Making Sense of Bank Reform

The Dodd-Frank Act is arguably as inscrutable as the institutions and instruments it is supposed to fix.

Two years after the fall of Lehman Brothers, the immense overhaul of the banking system is just beginning, and it is far too early for companies to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The banking system is safer — but not by a lot. Banks now have larger capital buffers, and the complex collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that wrought so much destruction are nearly extinct. Yet 11% of retail banks remain at risk of failure, says the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC).

The passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act represents not a regulatory finish line so much as the firing of a starter’s pistol that will kick off a marathon of rule-making and second-guessing. Key questions remain about how much reform will come to pass, when, and what it will ultimately mean for companies. “Regulation is always in catch-up mode — there’s no way around it,” says Cory Gunderson, managing director of the U.S. financial services and global risk and compliance practices at Protiviti.

As for what has been settled and what hasn’t, three key areas of uncertainty deserve watching: whether public bailouts of megabanks can be avoided in the future, what regulators have done to return commercial lending to normal, and whether Wall Street has been reined in too much, too little, or just enough.

Too Big to Fail?

Dodd-Frank created the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a mandated team of traditionally autonomous financial regulators who now are expected to work together to ensure that the financial system does not develop pockets of dangerous dependency. The group, which held its first meeting last month, has the daunting goal (given recent history) of eliminating “expectations on the part of shareholders, creditors, and counterparties of [large banks] that the government will shield them from losses in the event of failure,” the U.S. Treasury says.

Dodd-Frank attempts to ensure that by imposing greater regulatory supervision on bank holding companies with assets greater than $50 billion. It also requires nonbank financial firms and systemically important firms within the next 18 months to develop plans for rapid, orderly unwinding of their businesses in cases of severe financial distress. But will this and any of the other proposed measures prevent the U.S. government from lavishing taxpayer funds on failed banks and being the arbiter of which banks fail and which get life-saving injections of capital?

CFOs in most industries were not sure if the Dodd-Frank Act will hurt their access to capital.

Sandy Brown, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani who served at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the 1980s, is skeptical that the “too big to fail” problem can be solved. “There are certain organizations that are so important to the national and global economy that, if they were to fail, it would set off a massive crisis,” he says.

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