The major deregulation movement of the past 100 years started with the Ford and Carter administrations in the 1970s, and continued through the Reagan years. This movement came to an end with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 under the administration of George W. Bush. Since then some sectors, such as labor markets and product safety, have been regulated much more extensively, while others, including commercial and investment banking, have had no further declines in the extent of regulation. Despite the considerable and tangible successes of this deregulation movement, the pressure is intense to significantly increase the regulations affecting consumer safety, the introduction of new drugs, and especially financial markets.
The 1970s saw a bipartisan reduction in the regulation of airline travel, trucking, security exchanges, and commercial banking. Measures of the success of this deregulation include sharp declines in the cost of air travel and of shipping goods by truck, huge reductions in commissions on stock transactions, and higher interest rates on bank deposits. Not only has no serious attempt been made to re-regulate these activities, but also European and many other nations on all continents have copied the American deregulation of airlines and securities.
The impetus to tighter regulations varies from sector to sector, although there is a growing belief that many activities are insufficiently regulated. Obviously, the current turmoil in the financial sector is stimulating many proposals to regulate extensively various types of financial transactions. Yet it is not obvious that the problems in the financial sector resulted mainly because of insufficient regulation. For example, commercial banks are probably the most heavily regulated group in the financial sector, yet they are in much greater difficulties than say the hedge fund industry, which is one of the least regulated industries in the financial sector. Banks participated very extensively in originating mortgages, including subprime mortgages, and in buying mortgage-backed securities, and so they are suffering from the high foreclosure rates, and the sharp decline in the market value of these securities.
One reason why extensive regulation of commercial banks did not prevent many banks from getting into trouble is that bank examiners became optimistic along with banks about the risks associated with mortgages and other bank assets because the market priced these assets as if they carried little risk. It would run counter to human nature for regulators to take a skeptical attitude toward the riskiness of various assets when the market is indicating that these assets are not so risky, and when originating and holding these assets has been quite profitable. One can expect regulators to mainly follow rather than lead the market in assessing riskiness and other asset characteristics.
To some extent that was also true of the Fed's behavior during the past few years. I believe that Alan Greenspan is right in claiming that the main cause of the housing boom was not the Fed's actions but the worldwide low interest rates due to an abundant world supply of savings. The demand for very durable assets like housing is greatly increased by low interest rates. Still, the Fed seems to have contributed to the booming demand for housing and other assets by keeping the federal funds rate artificially low during the boom years of 2003-05.
In evaluating the need for greater financial regulation, one should also not forget that the American economy greatly outperformed the European and Japanese economies during the past 25 years. Might that not be related in part to the fact that the United States led the way with major financial innovations like investment banks, hedge funds, futures and derivative markets, and private equity funds that were only lightly regulated? An infrequent period of financial turmoil may be the price that has to be paid for more rapid growth in income and low unemployment. Rapid income and employment growth might be worth an occasional period of turmoil especially if they do not lead to prolonged slowdowns in the real part of the economy. So far the effects on GDP and employment have not been severe, although the financial distress is not yet completely over.
Nevertheless, a few important regulatory changes are probably warranted. For the first time the Fed allowed investment banks access to its federal funds window, and the Fed guaranteed $29 billion worth of mortgage-backed assets to induce J.P. Morgan to take over that investment company. Since these types of Fed actions would likely be repeated in the event of future financial turmoil, investment banks would have an incentive to take on additional risk since they can reasonably expect to be helped out by the Fed in the future. For this reason it might be desirable for the government to impose upper bounds on the permissible ratios of assets to equity held by investment banks. The ratio of assets to the equity of the five leading investment banks did increase greatly from about 23 in 2004 to the highly leveraged level of 30 in 2007.
Other regulations of financial institutions may also be merited, but elaborate new regulations of the financial sector would be counterproductive. For example, the Fed has proposed limits on how much mortgage interest rates can exceed the prime rate for low-income borrowers with poor credit ratings. This would be a foolish intervention into the details of credit contracts that have all the defects of usury laws.
The financial sector has served the economy well by managing, dividing, and pricing different types of risks in the economy. It would be a mistake if Congress and the President allow the present financial turmoil to panic them into inefficient new financial regulations.