Gary Cohn: Trickle Downer of the Week

AP/FEREX

Gary Cohn, Trump's head of the National Economic Council, in the lobby of Trump Tower.

Last Friday, Donald Trump signed two dramatic—albeit largely symbolic—executive orders that outlined his plans to pick apart Dodd-Frank financial regulations and review Obama’s conflict-of-interest rule that require retirement advisors to act in their clients’ best interest.

The move is unsurprising (Trump campaigned against Dodd-Frank) but the president’s rationale for rolling it back borders on the comically absurd. In a room full of billionaire business leaders, Trump said, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because frankly I have so many people, friends of mine, that have nice businesses and they can’t borrow money. They just can’t get any money because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank.”

The man behind this deregulatory scheme is Gary Cohn, the former chief operating officer at Goldman Sachs and the current White House Economic Council director, who boasted that Trump’s orders were merely a “table setter for a bunch of stuff that is coming.” 

In exchange for his leaving Goldman in favor of selfless government service, Cohn will receive a tidy parting gift of $285 million from Goldman. From his influential post in the White House, Cohn will seek to unleash the “animal spirits” of the market by advancing a “regulatory rethink” in the financial sector—that is, he wants the government to let Wall Street do what it wants and how it wants it. In Cohn’s vision, the administration will undermine Dodd-Frank and the broader financial regulation framework piece by piece. He wants to weaken capital requirements for big banks (which were instituted to ensure that banks can’t become dangerously overleveraged), repeal the Volcker rule that prohibits commercial banks from engaging in certain risky investments with their depositors’ funds, eliminating the government’s ability to intervene in large failing banks, and defang the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which has clawed back hundreds of millions in damages for defrauded consumers.

“Americans are going to have better choices and Americans are going to have better products because we’re not going to burden the banks with literally hundreds of billions of dollars of regulatory costs every year,” Cohn said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “The banks are going to be able to price product more efficiently and more effectively to consumers.”

On top of that, Cohn wants to repeal the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule, which requires that financial advisors for IRA retirement funds to act first and foremost in their clients’ best interest rather than steering them toward riskier products that advisors are incentivized to push via lavish giveaways and kickbacks. The Obama White House estimated that conflicted retirement advisors were costing clients as much as $17 billion a year. The rule was implemented last year, but isn’t set to go into full effect until April.

“We think it is a bad rule. It is a bad rule for consumers,” Cohn said. “This is like putting only healthy food on the menu, because unhealthy food tastes good but you still shouldn’t eat it because you might die younger.” This is an absurd analogy—nobody goes looking for retirement advice with the expectation that they’ll be given “unhealthy” advice, let alone that their advisors aren’t even required to act in their best interest. Many Wall Street companies have come around (reluctantly) to the idea that such advisors should hold a fiduciary responsibility and are already moving in accordance with the rule. The rewards for repeal won’t go to those companies, but to a segment of unscrupulous investors who want to tap into the market of exploitative retirement investing—including, as David Dayen reports, private equity giants like Trump confidante and Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman.

Of course, the notion of a Goldman Sachs alum in the White House pushing to deregulate Wall Street runs directly against candidate Trump’s populist message of “draining the swamp” and taking on corporate greed. But anyone paying attention knows that was a giant charade—Trump doesn’t equate the swamp with elites advancing self-interested policy; he sees it as a federal workforce that must have its labor rights stripped away.

The real problem is the way in which Trump and Cohn are trying to sell deregulation as a boon for everyone. Bankers are so overburdened, they say, with Washington red tape that they can’t invest in the economy, and can’t lend credit to small businesses. It doesn’t matter that credit-lending rates are booming or that Obama oversaw record levels of consecutive job growth.

Sure, there are debates about the most effective ways to regulate the banking sector—and Dodd-Frank is nowhere near perfect. But Cohn is exploiting the imperfections of federal regulations to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Arguing that regulation is hurting consumer choice—despite all countervailing evidence—is simply the only way to package an agenda that calls for allowing Wall Streeters to rewrite the rules in a way that will line their pockets in a big league way while leaving everyone else exposed to the violent whims of a more volatile economy. And Goldman Sachs will surely consider its $285 million in send-off money to Cohn as a cheap investment in ensuring that that their onetime COO will shape policies that hugely increase Wall Street’s profits.                        

For that, Gary Cohn is our Trickle Downer of the Week.

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