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What Is the Dodd-Frank Act? Why Is It Important?

NEW YORK – The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law on July 21, 2010. Introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, it sought to reform the financial industry after the Financial Crisis of 2007–2008 and the subsequent Great Recession.

What factors led to the creation of the Dodd-Frank Act?

In the early 2000s, the U.S. housing market was red-hot, fueled by seemingly limitless credit and nearly endless demand. The dream of homeownership had become a reality for many Americans through the introduction of subprime mortgages, which often featured adjustable rates (ARMs) that “reset” higher – to the tune of several hundred dollars a month – after a brief, introductory period. ARMs were offered to individuals with less-than-perfect credit, and unscrupulous mortgage lenders frequently targeted the elderly, minorities, and those living in low-income neighborhoods.

Banks were approving these mortgages and pooling them together into interest-bearing securities known as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs). The riskiest securities also offered the highest yields, which appealed to speculative investors like investment banks.

The housing bubble finally burst when the Federal Reserve attempted to quell inflationary forces through a series of interest rate hikes between 2004 and 2006. The Fed funds rate increased from 1.0% to 5.25%. When this happened, banks owed more interest to their depositors and, in turn, increased the interest they were charging on consumer products, like ARMs and other categories of subprime mortgages. Rates skyrocketed as a result, and millions of homeowners were unable to make their mortgage payments and defaulted on their loans.

By the summer of 2008, nearly 10% of all U.S. mortgages were either in default or foreclosure. It was a series of falling dominoes: Mortgage lenders like New Century Financial Corp. filed for bankruptcy, while government agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac teetered on the brink of insolvency. Lehman Brothers, a global investment firm, collapsed on September 15, 2008, and the stock market crashed soon after, ushering in a 2-year recession – the longest since WWII. Wall Street needed to be bailed out.

The U.S. Congress approved the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which offered $700 billion in emergency aid to add liquidity to the markets, while the U.S. Treasury injected billions more to stabilize the troubled banking industry. Additional support was needed to support important economic sectors, including the struggling automotive industry. Homeowners received temporary tax credits and the Fed slashed interest rates to zero for an unprecedented 6-year period to encourage banks to become comfortable lending again – both to consumers and to other banks.

What is the Dodd-Frank Act? Why is it important?

Amidst the carnage in 2009, President Barack Obama called for a “sweeping overhaul of the United States financial regulatory system, a transformation on a scale not seen since the reforms that followed the Great Depression.”

Dodd-Frank was the result of that challenge: It was the most comprehensive reform in Wall Street history as it essentially sought to prevent the excessive risk-taking that had characterized the Financial Crisis of 2007–2008. Financial institutions at every level had taken on far more risk than they should have, and a lack of oversight was to blame. In addition, mortgage companies and payday lenders exploited consumers through hidden fees and fine print.

More than 2,300 pages long, Dodd-Frank overhauled the financial system through increased accountability and transparency. It created new regulatory agencies and added responsibilities to existing ones, like the FDIC, to protect American taxpayers and consumers, particularly homebuyers.

What are the components of Dodd-Frank?

The many components of this massive law can be grouped into a few broad categories:

Monitoring the stability of financial firms

Dodd-Frank added increased oversight to large financial firms that had a global impact. These firms had caused the taxpayer-fueled bailout of Bear Stearns, among other financial players and insurance companies, because they were considered “too big to fail.” This meant that their collapse would cause systemic devastation and must be prevented at all costs. A new entity, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, was given the authority to break up banks it considered to be “too big,” thus reducing the threat of future systemic risks.

Reforming the mortgage industry

Dodd-Frank added new rules to payday-lending practices and required that mortgage originators verify that their borrowers could, in fact, repay their loans. In addition, it gave the Securities and Exchange Commission the authority to provide “meaningful and accurate” credit ratings.

Creating new consumer financial protections

Under Dodd-Frank, a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was founded. This Bureau protects consumers against discriminatory practices, including predatory lending. Investor protections were also strengthened.

Adding oversight to the derivatives market

A section of Dodd-Frank, known as the Volcker Rule, prohibited banks from trading risky, high-yield derivatives, like CMOs. Under this rule, banks were no longer permitted to trade with hedge funds or private equity firms. In addition, derivatives trading would now take place through exchanges for increased transparency.

Preventing future financial crises of this magnitude from happening

Dodd-Frank also offered the FDIC tools to facilitate bankruptcies as well as receive emergency credit from the U.S. Treasury “in unusual or exigent circumstances.”

Was Dodd-Frank successful?

In 2017, then-Fed-Chair Janet Yellen said that “the balance of research suggests that the core reforms we have put in place have substantially boosted resilience without unduly limiting credit availability or economic growth.” The economy did not experience any financial crises since its passage, she noted, saying, “My assessment is that the reforms put in place significantly boosted the resilience of the U.S. financial system.”

However, critics believed Dodd-Frank’s increased oversight of banks was too severe. They argued these measures restricted the availability of credit for businesses and consumers, effectively stagnating the U.S. economy.

Is Dodd-Frank still in effect?

In 2016, the Republican-led Congress passed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, which rolled back several Dodd-Frank mandates. President Donald Trump, who had promised to “do a big number on Dodd-Frank,” signed the act into law on May 24, 2018.

The Act eased rules on all but the largest banks, raising the threshold of what would be considered “too big to fail” from $50 billion to $250 billion in assets. That meant that thousands of small- and mid-sized banks would no longer need to undergo “stress tests” or other so-called regulatory burdens that were set in place to identify systemic threats.

Critics of the repeal have argued that deregulation of small- and mid-sized banks led to the 2023 collapse of two regional banks, Silicon Valley Bank in Santa Clara, CA, and Signature Bank in New York City, triggering bank runs and stoking fears of more widespread financial contagion.

Senator Elizabeth Warren blamed the repeals for the bank failures, writing in an Opinion piece for the New York Times:

“Had Congress and the Federal Reserve not rolled back the stricter oversight, S.V.B. and Signature would have been subject to stronger liquidity and capital requirements to withstand financial shocks,” Warren said. “They would have been required to conduct regular stress tests to expose their vulnerabilities and shore up their businesses. But because those requirements were repealed, when an old-fashioned bank run hit, S.V.B bank couldn’t withstand the pressure – and Signature’s collapse was close behind.”

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