May 14

Financial Reform: Is the Crisis Over?

Kenneth Makovsky

Kenneth D. Makovsky
President
Makovsky & Company, Inc.

Talk about “strange bedfellows”! Wall Street, Main Street and Corporate America: these days they seem to be coming together with regard to financial reform. What is bringing them together? The liquidity crisis that triggered the Great Recession.

We believed we knew where Main Street and Wall Street stood on these reforms, but what about the corporate world?

So Makovsky commissioned Harris Interactive to survey 300 senior executives in the Fortune 1000 on the topic of financial reform.

Only 28 percent of senior executives, on average, believe the proposed reform legislation will have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. The findings of the study very closely track the results of a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, which revealed that only 31 percent of a random sample of U.S. adults oppose stricter federal regulations on the ways banks and other financial institutions conduct their business.

Even those bankers who adamantly opposed financial reform earlier this year now seem to be on board. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., recently made the statement, “It’s obvious we need to reform our financial system.” He indicated his organization agreed with 80 percent of the proposed changes.

“We’re very close on a number of key issues to agreement,” Barclays President Bob Diamond has said. “Strong banks want strong regulation.”

So do Fortune 1000 executives, who generally support 6 of the 8 core proposals for regulatory reform, according to our survey.

The reform with the largest support at 72% is regulating credit rating agencies, which is not surprising, in view of the fact that they have been key influencers and have been challenged on their business structure.

Three reforms that were supported by about 65%+ of corporate leadership respondents were supervisory in nature. Undoubtedly the government is responding to popular pressure, but it is interesting to know that significant support is coming from the corporate world. They include:

• Creating a consumer protection agency.
• Forming a new regulatory agency to assess risk at financial institutions.
• Strengthening bank supervision.

The Volcker Rule only garnered 56% support — still significant, but this rule is no doubt controversial. It prohibits banks from proprietary trading and hedge fund ventures, and empowers regulators to mandate large firms that are in distress to halt or divest risky businesses. While I believe implementation of this rule will reduce risk, particularly the second part of it, the Volcker Rule was also lower on the awareness scale among those surveyed.

While, for example, the consumer protection agency has garnered support, it is easy to see that an overreaction could stifle financial creativity and the low costs that we’ve all enjoyed for years.

The two reforms that were viewed as having the greatest potentially negative impact on the U.S. economy were:

• The Resolution Fund, a government process for shutting down large troubled firms viewed as “too big to fail,” which had the least support, at 50 percent.
• The right of the government and shareholders to influence senior executive compensation (which registered the greatest opposition, with 43 percent of executives opposing).

Corporate leaders felt the “executive pay” reform would have the greatest negative impact on their particular corporation (40%), as well as them personally (34%). Executive compensation is definitely a hot button … and it’s already a matter of widespread discussion in the U.S. and overseas, for two reasons:

• It directly affects important constituencies, including employees, shareholders and legislators and
• It’s inextricably intertwined with other important issues, like governance, ethics and corporate social responsibility.

For those reasons alone, it’s up to public relations professionals to play the devil’s advocate and — tactfully! — challenge the senior executives we counsel to think through the messages they’re communicating to their stakeholders with respect to compensation … or risk ceding control of the conversation to angry and increasingly vocal “reformers.”

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