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Barney bank

The notion that banks are too influential—I think this is a mistake on part of some of my friends on the left, and maybe in general. The big banks do not have the political influence that people think they do.

One of the last places one would have expected the anti–big-bank crusader to land after he retired from Congress in 2013 was the board of directors for Signature Bank, but that’s exactly where Frank went. The bankers he’s met have largely been cordial. And he doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that many in the profession made his life difficult when he was a Democratic lawmaker. (The 76-year-old Frank doesn’t seem rattled by much, actually.) Frank, who joined the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, sat with the Commercial Observer this summer in Signature’s Midtown office to explain his thoughts on politics, finance and how he wound up in enemy territory.
Another thing banks seem to be concerned about is their constraint on capital, both because of Dodd-Frank and Basel III. It seems like private lenders will start to do more of the lending. First of all, the government is not in the business of favoring one sector over another. From the standpoint of public policy, is the demand for loans necessary to fuel economic activity being accommodated? I think it is. In fact, the economy has done very well. I do not see a great unmet demand for loans. The American economy, on the macro-level, has performed better than any other developed world economy since the crash.

And it’s a very good thing. I’m very tired. I’m tired emotionally and physically. And now I’m 76, I don’t have the energy I had when I was 70.
Not to be too grandiose, but the story with both [Presidents] Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson is that they had great intentions to improve this country domestically, and then they both wound up fighting wars. Same with FDR. I never cared about derivatives. I wish I didn’t have to. It was purely self-defense for the economy. I still tried to do as much affordable housing as I could, but it was a job, and I had to do it.
They might take it as an even greater affront if they have to sit across a conference room table from him.
Many people working in commercial real estate complain that they don’t understand why they’re being regulated so heavily when they blame the crisis on the residential market. Well, I have some objections, too. I thought the commercial side was O.K. But let me put it this way: That’s not in the statute—that’s the regulators. There’s nothing in the statute that cracks down on commercial regulation. Higher capital standards were not mandated by our bill—those come from the international agreement, Basel III. Secondly, what you have is regulators being traumatized by being so criticized for being too soft that there is [now] a tendency for them to be too hard. To the extent that they’re too tight in regulating CRE—that’s one of the things I agreed on and I’m pretty critical of. I think multifamily residential is swept in with single-family residential. It’s just an overreaction on a part of the regulators. There’s nothing in the law that mandates it. The only lending standards we tightened in the law were residential mortgages.
Do you foresee yourself staying on the board of a bank for a while? What’s the next move? I’m 76. What kind of next move are you expecting? Banks are a good thing. This bank is a very good bank. It has a good CRE rating. The criticism we get from some of the regulators is we’re doing too much lending for multifamily in New York. That’s one of the most socially useful things you can do.

As someone who now works on the board of a bank, what are some of the things that haven’t necessarily been working the way you had intended them to? Oh, none on the whole—but one.

The influential former congressman explains his thoughts on politics, finance and how he wound up in enemy territory.