Monday, June 15, 2009

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Let's get real. There seems to be a great deal of dissatisfaction with and disappointment in the Obama Administration's approach to the reforming the financial services sector and and outlawing the current (admittedly toxic) executive compensation practices. I think the disappointed are confusing cognitive recognition of a problem and identification of potential solutions with the actual process of change.

So why isn't meaningful reform in the cards for the next year or two?

Team Obama did not exactly enter the 2008 presidential race focused on the economy or the financial services sector in particular. As I recall, the global hot button was the Middle East (a/k/a Islamic terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and the domestic hot button was reforming the health care delivery arrangements. Not much bandwidth was devoted, until around Labor Day, to the general economy, much less Wall Street (except when it came to fundraising).

So, if the first reason expectations should be low at this point in time is simply that financial reform wasn't on the agenda, the second has to do with that second little fact--the fund raising business. The financial services sector has bought and paid for the government and its regulators for at least a generation. It is easy to get angry about this, but it is also pointless to do so. Big campaign contributions and the machinery of retained lobbyists buy access and mindspace, and influence policy and regulation. But there is a limit to their impact. The Marc Rich pardon notwithstanding, it is very difficult to actually buy an outcome. When the result is controversial and the groups opposing it have made their campaign contributions and hired their own lobbyists, the impact of it all is, if not neutralized, at least offset (and can lead to truly bizarre outcomes and terrible policies with unbelievable real world outcomes--viz., the attempted privatization of military services by the like of Blackwater).

Right now, sitting here today, the financial services sector retains its seat at the table and is still regarded as a participant in the process, a patient whose informed consent is required for the procedure. Soon, enough, unless there are magic reversals in the unemployment rate and the direction of commercial and residential real estate prices, the financial services sector will come to be regarded as a corpse to be harvested for useful organs and dissected for the enlightenment of future generations of medical students. Not yet.

Then there is the issue of executive compensation. Given the extent to which Summers, Emmanuel and Geithner's wife have all suckled at the Wall Street teat over the last decade, I think it is impossible for those guys to approach the issue without trepidation. What made Larry Summers worth over five million dollars to Wall Street or Rahm Emmanuel worth over fifteen million? Politicians are not notoriously introspective, but it would be hard not to question yourself under the circumstances, and that is disregarding entirely the public embarassment and political advantage to one's adversaries of the situation, and without even reaching the ethical implications of either betraying a constituency you have allowed to buy you or failing to act in the public interest while in public service.

There are three reasons not to have high expectations. They are all grounded in the realpolitik of expediency. In the short term they are insurmountable. In the intermediate to longer term, they fall away, depending on the course of future developments. But for the time being, expect experimenting with the cosmetics and some serious rearranging of the deck chairs. And don't get mad or excited about it. Just wait patiently.

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