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Financial industry’s risky election wager

Imagine the roulette gambler who puts all his chips — piles of them — on red and then sees fortune turn against him.

This is indeed the fate of the financial industry, which bet so heavily on Mitt Romney and now faces a second Obama administration. Can you feel the chill?

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Industries rarely make such lopsided campaign wagers for a very good reason. They still have to get along with whoever wins.

The conflict between the president and leaders of the financial services industry — particularly Wall Street executives — has been both practical and personal. Bankers wanted to dampen or dismantle volumes of new federal regulations aimed at their industry. They would have loved to get rid of the president who labeled them “fat cats.”

This is why people from finance, insurance, and real estate became the biggest industry sector by far contributing to the Romney campaign. The six largest groups of Romney contributors, in order, were employees from Goldman Sachs Group, Bank of America Corp., Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Credit Suisse Group, and Wells Fargo & Co. Employees from Citigroup Inc. and Barclays PLC were also among the top 10.

Overall, people who work in the securities and investment businesses gave Romney more than $19 million. And that’s just counting checks written directly to his campaign.

None of them got what they were hoping for with their money. Now they have to deal with the consequences.

Financial executives and administration officials may get over their differences over the next four years. In fact, I’d bet on that.

“It’s time to move on,” says Robert Reynolds, chief executive of Putnam Investments, the Boston money management firm.

Well, that’s half a solution. It may take the White House a little longer to get there.

But banks and other financial companies will have to buck up and deal with a tougher regulatory environment than Romney promised. Most important, that applies broadly to the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul and thorny individual elements within that plan, such as the Volcker rule that places trading restrictions on financial institutions. It also applies to the new federal consumer protection bureau and how it will operate over the next four years.

“The election was definitely a win for regulation and a big loss for big banks,” says Mark Williams, a finance and economics lecturer at Boston University.

Williams sees big banks becoming more basic and less risky businesses — as they once were — due to those regulations. He thinks the stock market — which on the day after the election shaved 4 percent to 6 percent off the value of big banks — saw less profit potential and acted accordingly.

“It was a multibillion-dollar reduction in the values of banks across the board,” he says.

Romney had campaigned on a promise to unshackle financial companies from new regulations in general and Dodd-Frank in particular. But I doubt the executives running America’s biggest banks really wanted to overturn the Dodd-Frank law.

Such a feat — if Romney could have pulled it off — would have led to more legislative chaos and financial uncertainty. That’s the last thing big banks and their stockholders want.

Instead, bankers surely hoped for a president who would have helped them in the implementation of the law. Big regulatory legislation requires hundred of rules — adopted after the passage of a law — that are applied by regulators. Much of the real impact of Dodd-Frank depends on these details, and no doubt a friendly Romney administration would have made a big difference.

All that fits into a broader financial industry view of Washington that prefers regulators with business experience rather than senior appointees with academic and bureaucratic backgrounds.

The stakes just happened to be much higher this time.

Now the people running the country’s financial giants must figure out a way to move on because they have no choice. And no doubt they will.

“I think you will find that the finance industry is very adaptable to changing circumstances,” says Ed Kane, a finance professor at Boston College. “They probably figured out a contingent plan for making peace.”

An improving economy could bring them together. The president’s legacy will count on a better economy. The financial industry will depend on it to recover and grow. They could help each other get what they want — eventually.

For now, America’s big bankers are gamblers who lost all their chips.

Steven Syre is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at syre@globe.com.
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