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Posts Tagged ‘Operation Choke Point’

Some policies will improve with Biden in the White House, most notably trade, but also government spending (not because Biden is good, but rather because Republicans will go back to pretending to be fiscally conservative).

But some policies will move in the wrong direction. Biden is awful on tax policy, for instance, though I expect Republicans in the Senate will block his class-warfare agenda.

Biden is also very bad on regulatory issues. Unfortunately, this is an area where the new President (and his appointees) will have plenty of authority to shift policy in the wrong direction.

I’m especially worried that Biden will resuscitate an Obama-era policy of strong-arming banks so they won’t do business with unpopular industries. This video, which I first shared back in 2016, explains this reprehensible policy.

Norbert Michel of the Heritage Foundation, in a column for Forbes, provides some additional background on the policy.

Choke Point consisted of bureaucrats in several independent federal agencies taking it upon themselves to shut legal businesses – such as payday lenders and firearms dealers – out of the banking system. Given the nature of the U.S. regulatory framework, this operation was easy to pull off. Officials at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), for instance, simply had to inform the banks they were overseeing that the government considered certain types of their customers “high risk.” The mere implication of a threat was enough to pressure banks into closing accounts, because no U.S. bank wants anything to do with extra audits or investigations from their regulator, much less additional operating restrictions or civil and criminal charges. Banks are incredibly sensitive to any type of pressure from federal regulators, and they know that the regulators have enormous discretion.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Phil Gramm and Mike Solon elaborated on the left’s campaign to politicize the banking system.

Banking was used as a weapon against legal, solvent businesses by the Obama administration during Operation Choke Point, a program to deny the disfavored access to banking services. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. labeled certain businesses “high risk,” including firearms and ammunition dealers, check-cashers, payday lenders and fireworks vendors. Unelected regulators, not Congress or courts, marked these industries as “dirty business” and made it “unacceptable for an insured depository institution” to offer them banking services. …With Democrats unable to ban guns legislatively, Rep. Carolyn Maloney admonished banks at a recent hearing to not “finance gun slaughter.” When she urged JPMorgan to deny credit for legal firearm sales as other banks had done, the CEO responded, “We can certainly consider that. Yes.” At the same hearing, Rep. Rashida Tlaib challenged bank CEOs: “Will any of your banks make a commitment to phase out your investments in fossil fuels and dirty energy?” The CEOs declined to defend fossil fuels… Letting political intimidation dictate the availability of private credit endangers freedom and stifles productivity growth and job creation. …The use of political intimidation to allocate capital is an assault on economic efficiency and freedom.

There is, however, a bit of good news.

The Trump Administration ended Operation Choke Point back in 2017.

And, although it is happening at the last minute, the Trump Administration is now trying to strengthen the rule of law so banks won’t feel pressured to discriminate against certain industries in the future.

In a column published yesterday by the Wall Street Journal, Brian Brooks and Charles Calomiris of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) explain the new rule that their agency has unveiled.

…there have been too many allegations of banks cutting off vital services, credit and capital that legal businesses rely on to create jobs, meet community needs and support the economy. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, where we serve as acting comptroller and chief economist, respectively, on Friday proposed a rule to prevent banks from discriminating against legal businesses and individuals. The rule would require bankers to do what they do best: assess risk and underwrite credit decisions. …politically driven discrimination against particular industries has threatened fairness in banking. Under the Obama administration, Operation Choke Point, in which the OCC did not take part, involved regulators discouraging banks from serving legal and constitutionally protected businesses such as payday lenders and gun and ammunition sellers. …the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 added to the OCC’s traditional mission of safety and soundness the obligation to ensure fair access to financial services… Banks may not exclude entire parts of the economy for reasons unrelated to objective, quantifiable risks specific to an individual customer.

Sadly, if Biden has the same attitude as Obama about the rule of law, a future OCC can reverse anything Trump’s people adopt.

I’ll close with a libertarian-minded observation.

Because I believe in freedom of association, I think banks should have the liberty to discriminate against specific businesses, or even entire industries.

But there’s a big difference between banks choosing to discriminate and being coerced into such behavior by government regulators.

So it was disgusting that Obama’s regulators went after industries they didn’t like, such as gun dealers.

But it would be equally reprehensible if a Republican Administration went after an industry it didn’t like, such as legal marijuana.

P.S. The broader lesson to learn from Operation Choke Point is that regulatory power for governments is a vehicle for corruption and malfeasance.

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Trump has been President for more than 200 days and those of us who want more economic liberty don’t have many reasons to be happy.

Obamacare hasn’t been repealed, the tax code hasn’t been reformed, and wasteful spending hasn’t been cut.

The only glimmer of hope is that Trump has eased up on the regulatory burden. More should be happening, of course, but we are seeing some small steps in the right direction.

Let’s share one positive development.

Professor Tony Lima of California State University opined back in January in the Wall Street Journal that Trump could unilaterally boost growth by ending a reprehensible policy known as “Operation Choke Point.”

…the Trump administration could shut down Operation Choke Point. This program, enforced by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., targets “risky” banking customers and pressures banks to deny them credit. It’s unnecessary: If these industries are really risky, banks would not want their business. The real purpose of Operation Choke Point is to target industries that are out of favor…, among them: Coin dealers, money-transfer networks and payday lenders. Sales of ammunition and firearms (Second Amendment, anyone?) and fireworks (legal in some states). …Other legal goods and services such as surveillance equipment, telemarketing, tobacco and dating services. …Denying credit hampers an industry’s growth. Eliminating Operation Choke Point would encourage growth. It costs nothing. And someday it may reduce enforcement spending.

And Professor Charles Calomiris from Columbia University echoed those views a few weeks later.

Imagine you have a thriving business and one morning you get a call from your banker explaining that he can no longer service your accounts. …That’s what happened to many business owners as the result of an Obama administration policy called Operation Choke Point. In 2011 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned banks of heightened regulatory risks from doing business with certain merchants. A total of 30 undesirable merchant categories were affected…the FDIC explained that banks with such clients were putting themselves at risk of “unsatisfactory Community Reinvestment Act ratings, compliance rating downgrades, restitution to consumers, and the pursuit of civil money penalties.” Other FDIC regulatory guidelines pointed to difficulties banks with high “reputation risk” could have receiving approval for acquisitions.

Keep in mind, by the way, that Congress didn’t pass a law mandating discrimination against and harassment of these merchants.

The Washington bureaucracy, along with ideologues in the Obama Administration, simply decided to impose an onerous new policy.

In effect, the paper pushers were telling financial institutions “nice business, shame if anything happened to it.”

But at least when mobsters engage in that kind of a shakedown, there’s no illusion about what’s happening.

Professor Calomiris explained that this regulatory initiative of the Obama Administration made no sense economically.

It is rather comical that regulators would use the excuse of regulatory risk management to punish banks. Banks are in the business of gauging risk and have every incentive to avoid customer relationships that could hurt their reputation. Regulators, on the other hand, have shown themselves unwilling or unable to acknowledge risk, the most obvious example being the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

And he also explained why Operation Choke Point was such a reprehensible violation of the rule of law.

The FDIC’s regulators never engaged in formal rule-making or announced penalties for banks serving undesirable clients. Such rule-making likely would have been defeated in congressional debate or under the Administrative Procedures Act. Instead, regulators chose to rely on informal decrees called “guidance.” …Financial regulators find regulatory guidance particularly expedient because it spares them the burden of soliciting comments, holding hearings, defining violations, setting forth procedures for ascertaining violations, and defining penalties for ignoring the guidance. Regulators prefer this veil of secrecy because it maximizes their discretionary power and places the unpredictable and discriminatory costs on banks and their customers.

Well, we have some good news.

The Trump Administration has just reversed this terrible Obama policy. Politico has some of the details.

The Justice Department has committed to ending a controversial Obama-era program that discourages banks from doing business with a range of companies, from payday lenders to gun retailers. The move hands a big victory to Republican lawmakers who charged that the initiative — dubbed “Operation Choke Point” — was hurting legitimate businesses. …House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte…and House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), along with Reps. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) praised the department in a joint statement. “We applaud the Trump Justice Department for decisively ending Operation Choke Point,” they said. “The Obama Administration created this ill-advised program to suffocate legitimate businesses to which it was ideologically opposed by intimidating financial institutions into denying banking services to those businesses.”

And Eric Boehm of Reason is pleased by this development.

A financial dragnet that ensnared porn stars, gun dealers, payday lenders, and other politically disfavored small businesses has been shut down. Operation Choke Point launched in 2012… It quickly morphed into a questionably constitutional attack on a wide range of entrepreneurs who found their assets frozen or their bank accounts closed because they were considered “high-risk” for fraud. …Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd called Operation Choke Point “a misguided initiative” and confirmed that DOJ was closing those investigations… “Law abiding businesses should not be targeted simply for operating in an industry that a particular administration might disfavor,” Boyd wrote. …The repudiation of Operation Choke Point is a welcome development, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

I shared a video last year that explained Operation Choke Point in just one minute. But that just scratched the surface, so here’s a video from Reason that explains in greater detail why Operation Choke Point was so repulsive.

Kudos to the Trump Administration for reversing this awful policy.

But hopefully this is just the first step. Regulators are still squeezing financial institutions in an attempt to discourage them from doing business with low-tax jurisdictions. This policy of “de-risking” exists even though so-called tax havens generally have tighter laws against dirty money than the United States.

Trump should put an end to that misguided policy.

Ultimately, what’s really needed is a complete rethink of money-laundering laws and regulations.

Amazingly, some politicians actually want to make these laws even worse. Ideally, Trump will move completely in the other direction.

P.S. While it’s good that Trump has reversed Operation Choke Point, his Administration has moved in the wrong direction on civil forfeiture policy. One step forward and one step backwards is not a recipe for more growth and prosperity.

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