Sheriff Volcker leaves Wall Street untamed

January 7, 2011, 1:47 AM UTC

Paul Volcker is riding into the sunset, but it’s just as well. Any hope the Obama administration might clean up the financial Wild West faded long ago.

It was around this time last year that Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chief who was a major figure in Obama’s 2008 presidential run, reemerged after a year in the policy wilderness. He stood with Obama at a White House lectern and announced a plan to crack down on the risk-addicted banks that helped drive the economy into a ditch.

Gone fishing

The birth of the so-called Volcker rule seemed to point to a more aggressive stance by an administration that had mostly supported the banks. Unlike Obama’s top economic aides, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, Volcker seemed to appreciate that the financial industry had grown too big, too greedy and too powerful — and needed to pay for their many sins.

“Bankers are like 5-year-olds,” said Barry Ritholtz, a New York money manager who writes the Big Picture economics blog. “If you leave them unsupervised with a bowl of candy, they will eat it all and throw up all over everyone. Volcker got that.”

But having proposed a tough rule — shares in Goldman Sachs (GS) and other big banks got walloped the day of the announcement — the administration then stood aside as the language got watered down in Congress.

Though this is hardly unusual in itself, it meant Obama punted on what now looks like his last chance to reform the big banks. After all the damage bankers did with their bonus-boosting high-stakes gambling, this doesn’t exactly register as a profile in courage.

“Obama had this brief window to say this is a disaster and we have to take action to fix it the right way,” said Ritholtz. “It is rare for a leader to be given that opportunity, and he blew it.”

That’s not to say that what the administration got — the Dodd-Frank Act — is utterly worthless, or that another 2008-style meltdown is at hand. As frustrating as the sausage-making process may have been, Geithner and Ben Bernanke do now have powers they lacked before, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Volcker.

“They did get what they wanted,” said Roy Smith, a former Goldman Sachs partner who teaches finance and international business at NYU’s Stern School. “Dodd-Frank is sloppy and probably twice as big as it needs to be, but the regulators have an enormous amount of power to keep the banks where they want them, and I think they’ll do that.”

Smith adds that Volcker was “an important, independent figure who helped get this through Congress” — something perhaps no other person could have done.

But with Volcker’s departure, there will be no counterweight to the administration’s prop-up-the-banks worldview, which critics see everywhere.

What’s more, there is a sense that while financial reform hasn’t gone quite as far it might have, even that progress is fragile with Republicans taking over the House.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican who is emerging as one of the nuttier voices in a highly confrontational Congress, said Thursday she’d seek to have Dodd-Frank repealed because it “grossly expanded the federal government beyond its jurisdictional boundaries.”

But wild frontal attacks on bank oversight are probably less problematic than the slightly subtler ones that might have real impact on the way bankers behave. For instance, Rep. Spencer Bachus, the Alabama Republican who is now the the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said last month it is the government’s job to “serve the banks.”

Keep an eye on that candy bowl.

“It’s disappointing to see Bachus say the government is there to do what the banks want,” said Richard Sylla, an economics professor at NYU. “You kind of get the feeling Wall Street is getting a free pass in all of this.”