President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday scaling back the sweeping 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory framework enacted under his predecessor as a direct response to the financial crisis.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer labeled the Dodd-Frank Act a "disastrous policy," in a Friday press briefing. In taking aim at the Act, a thorn in the side of the financial industry since its inception, the new administration is targeting a broad range of financial reforms, ranging from bank rules about speculating with customer funds and wind-down provisions for "too big to fail" institutions to consumer protections from predatory debt collection practices and forced arbitration.
On Monday, Trump had called Dodd-Frank a "disaster" and pledged to soon "do a big number" on the law aimed at reforming the way Wall Street does business.
"President Trump made it clear he wanted to dismantle the Dodd-Frank Act and this is the first salvo in attempting to do so," said Michael Barr, University of Michigan law professor and editor of the Russell Sage Foundation's journal, Financial Reform: Preventing the Next Crisis. "I think this is really an attempt at a broad-based assault even on rules that were strongly bipartisan," he said.
Critics charged that an overhaul would put the interests of banks ahead of consumer protections. "We're not talking about shifting regulatory regimes," Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told NBC News. "This is a unilateral step back to the regulations we've done, and it's likely to be in the space where regulations have been very effective," he said. "The fact that it is very clearly designed to make industry happy at the expense of consumers is telling."
Protecting the Consumer
A cornerstone of Dodd-Frank was the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which took oversight of credit cards, mortgages and a host of other financial products and services Americans use on a regular basis.
"The agency does work in a very broad area," said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. Donner said changing the CFPB's structure means that payday lending, forced arbitration, and debt collection-abuse protections could be rolled back. "It would be ending the kind of enforcement approach that has put $11.8 billion back in consumers' pockets," she said.
Already on Friday, consumer advocates vowed to fight back against any changes that might weaken the financial watchdog's authority. "We cannot let Wall Street convince the President and Congress to re-rig the system so they win and everyone else loses," Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director, U.S. PIRG, said in a statement.
Konczal pointed out that Congressional Republicans had made no overtures to moderate Democrats on reworking financial regulation. This, combined with the GOP's slim majority in the Senate, makes it unlikely that Congress will use conventional legislative channels to advance their own agenda, leading Dodd-Frank supporters to worry that the CFPB's foes might use reconciliation or other budgetary measures to starve it of funds.
The CFPB already is under a legal cloud, with opponents challenging the legitimacy of President Obama's appointment of its director, former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray, and Congress members critical of the agency's activities have long pushed to change its leadership structure to a seven-person committee instead of a single director. Lawmakers and advocates who vouch for the CFPB counter that ruling by committee will hamstring the agency's ability to go after bad actors and curb practices that hurt consumers.
An attempt to remove Cordray would almost certainly prompt an even bigger court battle that potentially could wind up in the hands of the Supreme Court, Ely said — yet another factor that raises the stakes for Democrats being urged by progressives to dig in their heels on Trump's recent nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
No New Rule for Financial Advisers?
Also in the Trump administration's cross hairs is the Department of Labor's fiduciary rule for financial advisers. Set to go into effect in April, the rule would have required advisers paid on commission to recommend investments that were in a client's best interests as opposed to just "suitable" for that client's portfolio. Consumer advocates call the move to stall its implementation a threat to Americans' ability to save for retirement, since "suitable" products might cost more in fees and might not give the customer the best bang for their investing buck.
"This was a rule that was on track to deliver tremendous benefits to the public," Donner said.
"It's a passed rule so they can't just unilaterally rip it up — they can delay," Konczal said. Friday's executive order would do that, instructing the DOL to hold off on the April implementation and further study the rule. "This is nakedly pro-industry, as opposed to a middle ground," he said.
Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, also condemned the directive. "For a president who has claimed in the past to care about working-class Americans, he will stand today with bankers and Wall Street CEOs," she said in a statement.
Easy to Tear Down, Hard to Rebuild
Banking industry consultant Bert Ely suggested, though, that the administration's ambitions might outstrip its reach, given the slow pace at which the bureaucratic gears in Washington turn and the GOP's narrow Senate majority. As with rolling back the Affordable Care Act, Congress is likely to find that it's easier to dismantle a legal framework than build a new one.
"It's not clear to me exactly what they're going to do short-term — even if you modify a regulation, you still go through the notice and comment process," he pointed out.
Paradoxically, this could add to the market turmoil that has roiled Wall Street and chipped away at the post-election 'Trump rally,' some pointed out. "It's going to be quite a difficult period ahead as far as having some certainty around the rules of the game in finance," Barr said.