How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform | Politics News | Rolling Stone

22 Jun

How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform | Politics News | Rolling Stone.

 

Solution: BE SMARTER THAN THE BANKERS, POLITICIANS

 

It’s bad enough that the banks strangled the Dodd-Frank law. Even worse is the way they did it – with a big assist from Congress and the White House.

May 10, 2012 8:00 AM ET

Two years ago, when he signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, President Barack Obama bragged that he’d dealt a crushing blow to the extravagant financial corruption that had caused the global economic crash in 2008. “These reforms represent the strongest consumer financial protections in history,” the president told an adoring crowd in downtown D.C. on July 21st, 2010. “In history.”

This was supposed to be the big one. At 2,300 pages, the new law ostensibly rewrote the rules for Wall Street. It was going to put an end to predatory lending in the mortgage markets, crack down on hidden fees and penalties in credit contracts, and create a powerful new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to safeguard ordinary consumers. Big banks would be banned from gambling with taxpayer money, and a new set of rules would limit speculators from making the kind of crazy-ass bets that cause wild spikes in the price of food and energy. There would be no more AIGs, and the world would never again face a financial apocalypse when a bank like Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.

Most importantly, even if any of that fiendish crap ever did happen again, Dodd-Frank guaranteed we wouldn’t be expected to pay for it. “The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes,” Obama promised. “There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts. Period.”

Two years later, Dodd-Frank is groaning on its deathbed. The giant reform bill turned out to be like the fish reeled in by Hemingway’s Old Man – no sooner caught than set upon by sharks that strip it to nothing long before it ever reaches the shore. In a furious below-the-radar effort at gutting the law – roundly despised by Washington’s Wall Street paymasters – a troop of water-carrying Eric Cantor Republicans are speeding nine separate bills through the House, all designed to roll back the few genuinely toothy portions left in Dodd-Frank. With the Quislingian covert assistance of Democrats, both in Congress and in the White House, those bills could pass through the House and the Senate with little or no debate, with simple floor votes – by a process usually reserved for things like the renaming of post offices or a nonbinding resolution celebrating Amelia Earhart’s birthday.

The fate of Dodd-Frank over the past two years is an object lesson in the government’s inability to institute even the simplest and most obvious reforms, especially if those reforms happen to clash with powerful financial interests. From the moment it was signed into law, lobbyists and lawyers have fought regulators over every line in the rulemaking process. Congressmen and presidents may be able to get a law passed once in a while – but they can no longer make sure it stays passed. You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians and, above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again. “It’s like a scorched-earth policy,” says Michael Greenberger, a former regulator who was heavily involved with the drafting of Dodd-Frank. “It requires constant combat. And it never, ever ends.”

That the banks have just about succeeded in strangling Dodd-Frank is probably not news to most Americans – it’s how they succeeded that’s the scary part. The banks followed a five-point strategy that offers a dependable blueprint for defeating any regulation – and for guaranteeing that when it comes to the economy, might will always equal right.

STEP 1: STRANGLE IT IN THE WOMB

The first advantage the banks had lay in the fact that for all Obama’s bluster, Dodd-Frank was never such a badass law to begin with. In fact, Obama’s initial response to the devastating financial events of 2008 represented a major departure from the historical precedent his own party had set during the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an audacious rewrite of the rules governing the American economy following the Great Crash of 1929.

Upon entering office, FDR was in exactly the same position Obama found himself in after his inauguration in 2009. Then, as now, the American economy was in tatters after the bursting of a massive financial bubble, brought on when speculators borrowed huge sums and gambled on unregistered securities in largely unregulated exchanges. This mania for instant riches led to an explosion of Wall Street fraud and manipulation, creating a mountain of illusory growth divorced from the real-world economy: Of the $50 billion in securities sold in America in the 1920s, half turned out to be worthless.

Roosevelt’s response to all of this was to pass a number of sweeping new laws that focused on a single theme: protecting consumers by forcing the business of Wall Street into the light. The Securities Act of 1933 required all publicly traded companies to register themselves and offer prospectuses to investors; the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 forced publicly traded companies to make regular financial disclosures; and the Commodity Exchange Act of 1936 required all commodities and futures to be traded on organized exchanges. FDR also created the FDIC to protect bank depositors (through an insurance fund paid for by the banks themselves) and passed the Glass-Steagall Act to separate insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks. Post-New Deal, if you put money in a bank, you knew it was safe, and if you bought stock, you knew what you were buying.

This reform strategy worked for more than half a century – and it offered Obama a clear outline of how to respond to the crash he faced. What made 2008 possible was that Wall Street had moved its speculative frenzy away from the regulated exchange system created by FDR, and into darker, less-regulated markets that had coalesced around brand-new financial innovations like credit default swaps and collateralized-debt obligations. It wasn’t that the old system had broken down; Wall Street had just moved the playground.

All Obama needed to do to rescue the economy and protect consumers was to make sure that the new playground had some rules. That meant moving swaps and other derivatives onto open exchanges, making sure that federally insured banks that dabbled in those dangerous markets retained more capital, and coming up with some kind of plan to prevent the next AIG or Lehman Brothers disaster – i.e., a plan for unwinding failing companies that wouldn’t require federal bailouts.

 

5:

All of these derivatives issues are oppressively dull and technical, and it’s extremely difficult for most people to imagine how something like Jim Himes’ exemption for foreign affiliates can actually affect their daily lives. But having an unregulated market instead of a regulated one might mean you’ll pay an extra 50 cents for every gallon of gas (or possibly more, even according to Goldman Sachs). Or you might have to pay hundreds or thousands more in taxes every year because your town or county or country, if you happen to live in Greece, grossly overpaid an investment bank when it borrowed money. An unregulated derivatives market essentially gives Wall Street a way to place hidden taxes on everything in the world.

The best way to explain where those hidden taxes come from is to compare a regulated market to an unregulated one. It’s the difference between buying soap and buying drugs. You go into a corner store and there’s a price tag on the soap, but you can always go across the street, or on the Internet, to see what soap costs someplace else. But when you go to buy an eight ball of coke, you have to ask your dealer what the price is, and it’s not like you can compare prices online. If you’re tough and streetwise and you know what coke costs, you might get it for a couple hundred bucks. But if you’re some quivering Ivy Leaguer idling in a Lexus, the price might be $400.

That’s how the swaps market works. It operates completely in the dark. If you’re some Podunk town in Texas or Alabama and you need swaps financing, you’ve got to ask Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley what it costs. There’s no exchange where you can compare prices. And modern investment bankers are ethically a notch below your average drug dealer. They will extract from their customer – a town, an airline, a chain of retail stores – whatever they think he’ll pay. And that extra cost will be passed on to you by the overcharged customer, in the form of higher taxes, bigger home-heating bills, higher sewer rates or pricier airline tickets. Wall Street will be taking a bite out of you every time you write a check.

Under normal circumstances, seeing the Republicans send a bunch of evil bills like the derivatives exemption to the Democrat-controlled Senate wouldn’t scare reform advocates too much. But in March and April, something happened that sent progressives into a veritable panic – the passage of the so-called JOBS Act, a sweeping, bank-fellating deregulatory law that rolled back a smorgasbord of regulations designed to protect investors from fraud in the IPO markets. The White House, eager to greenlight “crowdfunding” investments and a handful of other sensible reforms contained in the bill, leaned on the Senate leadership to send the measure straight to the floor for a vote. That meant this monster deregulatory bill went directly into the books with minimal testimony, no committee hearings and no real debate of any kind.

Now, in the wake of the JOBS Act fiasco, many reform advocates expect the same scenario to repeat itself with the nine bills to roll back Dodd-Frank. In the House, a number of the most dangerous derivatives bills have been passed by “suspension,” a simplified voice-voting process usually reserved for uncontroversial items. The truly sinister thing is that, in order for a bill to be put on the suspension calendar, the two parties must agree – meaning that Democrats signed off on this Trojan-horse method of treating complex, economy-altering bills as minor technical “fixes.”

The truth is that Dodd-Frank is so huge, and contains so many complicated new rules, that there are, in fact, many areas where small technical fixes are needed. H.R. 4235, one of the nine bills brought before Congress, resolves a real problem with the way swaps data is collected, an issue that was preventing foreign swaps dealers from getting onboard with the reform. But when needed fixes like this are thrown in side by side with a mind-boggling exemption for swaps dealers like H.R. 3336, which hits the floor as the innocuously named “Small Business Credit Availability Act,” all those members of Congress who don’t sit on the Financial Services Committee will have no way of telling which bill is the minor technical fix and which is the sweeping repeal. Moreover, when those members see that some bills are co-sponsored by Democrats, and that the Democratic leadership agreed to put the bills on the suspension calendar for a simple voice vote, many will take it as a cue that it’s OK to vote for the rollbacks.

That’s particularly true because most members of Congress know that the public seldom pays any attention to the fiendish complexities of things like derivatives reform. “I’ve never had someone back in the district say to me, ‘I think derivatives need to be traded on an exchange,'” says Miller. “These are the kinds of issues that aren’t going to have any pop in a 30-second ad.”

The nine bills to gut Dodd-Frank could also receive a JOBS Act-style welcome when they reach the Senate. There are only two Senate committees with the jurisdiction to tackle these bills, and neither appears to be planning to take a whack at any of the new measures. The Agriculture Committee, which oversees the CFTC, has been busy dealing with a huge farm bill. The Banking Committee, which oversees the SEC, is dominated by Democrats who wouldn’t mind at all if Dodd-Frank had both its legs broken, including Chuck Schumer of New York and Mark Warner of Virginia. What’s more, the committee’s understated chairman, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, seems weirdly willing to let pretty much anything touching the financial world roll straight to a vote without his changing a comma – a sharp contrast to the days when fist-shaking politcal Godhead Chris Dodd ran the committee.

“Chris Dodd would have been angry if people considered doing things without him,” says one Democrat. “He’d be like, ‘You, out of my sandbox.'”

That means all those thousands of hours of debate and fierce negotiation spent hammering out Dodd-Frank two years ago might now go up in smoke in a matter of a few quiet minutes. Of the big-ticket items that were actually passed two years ago, the derivatives reforms have been completely gutted by loopholes, the Volcker Rule has been delayed for two years, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau may be thrust under the budgetary control of Congress, which is determined to destroy it. And much of this is taking place with the assent of Democrats, for a very simple reason: because the name of the game isn’t cleaning up Wall Street, it’s cleaning out Wall Street – throwing a “yes” vote at a bank-approved bill to get them to pony up in an election year. “All this is aimed at the financial services industry,” admits one senior Democratic congressional aide. “It’s to let them know, ‘Hey, you’re OK, we’re not going to destroy your business – and give us your money, because we’re trying to raise it for an election.'”

That’s the underlying problem with cracking down on Wall Street: Our political-economic system has grown too knotted and unmanageable for democratic rule. While it’s incredibly difficult to get a regulatory reform passed, it’s far easier – and more profitable to politicians – to kill it. Creating legislation is a tough process. But watering down legislation? Strangling it with lawsuits and comment letters and blue-ribbon committees? Not so tough, it turns out.

You can’t buy votes in a democracy, at least not directly, but our democracy is run through a bureaucracy. Human beings can cast a vote, or rally together during protests and elections, but real people – even committed professionals – get tired of running through mazes of motions and countermotions, or reading thousands of pages about swaps-execution facilities and NRSROs. They will fight through it for five days, or maybe even six, but on the seventh they will watch a baseball game, or Tanked, instead of diving into that morass of hellish acronyms one more time.

But money never gets tired. It never gets frustrated. And it thinks that drilling holes in Dodd-Frank is every bit as interesting as The Book of Mormon or Kate Upton naked. The system has become too complex for flesh-and-blood people, who make the mistake of thinking that passing a new law means the end of the discussion, when it’s really just the beginning of a war.

This story is from the May 24th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

Editor’s Note: This article has been changed to reflect the fact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is not dependent for its budget on the Federal Reserve.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-wall-street-killed-financial-reform-20120510#ixzz1yWtW7NEb

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