings of risks looming sometime in the uncertain future. Yawn. I hadn’t paid much attention either.
But then I spoke to Ross Levine, an economist and specialist in regulation at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and I finally got it. The Office of Financial Research is a great idea. And as I grasped it, I felt a minor sense of horror, as when you see a precious ring slip off a finger in slow motion and go down the drain while you are powerless to stop it.
The office is looking as if it will be a tool of the financial services industry, instead of a check on it. Its main role is to serve the Financial Stability Oversight Council, providing the systemic risk overseer with data and analysis of where the nukes are buried.
But the Office of Financial Research was hobbled from the get-go by a poor design. It is housed in the Treasury Department, while ostensibly being independent of it. It has a small budget. And it has to report to the very regulators it is supposed to report on.
This month, it announced its advisory committee. Thirty big names charged with giving the fledgling operation direction and gravitas. But these same people have also compromised it.
By my count, 19 of the 30 committee members work directly in financial services or for private sector entities that are dependent on the industry. There are academics, but many of them have lucrative ties to the financial services industry. I noted only one financial industry critic: Damon A. Silvers, the policy director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
“Academics with a history of challenging regulators are not there,” said Anat R. Admati, a finance professor at Stanford and the co-author, with Martin Hellwig, of the forthcoming call to arms, “The Banker’s New Clothes” (Princeton University Press). She was among several prominent banking critics who had applied but didn’t make the cut.
The Treasury Department sees it differently.
“We were not looking for critics or proponents. That wasn’t the goal,” said Neal S. Wolin, the Treasury deputy secretary. “We were looking for people with a range of perspectives who understand keenly the systemic risks in the financial system.”
Mr. Wolin said that the office would be independent despite its home. The argument for being housed in the Treasury Department is that if it were all by its lonesome, brand new and small, it would be much easier to be squashed like a bug.
Maybe. But it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent for creating a better advisory council: Sheila Bair did it for another regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That panel, the Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee, has Professor Admati; Paul A. Volcker; John S. Reed, the former co-chief executive of Citigroup and now a prominent banking apostate; and Simon Johnson, the former head economist for the International Monetary Fund and outspoken banking nemesis.
Perhaps Professor Admati and Mr. Johnson and Mr. Volcker were busy. The world is teeming with expert critics of Big Banking; they just aren’t heard from much in the halls of Washington. The Federal Reserve Banks of Kansas City and Dallas have candidates. The economist Joseph Stiglitz would make a good choice. The Bank of England houses two prominent banking critics, Andy Haldane and Robert Jenkins. Outfits like Better Markets or Demos could nominate people who would give Jamie Dimon some indigestion.
Certainly, financiers are not a monolithic lot. Investors often have differing interests from those of banks, and investment banks from commercial banks, and the small from the large. Even in big institutions, there are secret sharers of anti-Wall Street sentiment. And obviously, an advisory committee requires a certain number of experts with real-world experience.
Clearly, there is a place for finance professionals. But shouldn’t the balance of the committee be tilted in the opposite direction and give greater voice to the critics and the banking skeptics? This is a panel that is supposed to identify giant risks in the system that bankers ignore in their pursuit of profit and bonuses and to spot flaws in regulations that could cost the public and economy trillions.
It’s not as if the poor bankers don’t have a voice in Washington, after all. The bankers have the resources. And they are focused. Bankers are in the trenches all day, fighting regulation. The public only glances at these battles.
So why does yet another Washington advisory panel of worthies matter? Mr. Levine has a subtle and fascinating answer. He starts by pointing to the mystery of the home-team advantage in sports, which has long puzzled researchers.
It turns out that umpires are biased toward the home team not out of conscious or recognizable bias. Rather, they subconsciously gravitate toward their immediate “community” — in this case, the home-field crowd, especially at crucial moments in a game. (Researchers will next study how this appears to have no effect whatsoever on the New York Jets.)
To minimize the bias, you can tell the umpires that they are being monitored. Introduce instant replay. With that, you have expanded the community that is watching the umpires to an audience far beyond the home crowd.
Mr. Levine believes that the Office of Financial Research could do the same for regulators. If it independently examined and publicized not just systemic risks, but — crucially — the flaws in how the regulators were approaching those risks, that could have the effect of expanding the regulators’ community. Regulators, he said, “operate within financial services industry. They are surrounded by it.”
“That means that the home-field crowd is the financial services industry,” he said. “The public, if it has a ticket at all, is way up in bleachers, and its voice can’t be heard.”
The Office of Financial Research is well on its way to barring the gate.
Before the crisis, the consensus was that the Office of Thrift Supervision was the regulator most in the pocket of Big Banking. For its efforts, it got shut down as part of the postcrisis regulatory overhaul.
“Now, the title of ‘Most Captured’ is up for grabs,” Mr. Johnson said. “And I think we have a contender.”