Meet the Woman Who Terrifies Wall Street Bankers

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Stanford finance professor Anat R. Admati talks to Bill Moyers about "too-big-to-fail" banks in June. (Image: Moyers & Company)

Stanford finance professor Anat R. Admati talks to Bill Moyers about "too-big-to-fail" banks. June, 2014. (Image: Moyers & Company)

It’s been almost six years since the fall of Lehman Brothers ignited a global financial crisis, and our financial system remains rife with systemic risk. Those too-big-to-fail banks have only gotten bigger, a mountain of demonstrable fraud continues to go unprosecuted and the industry keeps blocking serious reform efforts as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, Wall Street bonuses have rebounded, and the financial industry is once again extracting a fortune from the larger economy.

But there are reformers who continue pressing the case for fixing a financial sector that appears to be out of control. In Saturday’s New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum profiled one of the fiercest, Stanford finance professor Anat R. Admati, who appeared as a guest on Moyers & Company in June.

Appelbaum writes:

Bankers are nearly unanimous on the subject of Anat R. Admati, the Stanford finance professor and persistent industry gadfly: Her ideas are wildly impractical, bad for the American economy and not to be taken seriously.

But after years of quixotic advocacy, Ms. Admati is reaching some very prominent ears. Last month, President Obama invited her and five other economists to a private lunch to discuss their ideas. She left him with a copy of “The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong With Banking and What to Do About It,” a 2013 book she co-authored. A few weeks later, she testified for the first time before the Senate Banking Committee. And, in a recent speech, Stanley Fischer, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, praised her “vigorous campaign.”

Dennis Kelleher, chief executive of Better Markets, a nonprofit that advocates stronger financial regulation, said Ms. Admati has emerged as one of the most effective advocates of the view that regulatory changes since the 2008 crisis remain insufficient. “She has been, as one must be,” Mr. Kelleher said, “dogged from the West Coast to the East Coast to Europe and back again and over again.”

Ms. Admati’s simple message is that the government is overlooking the best way to strengthen the financial system. Regulators, she says, need to worry less about what banks do with their money, and more about where the money comes from.

Companies other than banks get money mostly by selling shares to investors or by reinvesting profits. Banks, by contrast, can rely almost entirely on borrowed funds, including the money they get from depositors. Ms. Admati argues that banks are taking larger risks than other kinds of companies because they use other people’s money, and the results are that they keep crashing the economy.

Her solution is to make banks behave more like other companies by forcing them to reduce sharply their reliance on borrowed money. That would likely make the banking industry more stodgy and less profitable — reducing the economic risks, the executive bonuses and, for shareholders, both the risks and the profits.

“My comparison is to speed limits,” Ms. Admati said in an interview near the Stanford campus. “Basically what we have here is the market has decided nobody else should be driving faster than 70 miles an hour and these are the biggest trucks with the most explosive cargo and they are driving at almost 100 miles an hour.”

Read the whole thing at The New York Times, and check out Bill Moyers’ discussion with Admati below.

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