By Joseph Ax and Michelle Price
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday outlined a sweeping financial services policy proposal to rein in Wall Street trading, boost consumer protections, increase Americans’ access to banking services and crack down on financial crime.
The left-leaning platform marks a striking turnaround for the former Republican New York mayor and Wall Street investment banker who made his $60 billion fortune in financial services and in the past has criticized reforms introduced following the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
Trying to make a virtue of his Wall Street heritage, Bloomberg’s campaign argued on Tuesday that “as the founder of a successful global financial technology company, he understands the system well and is uniquely qualified to make it work better for all Americans.”
Among the most eye-catching proposals are a tax of 0.1% on transactions in stocks, bonds and payments on derivative contracts, bolstering the “Volcker Rule” ban on banks’ proprietary trading and setting a trading speed limit – all of which take aim at Wall Street clients of Bloomberg Inc’s trading terminal.
The proposal also pledges to reinforce protections eroded by the Trump administration by boosting bank capital levels, toughening banks’ annual health checks and restoring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s rules curbing payday lending and its ban on imposing mandatory arbitration on consumers.
Bloomberg also waded into the long-running debate on the future of housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were bailed out during the financial crisis. He proposed to merge them to ensure taxpayers are fully compensated for the risks of guaranteeing the firms’ securities.
While Bloomberg’s platform does not go as far as proposals backed by progressive rival presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have called for big banks to be broken up, it underscores how far the Democratic Party is moving to the left on financial and corporate policy issues.
Bloomberg, a latecomer to the race who has so far spent $188 million of his own money on the campaign, will step onto the Democratic debate stage for the first time on Wednesday after exceeding the double-digit polling threshold set by the Democratic Party, with 19% support.
“Our sense is that these proposals are primarily intended to blunt progressive attacks, especially with Bloomberg joining the debate stage for the first time on Wednesday evening,” Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research at Washington-based Compass Point Research & Trading, said in a note.
“But the overarching tone of the proposals underscores the populist shift in the Democratic party and the heightened potential for significant policy shifts.”
Bloomberg has previously proposed major tax hikes on the wealthy, including a higher capital gains rate and a 5% surtax on annual incomes that exceed $5 million.
His newest proposal would also address the student loan crisis by automatically enrolling undergraduate students in income-based repayment plans, installing caps on debt payments and making it easier to discharge student debt via bankruptcy. It would curb debt collection agencies and bank overdraft fees.
Touching on a key theme of Warren and Sanders, Bloomberg also proposed measures to boost Americans’ access to the financial system by offering a range of banking services through the U.S. Postal Service, as well as launching a pilot program for free or nearly no-cost bank accounts.
Adopting another familiar Democratic idea, Bloomberg proposed a new “corporate crime” team at the U.S. Department of Justice that would be discouraged from using non-prosecution agreements, which impose fines without criminal charges.
The proposals, in particular a transaction tax, are likely to spark strong pushback from the financial lobby, which is already fighting aggressively to rebut the idea. Such a tax was rejected by the Obama administration, but it has gained traction in Democratic circles in recent years.
Under Bloomberg’s plan, the tax would be phased in gradually, starting at 0.02%, to “minimize any unintended consequences.”
Ken Bentsen, CEO of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said a transaction tax would hurt middle class savers and retirees.
“At a time when market development, efficiency and competition are driving the cost of investing toward zero, it makes little sense to increase the cost through what is essentially a sales tax. Further, the threat such a tax poses to the efficiency of the U.S. capital markets is real. It begs the question, ‘What’s the point?’”
Bloomberg began his career at investment bank Salomon Brothers, where he became a partner before later being laid off amid a company merger. He subsequently founded Bloomberg, the financial information and media giant whose desktop terminal is synonymous with Wall Street trading.
Many Democratic-leading financiers had seen Bloomberg as a safe pair of hands and on Tuesday some analysts played down the risk his presidency would pose to the industry.
“To win, a Democrat needs a plan to focus on big banks,” said Cowen Washington Research Group analyst Jaret Seiberg in a note “Bloomberg understands markets, which makes it less likely that he would push policies that could hurt the economy.”
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Andrea Ricci and Dan Grebler)