Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why bankers will be watching the State of the Union

My prediction of the day: More bankers than normal will be tuned in to tonight's State of the Union address.

Here's why:

During the address, President Barack Obama is expected to propose a fee — some people are referring to it as a "bank tax" — on the largest U.S. financial institutions, a group that includes Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Specifically, the proposal calls for a 0.07 percent fee on the liabilities of the roughly 100 U.S. financial institutions that have assets of more than $50 billion each.

According to a fact sheet released by the Obama administration over the weekend, the fee is designed to make it more costly for the institutions to finance their activities by borrowing heavily. That, in turn, would reduce the probability of major defaults that can ripple through the economy, the administration says.

If the idea sounds familiar, it's because Obama proposed a similar tax in 2010, when the financial crisis was fresher on the minds of many Americans than it is today. That proposal, designed to recover taxpayer funds used to bail out big banks, went nowhere.

To be sure, the odds of this new proposal going anywhere are long. I mean, there's that whole Republican-controlled-Congress variable you've got to factor in to the equation.

And you can bet that the banks, which already lament post-financial crisis regulations as being too costly, will lobby hard against the proposal if it seems to start gaining any traction.

In a Forbes column, Tim Worstall writes that the tax is founded on a good idea. But, he writes, its chances of passing would be improved if it were presented as an premium charged to banks in exchange for an insurance backstop from the federal government.

"It’s not a tax: it’s an insurance premium and if the banks don’t want to pay it they can not have these liabilities and thus not need the insurance," he writes.

"Put that way Obama’s proposal might actually have a chance. ... Call it a change to the FDIC’s insurance premiums and attain the same goal that way."

For another view, here's what investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods said about the fee in a report Monday:

We view this as political posturing and not a serious policy proposal. In our view, chances of this proposal passing are low. 
Instead we think it is part of the administration's effort to draw contrasts with congressional Republicans and make it look like the White House is against Wall Street, while Republicans are defenders of the industry. We view this to energize the President's political base.

And here's what the Financial Services Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based group whose members are the CEOs of 18 large financial services institutions that do business in the U.S., has to say about the proposal. The statement below is from forum President Rob Nichols:
We urge policymakers to reject this tax targeting a small group of companies and instead focus on achieving broad-based, pro-growth tax reform that ensures our economic recovery continues.
As the largest financial institutions continue to simplify, reduce risk and leverage, build capital, provide the credit to keep the economy growing, and make the necessary investments to protect customers from cyber threats, it would be counterproductive to layer on one more way to make it more difficult to achieve those public goals.


Anonymous said...

Too bad Obama is too stupid to put it that way.

Anonymous said...

There's a better chance of pigs flying than anything Obama says actually making its way into law.

Anonymous said...

Obama is just another politician catering to his base. He knows his proposals won't pass but he'll gladly lament Republican obstructionists while he had 6 years to do his every whim.

This is a President who has increased our national debt by 7.5 Trillion dollars (almost 50%) and whose 'adherence' to what he says he will do, versus what he has actually done (i.e. lies)), is around former President Ford's record.

God help us if we get another 4 years of "Government/Democrats Know Best".

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