February 24, 2020

DealBook: On This Field, Regulators Find No One Is Too Big to Fail

The S.E.C.'s Naked Shorts softball team played the Injured Reserves, a mix of friends. Offficials at Wall Street regulators regularly play softball on the National Mall in Washington.Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York TimesThe S.E.C.’s Naked Shorts softball team plays the Injured Reserves, a mix of friends, on the National Mall in Washington. Gary Rubin, coach of the S.E.C.'s Naked Shorts softball team, takes time out to check his phone during a game.Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York TimesGary Rubin, coach of the S.E.C.’s Naked Shorts softball team, takes time out to check his phone during the game against the Injured Reserves.

“Too big to fail” is something to be feared and loathed in Washington — except on the softball field.

The phrase, which typically refers to big banks whose collapse would endanger the financial system, doubles as the team name for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s softball team. The banking regulators have posted a meager two wins this season, putting them near the bottom of the Congressional Softball League.

After long hours policing financial firms and dealing with the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul, officials at the F.D.I.C., the Securities and Exchange Commission and other Wall Street overseers duke it out on the diamonds of the National Mall with fellow regulators, local businesses and big corporations.

The Treasury Department fields at least two ball clubs, the Gold Standard and the Greenbacks. Just as New Yorkers have the Yankees and the Mets, S.E.C. employees can root for the Naked Shorts or their cross-agency rivals, the Red Stocks.

The roster of the Overdrafts, the pride of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, included an enforcement lawyer who briefly played catcher while she was eight months pregnant. Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law professor who is setting up the agency, gets the play-by-play from her employees after every game.

Aside from the regulatory bent, the league is not unlike those in media, technology and other industries. The season spans April to August. Players typically pay for gear and uniforms out of their pocket. And postgame celebrations are part of the ritual, too. Teams in the Congressional Softball League often retire to the Exchange, a well-known Washington bar just down the street from the White House.

“It’s a good way to meet people,” said Gary Rubin, an S.E.C. staff lawyer and the captain of the Naked Shorts, named after the controversial trading practice. “As busy as we are, we have to enjoy ourselves.”

A hodge-podge of enforcement lawyers and market technicians, the Naked Shorts team mirrors its regulatory persona.

The roster reads like a bureaucratic organization chart with officious-sounding posts like “deputy assistant associate of softball personnel” and “office of equipment and technology.” In other words, the bench coach and the bat boy.

The team also has a constitution, with organizing principles like “no one is allowed to question any coaching or management decision made by Coach Rubin.” At each game, Mr. Rubin, 28, wears his customary green and white jersey with a cartoon softball and rising stock chart.

The Naked Shorts are one of the league’s heavy hitters, with an 8-3 record. In recent weeks, the team has knocked off competitors like Alphabet Soup, a collection of employees from agencies including the Government Accountability Office, and a Department of Veteran Affairs team, VA Is for Lovers.

But two weeks ago the Naked Shorts lost — by one run — to Microsoft’s Bada Bings, whose name is a nod to the company’s search engine. “It was a nail-biter,” said Mr. Rubin, who doubles as the team’s pitcher, a position he selected because he “can’t field very well.”

Other regulators are lagging behind Mr. Rubin’s team. While the new consumer protection agency has been open for only a few days, its team has been flailing on the field for months. The Overdrafts have won two games and lost three this season.

One of the rare victories came off a strong play by some senior officials. Late in the game, a top hitter on an opposing regulatory team ripped a line drive, which was quickly caught by Raj Date, the associate director of research, markets and regulations, who is also the starting shortstop. After making the out, Mr. Date fired the ball off to Steven Antonakes, the first baseman and the bureau’s director of banking supervision, for a double play.

The F.D.I.C.’s Too Big to Fail have a similarly weak record with only two wins, including a 17-8 victory against the Overdrafts. They’ve lost 11 games.

Formed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the F.D.I.C.’s team name reflects its original robust roster of 26 players, far outnumbering competitors.

An agency spokesman and occasional first baseman, Andrew Gray, said: “I guess our record proves that no one is too big to fail post Dodd-Frank.”

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DealBook: DealBook Portraits: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren has spent nearly a year setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The all-consuming project has led her to meet with dozens of politicians and bankers from every state.

President Obama, however, has yet to nominate her –or anyone for that matter–to formally lead the new agency. Now her chances of nabbing the top spot at the bureau are in doubt as Republicans aim to cut the bureau’s funding and undermine the influence of Ms. Warren, a Harvard law professor and noted consumer advocate.

At a house hearing in May, one Republican accused her of lying, drawing gasps from the audience.

She returned to the lion’s den on Thursday to face off with Republicans on the House oversight committee. Ms. Warren escaped relatively unscathed, though conservative lawmakers hammered away at the bureau’s authority and structure. At one point, a committee member complained that the hearing became “a partisan food fight.”

Ms. Warren recently sat down with DealBook to discuss the attacks on the bureau, the delay in naming its director, and her dog Otis.

Jessica A. McHugh contributed reporting.

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Foes Revise Plan to Curb New Agency

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been one of Washington’s drawn-out passion plays, featuring bankers and finance companies that want to undermine the agency and have villainized Elizabeth Warren, the hard-edged Harvard law professor President Obama picked to start it.

Ms. Warren has characterized the fight as one in which opponents are trying to stick “a knife in the ribs of the agency.” In a recent interview, she said, “the fight has now shifted. It didn’t stop, it just moved from being a fight out in the headlines, out in the middle of the street, to a fight in the back alleys.”

But on Thursday, the fight returned to the open as 44 Senate Republicans sent a letter to Mr. Obama saying they “will not support the consideration of any nominee, regardless of party affiliation, “to direct the bureau until the agency is restructured.

With 44 of 47 Republican senators digging in against the bureau, Democrats would be unable to gather the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster and bring a vote on a nominee for director of the agency. That leaves the president with the option of a recess appointment, a move that would anger legislators whose support the president is likely to need to tackle other issues, like cutting the deficit and raising the debt ceiling.

Already, three bills are pending in the House of Representatives to alter the agency’s charter, making it easier for other regulators to overturn the bureau’s rules and replacing its director with a five-person commission.

“This is about accountability,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Banking Committee. “The bureau, as currently structured, lacks any semblance of the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution. Everyone supports consumer protection, but we should never entrust a single person with this much power and public money.”

The White House defended the agency’s structure, saying it provided “the strongest consumer protections in history.”

“The consumer agency’s sole mission is to protect American families and provide the tools they need to make smart financial decisions,” said Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman. “For far too long, American consumers have fallen victim to fraud, misleading claims and powerful special interests, and the president believes that American families who were the hardest hit by this financial crisis deserve an independent watchdog to protect consumers and prevent predatory lending and other abuses in the future. “

While the rhetoric surrounding the fight over the consumer bureau has recently focused on its structure, behind the scenes it has been as much about Ms. Warren, who was widely believed to be unable to pass confirmation in the Senate last year. As an alternative, Mr. Obama appointed Ms. Warren last September as a special adviser to oversee the “standing up” of the agency, and she has hired officials who will carry out the regulation of mortgage loans, credit cards, payday lenders and other sellers of financial products.

But until the bureau has a formal director, it cannot write rules governing consumer finance or begin overseeing previously unregulated agencies like payday lenders.

In some ways, Ms. Warren’s own celebrity might be getting in the way of that effort. She is a dynamic public speaker who has for years championed the right of the middle class to receive plain-English explanations of often-complex financial products. But that effort has drawn criticism from some bankers, who feel she has unfairly accused them of exploiting consumers.

Several candidates for director of the bureau have reportedly turned down the opportunity, with at least one saying that she thought Ms. Warren should get the job. As the delay in selecting a nominee has lengthened, supporters of Ms. Warren have characterized her nomination as inevitable.

“There’s no doubt that the fact she’s there has made it more complicated to recruit a director,” said an Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity and who was not authorized to discuss the search process. “She’s done a terrific job attracting talent to the agency,” the official said. But recent efforts by supporters to portray her as the putative nominee are proving “mildly counterproductive,” the official said.

Ms. Warren herself has deflected speculation about her taking the job, saying it is for the president to decide.

For much of the last few weeks, Ms. Warren has been speaking publicly about what she calls attacks on the consumer agency. “Every day, somebody’s got a plan to undercut this agency, to knock it down,” she said. “The conversation is effectively: ‘Oh, we’d really like to kill this thing but it might be too popular for that — that might cause too much blowback. So can we find a way to maim it?’ ”

Republicans have complained that the bureau, which is to be housed in the Federal Reserve and whose budget is independent of Congressional oversight, has broad powers but does not have to answer to anyone. Republican opponents say they are simply trying to ensure that the agency does not interfere with other regulators that look after the safety and soundness of banks and financial institutions.

The Senate group urged the establishment of a board of directors to oversee the bureau, and a House bill similarly calls for the establishment of a five-member commission. A board structure would be similar to the Federal Reserve, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — agencies whose consumer oversight will be shifted to the new consumer bureau on July 21, a year after President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank bank regulation act into law.

Legislators also have called for the consumer bureau to be subject to the Congressional appropriations process. As established, its budget is set as a percentage of the Federal Reserve’s budget and is not subject to approval by Congress.

Consumer groups responded angrily Thursday to the Republican letter. “It’s sort of breathtaking,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, which lobbied for the creation of the consumer bureau. “They’re saying, ‘We’re not O.K. with an effective consumer bureau.’ ”

In spite of the continued resistance, Ms. Warren is moving ahead with efforts to begin the consumer agency’s work. Later this month, it is to begin circulating drafts of new consumer mortgage forms that combine two complicated documents that consumers are required to receive as part of a home purchase into a single form that the agency hopes will be easier for homebuyers to understand.

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