The Case for Repealing Dodd-Frank

Peter Wallison
American Enterprise Institute

Peter WallisonPeter J. Wallison holds the Arthur F. Burns Chair in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously he practiced banking, corporate, and financial law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C., and in New York. He also served as White House Counsel in the Reagan Administration. A graduate of Harvard College, Mr. Wallison received his law degree from Harvard Law School and is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, among many other publications. He is the editor, co-editor, author, or co-author of numerous books, including Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency and Bad History, Worse Policy: How a False Narrative about the Financial Crisis Led to the Dodd-Frank Act.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 5, 2013, during a conference entitled “Dodd-Frank: A Law Like No Other,” co-sponsored by the Center for Constructive Alternatives and the Ludwig Von Mises Lecture Series.

Given these facts, further regulation of the financial system through the Dodd-Frank Act was a disastrously wrong response. The vast new regulatory restrictions in the act have created uncertainty and sapped the appetite for risk-taking that had once made the U.S. financial system the largest and most successful in the world.

What, then, should have been done? The answer is a thorough reorientation of the U.S. housing finance system away from the kind of government control that makes it hostage to narrow political imperatives—that is, providing benefits to constituents—rather than responsive to the competition and efficiency imperatives of a market system. This does not mean that we should have no regulation. What it means is that we should have only regulation that is necessary when the self-correcting elements in a market system fail. We can see exactly that kind of failure in the effect of a bubble on housing prices. A bubble energizes itself by reducing defaults as prices rise. This sends the wrong signal to investors: Instead of increasing risk, they tend to see increasing opportunity. They know that in the past there have been painful bubble deflations in housing, but it is human nature to believe that “this time it’s different.” Requiring that only high quality mortgages are eligible for securitization would be the kind of limited regulatory intervention that addresses the real problem, not the smothering regulation in Dodd-Frank that depresses economic growth.

The Affordable Care Act, better known as ObamaCare, has received all the attention as the worst expression of the Obama presidency, but Dodd- Frank deserves a look. Just as ObamaCare was the wrong prescription for health care, Dodd-Frank was based on a faulty diagnosis of the financial crisis. Until that diagnosis is corrected—until it is made clear to the American people that the financial crisis was caused by the government rather than by deregulation or insufficient regulation—economic growth will be impeded. It follows that when the true causes of the financial crisis have been made clear, it will become possible to repeal Dodd-Frank.

This has happened before. During the 1930s, the dominant view was that the Depression was caused by excessive competition. It seems crackpot now, but the New Dealers thought that too much competition drove down prices, caused firms to fail, and thus increased unemployment. The Dodd-Frank of the time was the National Industrial Recovery Act. Although it was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, its purpose was to cartelize industry and limit competition so that businesses could raise their prices. It was only in the 1960s, when Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz showed that the Depression was caused by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, that national policies began to move away from regulation and toward competition. What followed was a flood of deregulation— of trucking, air travel, securities, and communications, among others— which has given us the Internet, affordable air travel for families instead of just business, securities transactions at a penny a share, and Fedex. Ironically, however, the regulation of banking increased, accounting for the problems of the industry today.

If the American people come to recognize that the financial crisis was caused by the housing policies of their own government—rather than insufficient regulation or the inherent instability of the U.S. financial system—Dodd- Frank will be seen as an illegitimate response to the crisis. Only then will it be possible to repeal or substantially modify this repressive law.