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Regulatory Burdens

My day-job at a financial institution has become increasingly dominated by governance and compliance issues, due largely to the Dodd-Frank Act. Much less of my time these days is dedicated to activities that are of direct value to the business or its customers. It’s not just me, but a large number of talented professionals with whom I work, many having advanced degrees. And a platoon of government regulators with advanced degrees often resides in a conference room on our floor. As I overheard one colleague say the other day, even a sneeze now requires permission from regulators. It feels very much like working for a regulated public utility, or worse yet, a government agency. This is obviously costly for shareholders, customers and taxpayers. If asked, I would be hard-pressed to explain how such massive compliance activity adds value for anyone, except perhaps the regulators themselves, or those who like the job guarantee provided by the situation. Does it offer some extra guarantee of stability for our institution, which remained stable and viable throughout the last financial crisis? Not likely, especially if actually managing the business has anything to do with it. Does it guarantee the stability of the larger financial system to impose massive compliance costs and ossify an otherwise dynamic enterprise?

The financial industry is not the only sector plagued by this phenomenon. At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer provides a great perspective based on his own experience (and he deserves the inspirational hat-tip for this post). Meyer owns and operates a company that manages public parks. Here is his summary:

Ten years ago, most of my company’s free capacity was used to pursue growth opportunities and refine operations. Over the last four years or so, all of our free capacity has been spent solely on compliance.

Meyer offers details of compliance issues that have robbed his business of productive time and energy:

  • Managing hours of seasonal employees to avoid Obamacare penalties;
  • Seeking government approval of price increases to recover minimum wage hikes;
  • Implementing and running e-Verify on new hires;
  • Additional employee hiring documentation requirements;
  • Compliance with California regulation of chairs, hot-day practices, meal breaks, overtime assignments, employee sick days, and other processes;

He goes on to note some economy-wide implications of these entanglements:

… for folks who are scratching their head over recent plateauing of productivity gains and reduced small business origination numbers, you might look in this direction.

By the way, it strikes me that regulatory compliance issues set a minimum size for business viability. You have to be large enough to cover those compliance issues and still make money. What I see happening is that as new compliance issues are layered on, that minimum size rises, like a rising tide slowly drowning companies not large enough to keep their head above water.

There is no doubt that heavy regulation favors large firms over small firms, and it makes competing with entrenched businesses more difficult for new entrants. Here is the first of a trio of relevant posts from the Mercatus Center, a summary of research finding that regulation reduces new business start-ups and hiring activity.

A heavily regulated economy is likely to suffer from an accumulation of old, irrelevant, or often conflicting rules. A second Mercatus Center post, “‘Regulatory Appendicitis’ and the Dangers of Vestigial Regulations” focuses on an additional problem: the application of old rules to regulate new technologies:

From a regulatory agency’s perspective, recycling old rules makes sense: Old rules have withstood legal challenges and offer a relatively safe legal route. However, the rules are unlikely to optimally fit the new context for which they are employed. The use of rules that aren’t optimized for the task at hand can significantly hamper innovation and the development of technology. Even worse, due to poor design, they may not actually accomplish the new objective.

A case in point is the recent imposition of “net neutrality” rules, which prevent ISPs and internet backbone providers from charging incremental rates to network hogs. This involves the application of regulatory rules designed for railroads 130 years ago and applied to the phone system 80 years ago. L. Gordon Crovitz writes of the early, negative impact of this regulation on investment in broadband in a piece entitled “Obamanet Is Hurting Broadband” (if the link fails, Google “wsj Crovitz Obamanet Broadband” and choose the first link returned):

Today bureaucrats lobbied by special interests determine what is ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’ on the Internet, including rates, tariffs and business arrangements. The FCC got thousands of requests for new regulations within weeks of the new rules. … Before Obamanet went into effect, economist Hal Singer of the Progressive Policy Institute predicted in The Wall Street Journal that if price and other regulations were introduced, capital investments by ISPs could quickly fall … 5% and 12% a year …. Now Mr. Singer has analyzed the latest data, and his prediction has come true.

Crovitz correctly states that consumers want more broadband, and broadband growth requires investment. Systematically punishing those who make such investments will not bring improvements in service. And this is not an isolated result. Apart from the absorption of staff time (which is often required to manage new investment), regulation discourages productive capital investment in new facilities, equipment and technology. The potential growth of the economy suffers as a result, including the potential growth of wages.

Several past posts on Sacred Cow Chips have dealt with the heavy costs imposed by regulation, including “Life’s Bleak When Your Goal Is Compliance“, “You Probably Broke The Law Today“, and “There Oughtta NOT Be a Law“.

Is there really a trend toward greater regulation? Yes, and it is not new. Has it accelerated? A third Mercatus Center post demonstrates that the Obama Administration, in terms of new regulatory restrictions, is on a pace to exceed all preceding presidents over the past 40 years. This is based on the Code of Federal Regulation (though Jimmy Carter edged Obama slightly over Obama’s first four years). Obama’s penchant for executive orders shows no sign of abating, and Congress is apparently incapable of over-riding any veto. Much of this can be reversed, in principle, but new regulations have a way of creating political constituencies, so reversals might be easier to say than do.