They’ll Find the Money or Change in Ways We Don’t Like
One wonders whether U.S. legislators don’t understand the consequences of their work — which isn’t implausible, inasmuch as it’s a real question whether they read the legislation on which they vote — or don’t care. Of course, the conservative critique of government is that big government will tend to work in the interests of those with the incentive to manipulate lawmakers who cannot or will not see pitfalls, leaving the only rational and ethical choice for legislators to be to decline to micromanage the private society that they’re supposed to serve.
The point comes to mind, this time, on news following passage of the “sweeping financial overhaul”:
Investors are worried about banks’ future earning power after Thursday’s passage of the most dramatic rewriting of banking rules since the Great Depression. Adding to the pessimism are falling trading profits — which all three banks mentioned in the their earnings reports — and weak U.S. loan demand. …
Yet banks are already moving to recoup any losses. One approach: making traditionally free services premium offerings. A Bank of America pilot program in Georgia, for instance, charges customers $8.95 a month to get paper statements or use bank tellers. The bank could start the program nationally as soon as next month.
Bank of America is also considering raising minimum balances on some accounts and charging customers who fall below it, Moynihan told analysts during a conference call.
Locking more money in savings accounts is probably not the best outcome for our struggling economy. But more generally, it simply isn’t the case that companies — banks or otherwise — sit on large piles of money that they know they don’t need and that they are willing to give up at the wave of the president’s magic pen, as if they were children refusing to share their candy. That’s not to say that businesses don’t hoard wealth or don’t rationalize self-serving strategies; it’s merely to make the obvious point that they’ll seek to profit as much as the market will bear, saving as much as they deem wise and distributing their profits as they perceive their internal dynamics to require.
When government operatives pick a particular policy of the banks, such as debt card “swipe” fees, to disallow by fiat, the affected organizations will look elsewhere. They’re obviously in a much better position to know what fees can conceivably be imposed, and with industry-wide rules (excepting government debt cards, naturally), they’ve less to fear from their competition as they impose them.
Perhaps the most chilling paragraph in the article, though, is this:
But banks won’t have free rein to raise fees on whatever they choose. The financial overhaul calls for the creation of a new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. The agency will have vast powers to enforce regulations covering mortgages, credit cards and other financial products to ensure customers are getting a fair deal.
Unelected bureaucrats, in other words, will now have “vast powers” to make a laboratory of the finance industry for experiments in consequences. At least when private businesses engage in such experimentation, they do so at the risk of their own financial health. When government agencies muck things up, they tend to find themselves with more authority.
And that reality presents a golden opportunity for large incumbent players in the industry who can find ways to take over and influence their regulators in such a way as to ensure that they profit even in calamity.