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Robert L. Borosage

Robert L. Borosage

Posted: October 14, 2009 11:00 AM

Will We Curb Wall Street's Casino?

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Even as the health insurance companies draw down on health care reform, another showdown is just beginning in Washington. On Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee will begin marking up the first legislation to try to curb Wall Street's casino. And if you think the health insurance companies are packing heat, wait till you see the firepower the banks will unleash to frustrate reform.

The Committee will focus on two core reform measures. The first, the regulation of derivatives, goes to the heart of the current collapse. Derivatives are the exotic instruments that Warren Buffett warned were "weapons of financial mass destruction." Derivatives have been traded with little regulation, over the counter, in private deals. This allowed companies like AIG essentially to open a casino on top of an insurance company, and take bets without the prudence required of a Las Vegas bookie. When AIG went belly up and threatened to bring down the entire financial house of cards, taxpayers ended up with a bill totaling over $180 billion and counting.

The reforms call for standardizing derivatives, trading them on a public exchange, with transparency, so prices can be compared and holdings regulated. Common sense, one would think. (for a good summary, see the estimable Harold Meyerson's piece)

But the five largest American banks -- in rough order of declining solvency: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup -- hold fully 95% of derivatives -- with a notional value of over $290 trillion. In the first six months of the year, they made about $15 billion trading in these things. Not surprisingly, they have leveled their guns at the very notion of a public exchange. They enlisted companies that use derivatives to hedge against foreign exchange risks and the like, arguing that the reforms would raise costs all around. They have largely succeeded in the congressional cloakrooms.

So the bill that the House will consider on Wednesday creates a clearinghouse, not a publicly managed exchange. It also allows banks to decide that a deal is so unique that it needn't be posted on the clearinghouse. The best experts in the field -- like Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland -- warn that the legislation might end up WEAKENING current law. That is no small achievement, because, as we saw in the collapse of AIG, current law is toothless.

The second basic reform to be considered is a Consumer Protection Finance Agency to protect consumers from getting gouged or defrauded by lenders on the whole range of consumer loans -- mortgages, car loans, payday lending, credit cards. The regulators who currently have some police power failed to use it before the crash -- as exemplified by the systematic fraud practiced in peddling complex subprime mortgages to people who could not hope to pay them back. And after claiming to be born again cops on the beat, the same regulators have failed to do much since the crash -- as exemplified by the record fees banks are exacting from depositors, or by hiking interest rates on credit card holders. The reasons for their failure are both ideological -- the abiding conservative belief that markets are self-regulating and regulation is costly, and institutional -- the regulators' first duty is to insure the health of the banks. If the banks are getting healthy by gouging their customers, the regulators turn their heads.

So the CPFA is designed to create an independent cop on the beat to protect consumers and police the banks and credit card companies. Needless to say, the banks don't like this idea. Already they've succeeded in delaying and diluting the administration's proposal. The current draft strips out the mandate that banks offer customers "plain vanilla" alternatives -- a clean 30 year, fixed rate mortgage, for example, when peddling exotic ARMS with balloon payments. Worse, it now suggests vesting enforcement power in a council of the very same regulators that have failed so miserably in the past and present.

But that's not all. The banking lobby is nothing if not shameless. They hope to use the reforms to WEAKEN current law. They are pushing to make the federal standard the ceiling on reform, stripping the power of states to have higher standards. Basically, they are hoping to find a way to shut down the independent investigations of state attorneys general like New York's Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo or Illinois' Lisa Madigan. (for a good summary of this see Dave Johnson's blog here)

How do the banks fend off needed reform? Follow the money. A recent report by Paul Blumenthal of the Sunlight Foundation shows that the 27 members of the House Financial Services Committee have received over one-fourth of their contributions from the FIRE (Finance, insurance and real estate sector). Ranking Republican Spencer Baucus from Alabama opposes the CFPA, arguing that we don't need "more regulation," we just need "smart regulation." He received a staggering 71% of his contributions from the finance sector over the first six months of this year (and 45% of his total contributions over his career). Democrat Melissa Bean who leads the effort to gut state regulatory authority over the banks has received fully 42% of her contributions for the first six months from the banking sector. Not surprisingly, the champions of reform like Rep. Alan Grayson, Maxine Waters, Keith Ellison, Adam Putman, and Carolyn McCarthy all pull in the lowest percentage from the sector.

Historically, the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin decried in disgust, "own the place." And they've succeeded thus far in frustrating reform, even while pocketing literally hundreds of billions in support from taxpayers.

Terrific documentation made available by researchers at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) provides the details. Citigroup received about $341 billion from taxpayers in the bailout, and dispensed $4.9 million for lobbyists in the nine months after the bailout and $5.6 million in campaign contributions in 2008. (Talk about return on investment). Bank of America got $199 billion from the bailout and paid lobbyists $3.6 million in the nine months thereafter, while making campaign contributions of $7.2 million in 2008. Goldman Sachs pocketed a nifty $63.6 billion in bailout fund while setting aside $11.4 billion for bonuses and compensation for the first six months of 2009. (Lobbying fees $1.8 million; 2008 campaign contributions $7.1 million)

But this time it could be different. Backroom deals are no longer safe. Americans have been fleeced of trillions in the value of their homes and their savings because of Wall Street's reckless excesses. Then as taxpayers, they were extorted to ante up literally trillions more to forestall economic collapse by bailing out the banking sector. Insult was added to that injury when the Federal Reserve refused to tell the Congress who got the money and on what terms.

Legislators would be well advised to understand the cozy old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable. Americans are livid and paying attention. Legislators who rely on Wall Street to finance their campaigns and then lead the effort to block or dilute reforms will discover that their constituents know what they have been up to. Organizations like my own Campaign for America's Future, the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Financial Reform, Huffington Post bloggers will make certain the word gets out. Legislators may discover that Wall Street's money is a burden, not a blessing.

The House committee's markup is the beginning of a long process that will make health care reform look like a summer's picnic. Legislators will have to decide what side they are on. It is up to us to make certain that they understand we will hold them accountable for the choice they make.

 

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