Janet Yellen says the Trump administration ‘decimated’ the Treasury’s financial stability department and she’s focused on repairing the ‘cracks’

March 30, 2023, 5:48 PM UTC
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen speaks during a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 29, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Nathan Howard—Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen came out swinging in a Thursday speech at a National Association for Business Economics conference.

“When the President and I took office in January 2021, we inherited a financial stability apparatus at Treasury that had been decimated,” she said in prepared remarks, arguing that Trump administration budget cuts left her without the proper resources to regulate banks when she took office.

After the sudden collapse of Silicon Valley Bank earlier this month, along with demise of the crypto-focused Signature Bank and Silvergate Bank, Yellen and other regulators have been under fire from politicians and Wall Street for missing clear red flags. Konrad Alt, cofounder of the investment and advisory firm Klaros Group, who previously served as counsel to the Senate Banking Committee, told Fortune earlier this month that the main issue at SVB—not accounting for the risk of rising interest rates—has been well-known for years.

“‘The fact is, we’ve known that this was a gap for a long time….regulators should have caught it, and they didn’t catch it,” he said. 

But the Treasury Secretary pinned much of the blame for the failure to foresee SVB’s collapse on her lack of resources and deregulation efforts that happened after Dodd-Frank’s creation in 2010 this week. 

“Regulatory requirements have been loosened in recent years. I believe it is appropriate to assess the impact of these deregulatory decisions and take any necessary actions in response,” she said.

In 2015, more than a dozen bank CEO’s, including SVB’s CEO Greg Becker, lobbied to reduce the scope of Dodd-Frank. Becker said in testimony at the time that his bank did “not present systemic risk,” as he urged legislators to relax regulations including stress tests designed to assess lenders’ vulnerability during times of economic hardship and liquidity requirements meant to prevent bank runs. By 2018, Becker got his wish as President Trump signed a law that rolled back some of Dodd-Frank’s regulatory power, particularly for small and mid-sized banks.

And Yellen noted on Thursday that the department at the Treasury that is tasked with mitigating potential threats to financial stability from these banks, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC)—which was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis—was severely understaffed and underfunded when she took office as well.

FSOC’s staff was “less than one third of the size” it was in 2016 by the end of Trump’s presidency, she said, and the analysis team was completely eliminated. “This team, working with financial regulators, was responsible for helping monitor systemic risk. This meant that we went into the pandemic crisis without the staffing we needed to monitor risks to the health of the financial system,” the Treasury Secretary noted.

To her point, on Sept. 29, 2017, former Treasury Secretary and FSOC Chairman Steven Mnuchin approved a fiscal year 2018 budget that included a 15% cut to FSOC’s funding and a 50% staff reduction—from 36 full-time employees to just 18. 

“Over the past two years, I have made it a top priority to rebuild the financial stability infrastructure at Treasury,” Yellen said Thursday, noting that she has doubled the size of FSOC’s staff since 2021. 

But the issues for bank regulators at the Treasury during the Trump administration weren’t limited to FSOC. The Office of Financial Research (OFR), an independent agency which analyzes market trends to spot financial risks for Treasury Department officials, had its budget slashed by 25% in 2018. And between 2016 and 2020, OFR’s headcount was cut from over 200 to just 107.

Yellen said Thursday that a true banking crisis was averted after the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Treasury used the “systemic risk exception” to backstop all depositors, both insured and uninsured, at SVB and Signature Bank when they failed earlier this month. But she also warned the actions amounted to the “proverbial fire department” being called in, and questioned whether banking regulations are sufficient to prevent another crisis from happening in the future.

“These events remind us of the urgent need to complete unfinished business: to finalize post-crisis reforms, consider whether deregulation may have gone too far, and repair the cracks in the regulatory perimeter that the recent shocks have revealed,” she said.

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