Financial reform, as it is called, shouldn't be all that complicated. Break up the banks deemed "too big to fail," since that offends any possibility of market discipline and puts taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts. Crack down on gambling with other peoples' money in the financial casino. Give consumers a cop on the beat to protect them from the cons and frauds. Tax the big guys to get our money back. Outlaw compensation schemes that give million dollar incentives to make risky bets.
But, of course, finance is its own world, with its own patois, ethos and interests. And banks and regulators have a strong interest in making this stuff complicated. So the debate turns to the intricacies of trading derivatives on an exchange, resolution authority, credit default swaps, policing "systemic risk." For most Americans, the eyes glaze over, and they reach for the remote. That leaves legislators free to deal with the banking lobby and the regulators mobilized to protect their interests and turf. With the White House still focused on passing health care, and Finance Committee Chair Senator Dodd replaying a poor man's version of the bipartisan farce that Max Baucus staged on health care, wasting time in backrooms trying to seduce a couple of reluctant Republicans, it is no surprise that reform isn't going so well.
How bad is it? The independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency is about to be buried in the Federal Reserve. The only talk of banning naked credit default swaps is in Europe. The market oxymoron -- banks that are too big to fail -- seems about to be embraced in law. I could go on, but again, I can feel the eyes begin to droop.
So how bad is it? All you really need to know was provided by a lead article in Sunday's Washington Post business page, entitled "Financial reform bill likely to lose measure to protect Main Street investors."
Tomoeh Murakami Tse reports that when the new bill's language is released (reportedly sometime this week), it is likely to drop the simple "requirement for stock brokers and insurance agents to act in the best interests of their clients."
This common sense statement passed the House without mention. It was included in Chairman Dodd's original draft language. Then the lobbyists went to work and apparently have convinced the Senators that requiring an agent to act in the best interests of his or her client is, well, complicated. So Tse reports that instead of a requirement, the new draft will direct the Securities and Exchange Commission to study the varying rules that govern brokers and investment advisors.
Consider this a tribute to Goldman Sachs. You remember Lloyd Blankfein told the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that it was just business as usual for Goldman to create and peddle packages of mortgage-backed securities, lobby for them to be rated triple AAA, and then make independent bets that the securities would go bust. (Astonished Commission Chair Phil Angelides responded: "It sounds to me a little bit like selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer of those cars.")
So at the retail level, your broker -- who usually works for a bank or investment house -- will have the banks' interests in mind, not yours. He or she may be encouraged to recommend that you buy the toxic junk in the basement that the bank is trying to get rid of. So it would be complicated -- worth study, surely -- to require your broker to have your best interests in mind.
Yeah, it's come to that. Reforms prospects are bleak, but not entirely hopeless. One small thing constrains the Senators, outside of their individual own sense of decency (which is a dependent variable).
The public is furious at the bank ripoffs and bailouts. Across the spectrum, from conservative to liberal, Democrat, Independent and Republican, vast majorities want a crack down on the banks. Folks are looking for tumbrels and guillotines, not SEC studies.
So the bank lobby has millions of dollars and legions of high dollar lobbyists, including literally dozens of retired legislators, who can buttonhole their former colleagues, as Rep. Massa reveals, in the showers of the House gym. (Giving new meaning to whole notion of naked credit default swaps).
The reform coalition -- anchored by Americans for Financial Reform -- has 200 organizations, and mobilizes citizens, not money. But even obstructionist Republicans (who provided not one vote for financial reform in the House) and corporate Democrats are nervous about appearing to be too deep in the pocket of the banks.
So, folks, you don't have to have a MBA, or be a sophisticated investor to make a difference. You don't have to learn what a credit default swap is. All you've got to use is your common sense.
If the Senate isn't prepared to give consumers an independent cop on the beat, if it isn't prepared to break up banks that taxpayers will have to bail out, if it isn't even willing to require that your stock broker act in your best interests -- then raise bloody hell. Take down names and mobilize.
Check out Americans for Financial Reform Come to the Campaign for America's Future,. We'll track the debate and provide a chart on who stands with you and who stands with the banks, with links on how to call them.
We're not likely to get sufficient reform this year. But, if a few legislators pay the penalty for taking the bank lobby money and voting the bank lobby program -- things may get a lot simpler next year.