Michael Bloomberg Leans Left With Plan to Rein In Wall Street

Michael R. Bloomberg is proposing to crack down on the industry where he made his name — and fortune.

The former mayor of New York and Democratic presidential candidate announced an ambitious financial policy plan on Tuesday that includes imposing a tax on financial transactions and toughening restrictions on risky banking practices.

Perhaps the most surprising proposal, given the billionaire’s close personal ties to Wall Street movers and shakers, is a plan for the Justice Department to create a dedicated team to fight corporate crime by “encouraging prosecutors to pursue individuals, not only corporations, for infractions.”

“The financial system isn’t working the way it should for most Americans,” said Mr. Bloomberg in a statement. “The stock market is at an all-time high, but almost all of the gains are going to a small number of people.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s plan appears to repudiate positions he has taken on financial oversight over the years, when he often argued that rules aimed at reforming Wall Street were bad for the economy.

The new proposals suggest how far to the left Democratic presidential hopefuls considered moderates have felt they needed to tack. This is especially so for Mr. Bloomberg, a former Salomon Brothers trader whose estimated $63 billion fortune came from selling data to Wall Street.

In 2010, for instance, Mr. Bloomberg urged Democratic lawmakers not to get too tough on banks, and he criticize the so-called Volcker Rule, which prevented banks from making risky trades for themselves rather than clients. He called the proposed new restrictions “shortsighted,” with the potential to reduce middle-class jobs.

A spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign rejected allegations of flip-flopping.

“Context matters,” she said. When the Volcker Rule was introduced, “Mike was skeptical of regulators’ ability to divine traders’ intent,” which was how the law required regulators to judge investments, she added. Mr. Bloomberg’s new plan would focus “on the outcome of speculative trading — big gains and losses — rather than on traders’ intent.”

Some of Mr. Bloomberg’s other views on financial regulations have taken heat in recent days. He has had to defend comments he made in 2008 linking the financial crisis to the end of redlining, the discriminatory housing practice in which banks made it harder for people of color to borrow to buy a home.

In 2011, he said, “It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

But as he seeks to shore up his argument as the choice for moderate Democrats in the 2020 race, Mr. Bloomberg has shifted gears.

As part of his Wall Street plan, he is now embracing a tax of 0.1 percent on all financial transactions, a position that he shares with fellow candidates Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Pete Buttigieg, as well as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Last year, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez co-sponsored a bill in the House that called for such a tax.

The surcharge on trading, meant to raise money to pay for social programs like expanded health care coverage, has been roundly criticized by the sort of pro-business groups that Mr. Bloomberg had long been sympathetic to, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But the spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign argued that such a tax “is an effective and relatively painless way to raise more tax revenue from the wealthy,” citing its use in Britain and Hong Kong. A 2018 analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that a tax similar to the one proposed by Mr. Bloomberg would raise $777 billion over 10 years, albeit with a lot of uncertainty around “how much transactions would drop in response to a tax.” Any drop in trading would probably be bad for Bloomberg L.P., the company that feeds investors data and helps them arrange the buying and selling of securities.

Much of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan is an effort to bolster or restore elements of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law which, like the Volcker Rule, were reversed or reduced under President Trump. For example, Mr. Bloomberg proposes making stress tests for banks more stringent and reinstating the requirement to produce annual “living wills,” which are complex documents that detail how banks would unwind their operations in a bankruptcy.

Elsewhere in his plan, Mr. Bloomberg says he would merge Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-owned housing giants. He would strengthen consumer protections that govern payday lending and financial advisers, as well as give the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau oversight of auto lending and credit reporting. Borrowers of student loans would be automatically enrolled into income-based repayment plans with payments capped at 5 percent of disposable income.

Progressive critics are likely to argue that Mr. Bloomberg’s proposals don’t go far enough. Some Democrats have proposed a wealth tax, while Ms. Warren has called for a complete overhaul of the private equity industry and Mr. Sanders wants to break up the big banks.

The first test of Mr. Bloomberg’s convictions in regulating Wall Street could come at Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, which is expected to be the first time he will appear onstage alongside his presidential rivals. The billionaire qualified for the contest today thanks to a national poll that put his support at 19 percent, up from only 4 percent in the same survey in December. He trailed only Mr. Sanders, who had 31 percent.