The Great Financial Crisis of the late 2000s was the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Most agree that lax regulation of banks and other financial institutions set the stage for the risky lending and trading practices that caused it.
Congress responded to the crisis — and attempted to prevent anything similar from happening again — by passing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Named for then-Sen. Chris Dodd and then-Rep. Barney Frank, Dodd-Frank was a sweeping piece of legislation that imposed new restrictions on how financial institutions operate and enshrined new protections for individual borrowers, bank account users, and investors.
Not everyone was happy with the outcome. Right away, banks and their Congressional allies worked to weaken it. They claimed partial victory in 2018 with the passage of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief & Consumer Protection Act, which eliminated or softened key parts of Dodd-Frank.
Some argue that this set the stage for the failure of Silicon Valley Bank and a handful of other big regional banks in 2023. The truth is more complicated — and more interesting.
What Is the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010?
The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 is a financial regulation and consumer protection law that significantly changed how banks and investment firms operated.
For most consumers, Dodd-Frank’s most visible provisions were a slew of new protections for borrowers and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which among other things helped track and enforce those new regulations.
Less visibly but perhaps even more consequentially, Dodd-Frank fundamentally changed federal oversight and regulation of the financial industry. Along these lines, its key elements included:
- Creating new financial oversight agencies. Dodd-Frank authorized two new financial regulatory agencies: the Financial Stability Oversight Council and the Office of Financial Research. It tasked these agencies with monitoring banks’ financial health and risk-taking behavior in the hopes of spotting trouble before it threatens the wider financial system.
- Giving the Federal Reserve new powers to regulate big banks. Dodd-Frank gave the Federal Reserve new powers to monitor systemically important (“too big to fail”) banks. It set the threshold to qualify as a systemically important bank at $50 billion in assets.
- Prohibiting banks from making certain speculative investments (Volcker Rule). Named for former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, this provision banned banks from trading financial assets with their own money for the purpose of turning a profit. It also prevented banks from owning hedge funds, private equity funds, or venture capital funds.
- Establishing a new process for winding down failed companies. Dodd-Frank created the Orderly Liquidation Authority and tasked it with winding down major corporate failures in a way that minimized economic fallout.
- More aggressively regulating the financial instruments that caused the Great Financial Crisis. Dodd-Frank tightened regulations on credit-default swaps, the complex financial instruments that sparked the Great Financial Crisis. It didn’t ban them outright but did require that they be sold through clearinghouses or stock exchanges, similar to many other market-traded securities.
Partial Dodd-Frank Act Repeal in 2018 — Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief & Consumer Protection Act
In 2018, Congress passed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief & Consumer Protection Act.
The law was specifically intended to repeal parts of the Dodd-Frank Act that were unpopular with the financial industry and other business interests. However, it left large swathes of Dodd-Frank intact, including the CFPB and some other important consumer protections.
Changes Affecting Smaller Community Banks
Most Economic Growth Act provisions applied to community banks with less than $10 billion in assets. The biggest change was exempting these banks from the Volcker Rule, but there were a lot more technical tweaks that combined to significantly reduce their regulatory burden. If you’re interested in the details, Indiana Sen. Todd Young’s office put out a comprehensive, easy-to-understand fact sheet at the time.
Notably, the Economic Growth Act didn’t exempt banks as big as Silicon Valley Bank, First Republic Bank, or Signature Bank from the Volcker Rule. However, an important Federal Reserve policy change did relax the Volcker Rule in 2020, allowing bigger banks to invest their own money in venture capital funds and other risky assets.
Change Affecting Larger Regional Banks
The act’s most consequential change applied to much larger banks. This raised the too-big-to-fail threshold from $50 billion to $250 billion in assets. Dozens of banks that previously counted as too big to fail were exempted overnight, including several banks that failed in 2023: Signature Bank, Silicon Valley Bank, and First Republic Bank.
They were no longer subject to direct supervision by the Federal Reserve and could reduce the amount of capital they held in reserve. Silicon Valley Bank, in particular, deployed some of its now-excess capital in investments that eventually lost significant value.
Only the biggest banks in the United States — fewer than 20 at the time — remained subject to the stricter scrutiny that came with too big to fail status. Importantly, Silicon Valley Bank aggressively lobbied Congress to raise the too-big-to-fail threshold high enough to exempt it. It had a clear motive to do so, as it primarily served tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists awash in risky investment opportunities the Volcker Rule prevented it from pursuing.
This was the Economic Growth Act change that may have contributed to the 2023 banking crisis. Combined with the Federal Reserve’s relaxation of the Volcker Rule, it set the stage for banks to take greater risk with less supervision, which many believe contributed directly to the failures of 2023.
Did the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief & Consumer Protection Act Contribute to the 2023 Banking Crisis
To understand the 2023 banking crisis, it’s crucial to understand the economic and regulatory environment leading up to it.
- Looser regulatory oversight. The increase in the too-big-to-fail threshold excluded all three of the banks that failed in 2023. This meant that they were no longer subject to direct supervision by the Federal Reserve and the requisite frequent stress tests, which measure banks’ capacity to endure various hypothetical-but-realistic economic scenarios.
- Lower liquidity requirements. They also weren’t required to maintain as much liquidity, or capital in reserve. Essentially, they could shrink their rainy-day funds and use more of their cash to make loans or buy interest-paying bonds.
- More freedom to take risks. With less oversight and liquidity, they were free to operate with more discretion than before. But with less cash on hand, they had less margin for error and faced graver consequences if things went wrong. For example, Silicon Valley Bank continued to hold low-interest bonds on its balance sheet even after the Federal Reserve began raising interest rates in 2022. As the value of those bonds plummeted, the bank had no choice but to declare a multibillion-dollar loss on them — just as the tech economy hit the skids, drying up a vital source of new deposits and investment income.
- Lots of uninsured deposits. This had nothing to do with Dodd-Frank or the Economic Growth Act, but it did mean that these banks’ financial troubles spooked investors and the banks’ own customers more than they otherwise would have. All three of the banks that failed in 2023 catered disproportionately to high-net-worth individuals and businesses with far more than the $250,000 FDIC insurance limit in their accounts. For example, many of Silicon Valley Bank’s clients were rich venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs.
- Vulnerability to bank runs. Lots of uninsured deposits and disproportionate exposure to specific industries increased these banks’ vulnerability to bank runs, where customers all try to withdraw their cash at once. This happened most dramatically at Silicon Valley Bank, which saw more than $40 billion in attempted withdrawals just before it failed. But many First Republic and Signature Bank customers took flight before those banks failed as well.
- Regulatory failures. Had these banks still qualified as too big to fail, they would have faced stricter scrutiny from regulators that may well have prevented their collapse. But it’s not like they faced none at all after 2018. In fact, reports following Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse suggest that regulators were concerned about what was going on inside the bank in 2022. They just didn’t take action early enough or decisively enough to make a difference.
The underlying cause of these banks’ troubles — particularly Silicon Valley Bank’s — was more akin to a basic management failure than the sort of wild speculation that caused the Great Financial Crisis. In Silicon Valley Bank’s case, everyone knew interest rates were going up, so it’s not clear why Silicon Valley Bank held onto those bonds for so long. That said, Dodd-Frank existed in part to prevent such questionable decision-making, and regulators could have done more to enforce what remained of it.
All this is to say that the Economic Growth Act may have sparked the 2023 banking crisis by weakening the too-big-to-fail standard. But its role was a supporting one at best. Rising interest rates, jumbo-sized accounts, bad management, and lax regulatory action were all more important.
FAQs About Dodd-Frank & the Economic Growth Act
We’ve seen how partial Dodd-Frank repeal may have sparked a new banking crisis, but that’s not the law’s only legacy. Conversations about Dodd-Frank and partial repeal also touch on questions like these.
Did the Dodd-Frank Act Hurt the Economy?
It depends who you ask. The Dodd-Frank Act authorized some important new consumer protections and created a new agency (the CFPB) focused solely on protecting everyday folks’ finances.
Consumer advocates would say that’s a good thing, but many business owners and trade groups — not to mention financial institutions — argue that it increased the cost and complexity of doing business to the economy’s detriment.
Likewise, Dodd-Frank restricted or prohibited banks from engaging in certain risky financial behaviors, like proprietary trading. Those rules made markets calmer and more predictable while reducing the risk of bank failures.
But they also cut into banks’ profits and may have discouraged legitimate investment activity. Even former Congressman Barney Frank soured on his own bill over time — though, in his new career as Signature Bank director, he was hardly a neutral party.
Is the Dodd-Frank Act Still in Effect?
Yes, the Dodd-Frank Act is still in effect. However, the Economic Growth Act significantly weakened key aspects of it. By encouraging larger banks to take more risks, this may have contributed to a spate of bank failures in early 2023.
Is the Volcker Rule Still in Effect?
The Volcker Rule is technically still in effect. However, the Economic Growth Act exempted banks with less than $10 billion in assets. Unrelated rule changes adopted by the Federal Reserve in 2020 loosened some of its provisions for all financial institutions.
Today, the Volcker Rule restrictions on proprietary trading are no longer quite so strict. Banks now also have more leeway to invest in venture capital funds and securitized loans (the sorts of instruments that contributed to the Great Financial Crisis).
Does the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Still Exist?
Yes, the CFPB still exists. The Economic Growth Act had little direct effect on its operations.
The Trump Administration significantly weakened the CFPB through a combination of neglect and administrative rule changes that favored financial institutions. But the Biden Administration reversed many of these changes.
The agency remains a political football, with Republicans generally opposed and Democrats generally in favor.
What Happened to Barney Frank?
Barney Frank retired from Congress in 2013. He published a memoir in 2015, the same year he joined the board of Signature Bank. He told The Financial Times that he took the job because he needed to make money and didn’t want to become a political lobbyist. According to SEC filings, Signature Bank paid Frank about $2 million between 2015 and 2023.
What Happened to Chris Dodd?
No one knows.
Just kidding. Dodd retired from the Senate in 2011 and became chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. He held that job until 2017, then went into private legal practice with the law firm Arnold & Porter. More recently, he advised President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign and served on his vice presidential selection committee.
The 2023 banking crisis was a far cry from the Great Financial Crisis 15 years earlier. Though it saw two of the biggest bank failures in history — Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic Bank — it didn’t crash financial markets or spark an economic calamity.
The damage was minimal because the causes were different. Whereas the Great Financial Crisis was the culmination of years of irresponsible risk-taking by banks big and small, greased by the effective repeal of a longstanding law that prevented such risk-taking, the 2023 banking crisis was the regrettable result of more basic management failures at a handful of regional banks. And though the partial repeal of another law — Dodd-Frank — may have played a supporting role, the correlation is far less clear.
Add it to the pile of evidence that history often rhymes but rarely repeats.