Wall Street Watchdog Growls, and Bites

Dennis Kelleher '84
Better Markets
Dennis Kelleher '84

A few years ago, the chief of one of the world’s wealthiest financial institutions was calling around Washington, D.C., seeking to stifle outspoken anti-big bank crusader Dennis Kelleher ’84.

“You evidently don’t know Dennis Kelleher,” the bank boss was told repeatedly. “You are not going to shut him down.”

The big banks have been unable to shut him down or shut him up.

Since 2010, Kelleher, formerly a successful corporate law partner and a prominent U.S. Senate aide, has served as president of Better Markets, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization created in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown to protect the public’s interest on Wall Street.

Backed up by 15 staff members, Kelleher is a Wall Street battering ram, intent on derailing the big-bank money train most observers blame for causing the economic disaster. The Massachusetts native and Harvard Law grad appears on television, before Congress and at conferences to expose Wall Street’s misdeeds and efforts to undermine reform. He’s a frequent go-to source for policymakers, elected officials and regulators, as well as business reporters looking for incendiary sound bites.

“The biggest banks try to get any rule, regulation or law made as light as possible, and then use that to lower the standards around the world, allowing them to engage in higher-risk activities,” Kelleher says from his K Street office. “It becomes a global race to the bottom.”

Kelleher punches above his weight to uphold the provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, unfazed by being vastly outnumbered and outspent by the big-bank lobby. One measure of the power imbalance: Over a 15-month period, financial institutions met with federal agencies 351 times to discuss just one rule, the Volcker Rule (part of Dodd-Frank), compared to 19 such sessions for Better Markets and other public-interest groups.

“The banking industry has amassed enormous economic power, which it uses to buy political power,” Kelleher says. “So you can’t sit back on a victory. The industry sees any loss as a temporary setback to be fought another day.”

Kelleher turned down lucrative lobbying and corporate-law jobs to help launch and lead Better Markets, which is funded by a civic-minded hedge fund manager in Atlanta and other organizations, like the Rockefeller Family Fund.

“Life’s short, and you should do something meaningful in the time you have,” Kelleher explains. “I wanted to do something consequential in the public space, where I could add value.”

Which he’s apparently doing — just ask the bankers.

— David E. Nathan