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Lobbying as institutionalized corruption

[Dec 21, 2010] Is Regulation Really for Sale

December 20, 2010 | Economist's View

Howard Davies, chair of the UK's Financial Services Authority from 1997-2003, defends regulators against the claim that they are bought and sold by the financial industry (though he's less sure about legislators), but admits they were subject to "intellectual capture" prior to the crisis:

Is Regulation Really for Sale?, by Howard Davies, Commentary, Project Syndicate: narratives of the financial crisis, regulatory capture is often an important part of the story. ... How plausible is this...? Can ... regulation really be bought?

When I was a regulator, I would certainly have denied it. I had never worked in the financial industry, and knew few people who did. ... My successors have all come from the financial sector, however...

I have no first-hand knowledge of the legislative process in the United States. But, as an outsider, I am amazed at the apparent intensity of lobbying, and at the amounts of money that firms and their associations spend. Is it effective? ...

An intriguing sidelight on the relationship between Congress and business is provided in a study by Ahmed Tahoun of the London School of Economics on “The role of stock ownership by US members of Congress on the market for political favors.” ... The ... results ... suggest a less-than-healthy relationship between lawmakers’ political and pecuniary interests.

Regulators are typically not subject to those temptations. They are not normally allowed to own stock in financial firms... But can they nonetheless be captured?

I see two potential grounds for concern. The first is the revolving door between the industry and regulatory bodies. This is more prevalent in the US...

The second concern is what one might call intellectual capture. While I would strongly argue that the FSA in my day did not favor firms unduly, it is perhaps true that we – and in this we were exactly like US regulators – were inclined to believe that markets were generally efficient. If willing buyers and willing sellers were trading claims happily, then, as long as they were “professional” investors, there was no legitimate reason to interfere in their markets. ...

We now know that some of these market emperors had no clothes, and that their activities ... could result in severe financial instability and generate serious losses for taxpayers, not to mention precipitating a global recession. That has been a grave lesson for regulators and central banks.

So intellectual capture is a charge hard to refute. But were regulators surrogate lobbyists for the financial industry? I do not think so, and to argue as much devalues the efforts of many overworked and underpaid public servants around the world.

"Is Regulation Really for Sale?" The intellectual capture Davies owns up to was no accident, it was the product of a concerted effort -- funded in part by big money interests on the right -- to sell these ideas to policymakers, regulators, and the public more generally. And as Paul Krugman's column notes today, it's an effort that had and continues to have considerable success. Thus, I don't think we can separate intellectual capture from lobbyist and other activity promoting the free market, anti-regulation point of view.


Regulatory capture theory by way of public choice school of economics assumes the same incentives are operative in the private market and government sector.

To be consistent with this intellectual capture theory would mean that regulators have been brainwashed on the one hand while in private markets it would make no difference whether markets are efficient or whether anyone believes they are.  

Richard Hoogesteger:

The situation in Britain is not the same as in the United States. There are several reasons for this. First senior regulators in Britain are generally career civil servants. In the U.S. they are political appointees. Second the politicians who appoint them must raise enourmous amounts of money to run for office. This makes conflicts of interest almost impossible to avoid. These conflicts extend into academia which is financed by by government and the business community. For an amusing though disturbing take on this see the movie "Inside Job".


Howard Davies is a day late and a dollar short.

Janet Tavakoli's Fraud as a Business Model powerpoints Mary Shapiro's appalling record at FINRA and today heads the SEC. Then there was Rubin during Clinton years who engineered the repeal of Glass-Steagall and garnered a job at Citigroup. Weill called Secretary Bailout Bob Rubin who reportedly quipped, "You're buying the government?"

Greenspan and Summers shutdown Brooksley Born on derivatives, and then there's the Paulson snake dance upon his knees to Pelosi to save his alma mater Goldman Sachs, etc....The Bush administration finished the job of clearing out employees with a conscience and integrity.

"America is a hurricane, and the only people who do not hear the sound are those fortunate if incredibly stupid and smug... who live in the center, in the serene eye of the big wind."

Norman Mailer

rps :

"The intellectual capture Davies owns up to was no accident, it was the product of a concerted effort..."

As in Dante's Inferno, we are experiencing the third circle of hell, "The gluttons lie here sightless and heedless of their neighbours, symbolising the cold, selfish, and empty sensuality of their lives..." The fourth circle, Greed, "Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?," and the Eighth circle Fraud, cantos are devoted to the fraudulent advisers or evil councillors, who are concealed within individual flames. These are not people who gave false advice, but people who used their position to advise others to engage in fraud......."

Human nature. "The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is not a problem of physics but of ethics. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil from the spirit of man." Albert Einstein

Author: Albert Einstein  

Highgamma :

"Thus, I don't think we can separate intellectual capture from lobbyist and other activity promoting the free market, anti-regulation point of view."

When I think of regulatory capture, I think of the old "Ma Bell" AT&T or electric utilities. Those guys wouldn't have known a free market if it hit them on the head. I believe that you are confusing "free market, anti-regulation" with the "regulated" crony capitalism that we have.

These guys aren't getting government to stay out of their way. They're getting government to do their bidding: hobble their competitors, block entrants, strengthen their market power, and socialize their losses. There's no "free market" in any of that, but I fear that with this new drumbeat for more government control, we will get a great deal more "regulation" that will really be more crony capitalism.

Mark The Lesser :

Much of the discussion of regulatory capture misses the point. Regulators operate in the real political world, with leaders appointed by presidents. If the head of a regulatory agency is someone who is skeptical of active, aggressive enforcement actions (and private litigation against wrongdoers -- in general, the skepticism goes hand in hand) then it becomes tougher (if not impossible) to regulate and enforce the laws.

Large institutions are effectively given a pass, partially because they are too big to sue (i.e., you can't do anything to hurt them) and because top regulators (who make the decisions on whether to sue such institutions) don't believe that people of such high integrity should get sued (See Madoff, AIG, etc) or believe that such institutions just need "guidance", not an enforcement suit.

Add to the skepticism of top regulators about suing "respectable" people and institutions (which generally pervades those brought in directly from the industry) with the fact that funding and personnel can be cut if the organization is too aggressive or the jurisdiction can be taken away (See the Commodities Modernization Act) and regulators get de-toothed.

In addition, statements by former regulators (or current regulators) that they haven't been or weren't "captured" should taken with a grain of salt the size of a very large pillow unless that person has supported SUING and prosecuting violators and taking away their profits, their prerogatives and the positions in industry. Saying that one is in favor of effective enforcement means little.

It is the willingness to take strong legal action, in public and in the courts that shows a real willingness to enforce the laws. This means, for both regulators and legislators, a willingness to set tough standards for behavior, allow suits for such behavior based upon liberal, reasonable standards of proof and pleadings, and to back up those who seek to enforce the laws. While almost every regulator would deny being co-opted and would say (and perhaps believe) that they believe in vigorous, effective enforcement of the securities, commodities and other laws, when push comes to shove, most don't actually believe in enforcing the laws -- perhaps because they believe that nice people like them wouldn't violate the law. But, "nice" people violate the law all the time.

So the problem is finding leaders and lawyers (because they are the ones who really do the enforcement) who believe in actually suing people who commit fraud or violate regulations and hitting them very hard rather than working things out, but who aren't going to get too novel in their theories. Truth be told, there is almost always plenty of middle of the road enforcement to be done -- it just needs to be done in a committed way and pursued aggressively against anyone (no matter how big) who violates the law.

But until you can find and hire people who will do so and get Congress (and the presidency) out of protecting large and "respected" people and institutions, you have "capture" in a very real sense. And that has been the fate of U.S. regulation for most of the last 20 years. If we do not get regulators who are committed to and focused on bread and butter litigation and enforcement, but who are aggressive in novel ways without strong bread and butter enforcement first, we will lose whatever chance we have to get real regulation and avoid "capture" of our regulatory agencies.

Of course, that's just my opinion, and it could be wrong (not really, its right).

Mark The Lesser

[Jan 27, 2010] Lobbying and the Financial Crisis

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonable to argue that lobbying by financial institutions can contribute to risk accumulation and threaten the stability of the financial system.

This research finds evidence that financial firms that lobbied the most on mortgage lending and securitization issues (often successfully) took on the most risk, and experienced worse loan performance.

The conclusion to the article says that even though there's evidence that lobbyists contributed to lax lending standards, that doesn't necessarily mean that we should ban lobbying by financial firms. Why? The argument is that lobbyists may provide lawmakers with expertise and other information unavailable anywhere else, and that this can improve legislation and help to support financial innovation. So there are both costs and benefits. Thus, they say:

financial institutions may also lobby to reveal superior information on the mortgage lending market and gain support for innovation in financial services. In this view, lobbying serves a social purpose, and there may be better ways to contain risks than simply challenge lobbying.

But I'd turn that around and say "there may be better ways to reveal superior information on the mortgage lending market than to simply allow lobbying."

As to the "innovation in financial services" that lobbying supposedly helps to provide, even if lobbying does spur innovation, many people argue that the benefits of that innovation are small. If they're correct, and once you get past cash machines it's hard to think of financial innovation that has brought large benefits to society at large, it's not at all clear that the net social value of that innovation is positive. Whatever benefits may be present are more than offset by the costs associated with the innovation that contributed to the financial crisis:

Lobbying and the financial crisis, by Deniz Igan, Prachi Mishra, and Thierry Tressel, Vox EU: Should the political influence of large financial institutions take some blame for the financial crisis? In his speech at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Economic Association, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued that, based on evidence of declining lending standards during the boom, “stronger regulation and supervision aimed at problems with underwriting practices and lenders’ risk management would have been a more effective and surgical approach to constraining the housing bubble than a general increase in interest rates” (Bernanke 2010).

Why wasn’t financial regulation tightened before the crisis?

If regulatory action would have been an effective response to deteriorating lending standards, why didn’t the political process result in such an outcome? Questions about the political process, through which financial reforms are adopted, are very timely now that the US Congress is considering financial regulatory reform bills.

A recent study by Mian, Sufi and Trebbi (forthcoming) shows, for example, that constituent and special interests theories explain voting on key bills, such as the American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 and the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, that were passed as policy responses to the crisis.

A number of news articles have reported anecdotal evidence that, in the run up to the crisis, large financial institutions were strongly lobbying against certain proposed legal changes and prevented a tightening of regulations that might have contained reckless lending practices. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported on 31 December 2007 that Ameriquest Mortgage and Countrywide Financial spent millions of dollars in political donations, campaign contributions, and lobbying activities from 2002 through 2006 to defeat anti-predatory-lending legislation.

There has, however, been no careful statistical analysis backing claims that lobbying practices may have been related to lending standards. In a recent paper (Igan, Mishra and Tressel, 2009), we provide the first empirical analysis of the relationship between lobbying by US financial institutions and their lending behavior in the run up to the crisis.

Data sources

Lobbyists in the US – often organized in special interest groups – can legally influence the policy formation process through two main channels.

In contrast to campaign contributions, these lobbying activities – which account for about 90% of expenditures on targeted political activity – have received scant attention in the academic literature.

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 requires lobbying firms and companies with in-house lobbying units to file reports of their lobbying expenditures with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Legislation requires the disclosure not only of the dollar amounts actually spent, but also the issues in relation to which the lobbying is carried out.

By going through individual lobbying reports, we identify all lobbying activities by financial institutions related to the regulation of mortgage lending and securitisation. During the period of the boom from 2000 to 2006, we find 16 pieces of federal legislation aimed at enhancing the regulation of predatory lending practices, none of which ever became law. The amounts spent on lobbying in relation to these laws were substantial and were spent mostly by large financial institutions.

The striking picture is that financial institutions lobbying on specific issues related to mortgage lending and securitisation adopted significantly riskier mortgage lending strategies in the run-up to the crisis.

We considered three measures of ex-ante loan characteristics: the loan-to-income ratio of mortgages, the proportion of mortgages securitised, and the growth rate of loans originated. The loan-to-income ratio measures whether a borrower can afford repaying a loan; as mortgage payments increase in proportion of income, servicing the loan becomes more difficult, and the probability of default increases. Recourse to securitisation is often considered to weaken monitoring incentives; hence, a higher proportion of mortgages securitised can be associated with lower credit standards. Fast expansion of credit could be associated with low lending standards if, for example, competitive pressures compel lenders to loosen lending standards in order to preserve market shares.

We find that, between 2000 and 2006, the lenders that lobbied most intensively to prevent a tightening of laws and regulations related to mortgage lending also:

These findings suggest that lobbying by financial institutions was a factor contributing to the deterioration in credit quality and contributed to the build-up of risks prior to the crisis.

Further results

Our study offers two pieces of evidence showing that lobbying lenders experienced worse performance once the financial crisis started.

All in all, this evidence suggests that these lenders had larger exposures to poorly performing mortgage loan pools.

Conclusions and policy implications

What are the implications of these findings for policy making?

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems reasonable to argue that lobbying by financial institutions can contribute to risk accumulation and threaten the stability of the financial system. Drawing precise policy implications, however, may not be straightforward, and would depend on the motives behind lobbying and lending practices.

Financial institutions may lobby to obtain private benefits, such as decreased scrutiny by bank supervisors, or higher likelihood of a bailout, and potentially under less stringent conditions. Under such rent-seeking motivations, lobbying is socially undesirable, all the more so as it contributes to financial instability. It should therefore be tightly regulated.

Lobbying may also reflect distorted short-term incentives within financial institutions; the perspective of high short-term gains may motivate both risk taking and lobbying. In this case, tackling the underlying distortion – by aligning managers’ compensation with long-term profit maximisation – may be a more efficient way to limit excessive risk-taking than preventing lobbying.

More optimistically, financial institutions may also lobby to reveal superior information on the mortgage lending market and gain support for innovation in financial services. In this view, lobbying serves a social purpose, and there may be better ways to contain risks than simply challenge lobbying.

The ongoing legislative efforts to enhance banking supervision and regulation in the US provide another context to further our understanding of the motivation for lobbying by the financial sector. Recent reports show that financial institutions intensified their lobbying efforts in 2009 to fight against an overhaul of derivatives regulation and legislation. Johnson (2009) argues that substantial reform will fail unless the political power of the finance industry is weakened. Further work will be needed to ascertain whether this will be the case.


Posted by Mark Thoma on Wednesday, January 27, 2010


reason :

"The conclusion to the article says that even though there's evidence that lobbyists contributed to lax lending standards, that doesn't necessarily mean that we should ban lobbying by financial firms. Why? The argument is that lobbyists may provide lawmakers with expertise and other information unavailable anywhere else, and that this can improve legislation and help to support financial innovation. So there are both costs and benefits."


What has happened to logic these days? If you want information about something you can always go and ask for it. 

bakho :

This describes the pattern instituted by the Newt-Delay K-Street Congresses. Congress stopped writing its own legislation and outsourced the job to lobbyists. At one point, Congress was passing bills written by lobbyists more or less sight unseen.

If your political philosophy is, "Government can do no net good (other than defense)", then that opens up using the Treasury as a giant slush fund to reward campaign donors.

OrganicGeorge said in reply to bakho...



You may try to define what lobbying 'means' to you and you may set rules for lobbyists, but lobbying will always mean what politicians take it to mean. If they take it to be a means of political or personal financial support that puts them on a lifelong gravy train, then that's what it will be.

ken melvin:

Yes, Newt ushered in the 'one issue' crowd, none of whom knew diddly squat about anything except perhaps the old testament and 'southern' values. Without lobbyist, they would look more the idiot. With lobbyist doing their work for them, they can spend countless before late nite C-Span preaching their particular brand of hell-fire and damnation in re the evils of government. The dems aren't particularly blessed, but the rethugs are orders of magnitude worse. As a result of the lobby ran, we've the most ignorant since reconstruction. Name me five rethugs that are smart enough to be in Congress


"More optimistically, financial institutions may also lobby to reveal superior information "

The standard template of a corporatist economic argument: A self-serving argument is plausibly true, prima facie, and therefore it must be true. Never mind the lack of any supporting data, or the overwhelming weight of data to the contrary; just assume a can opener.

Whether any innovation has value is supposed to be determined by market acceptance. By this measure, Snuggies have value, since they generate enough revenue to cover their costs and produce a profit. Junk subprime mortgages and CDSs do not, since the revenue they generate is woefully inadequate to cover their losses. Absent government bailout, they are worthless.

Shorter: Any innovation that requires lobbying to make it profitable is no innovation at all. So lobbying is neither necessary nor useful for innovation.


I am troubled to read that academic researchers who had the imagination to look for a link between lobbying and bad behavior were still willing to fall back on one of the standard propaganda lines that lobbyists have been using since my old daddy in a state legislator, about 4 decades back. There is no legitimate public service justification for lobbying, absent the claim that lobbyists provide information to legislators. So if the claim isn't true, or is "true" in some embarrassing way, then allowing lobbyists to run around loose among lawmakers is nothing more than a scandal.

So, here's a question. If lawmakers need to get their information from lobbyists, why do we think lawmakers are able to discriminate between real information that can lead them to balanced decisions and false, self-serving or misleading claims that lobbyists would use to "inform" lawmakers into legislating in ways favorable to the lobbyist's employer? If legislators need lobbyists, then they can't be trusted with lobbyists.

ken melvin said in reply to kharris...

They have staffers to talk to the lobbyist, raise funding, ... Wait, ...


"Why wasn’t financial regulation tightened before the crisis?"

Financial regulation was not tightened before the crisis, because regulation was expressly what conservatives, what Republicans, what financial company executives had for so long worked expressly against:

December 21, 2007

Blindly Into the Bubble

When announcing Japan's surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."

There was a definite Hirohito feel to the explanation Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, gave this week for the Fed's locking-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-is-gone decision to modestly strengthen regulation of the mortgage industry: "Market discipline has in some cases broken down, and the incentives to follow prudent lending procedures have, at times, eroded."

That's quite an understatement. In fact, the explosion of "innovative" home lending that took place in the middle years of this decade was an unmitigated disaster.

But maybe Mr. Bernanke was afraid to be blunt about just how badly things went wrong. After all, straight talk would have amounted to a direct rebuke of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan, who ignored pleas to lock the barn door while the horse was still inside — that is, to regulate lending while it was booming, rather than after it had already collapsed.

I use the words "unmitigated disaster" advisedly.

Apologists for the mortgage industry claim, as Mr. Greenspan does in his new book, that "the benefits of broadened home ownership" justified the risks of unregulated lending.

But homeownership didn't broaden. The great bulk of dubious subprime lending took place from 2004 to 2006 — yet homeownership rates are already back down to mid-2003 levels. With millions more foreclosures likely, it's a good bet that homeownership will be lower at the Bush administration's end than it was at the start.

Meanwhile, during the bubble years, the mortgage industry lured millions of people into borrowing more than they could afford, and simultaneously duped investors into investing vast sums in risky assets wrongly labeled AAA. Reasonable estimates suggest that more than 10 million American families will end up owing more than their homes are worth, and investors will suffer $400 billion or more in losses.

So where were the regulators as one of the greatest financial disasters since the Great Depression unfolded? They were blinded by ideology.

"Fed shrugged as subprime crisis spread," was the headline on a New York Times report on the failure of regulators to regulate. This may have been a discreet dig at Mr. Greenspan's history as a disciple of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of unfettered capitalism known for her novel "Atlas Shrugged."

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand's newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a "collectivist" myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, "would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings." On the contrary, he declared, "it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product."

It's no wonder, then, that he brushed off warnings about deceptive lending practices, including those of Edward M. Gramlich, a member of the Federal Reserve board. In Mr. Greenspan's world, predatory lending — like attempts to sell consumers poison toys and tainted seafood — just doesn't happen.

But Mr. Greenspan wasn't the only top official who put ideology above public protection. Consider the press conference held on June 3, 2003 — just about the time subprime lending was starting to go wild — to announce a new initiative aimed at reducing the regulatory burden on banks. Representatives of four of the five government agencies responsible for financial supervision used tree shears to attack a stack of paper representing bank regulations. The fifth representative, James Gilleran of the Office of Thrift Supervision, wielded a chainsaw.

Also in attendance were representatives of financial industry trade associations, which had been lobbying for deregulation. As far as I can tell from press reports, there were no representatives of consumer interests on the scene.

Two months after that event the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, one of the tree-shears-wielding agencies, moved to exempt national banks from state regulations that protect consumers against predatory lending. If, say, New York State wanted to protect its own residents — well, sorry, that wasn't allowed....



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