Friday, July 16, 2010

Financial Regulation Bill Passes Senate: A Boon to Wall Street

The Wall Street Reform Bill: How Much Did We Lose Getting to 60?

Sen. Ted Kaufman
Huffington Post
Posted: July 15, 2010 01:22 PM

After months of careful consideration, landmark financial reform legislation moves towards final passage. While this bill is a vast improvement over the existing regulatory structure, I believe it should go further with respect to erecting statutory walls that address the fundamental problem of "too big to fail." I will support the conference report, though I do so with significant reservations about a missed opportunity to enact needed structural reforms that would better prevent another financial crisis.

Ultimately, given the make-up of the Senate and the requirement of 60 votes, this was the best bill that could pass. For those who wish the bill was stronger, let there be no confusion about where the blame lies. It is because almost every Senator on the other side of the aisle did everything they could to stall, delay and oppose Wall Street reform.

To be sure, the bill that has come out of conference includes some extremely important reforms. It establishes an independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) with strong and autonomous rulemaking authority and the ability to enforce those rules for large banks and nonbanking entities like payday lenders and mortgage finance companies. In addition, it requires electronic trading and centralized clearing of standardized over-the-counter derivatives contracts as well as more robust collateral and margin requirements. The bill's inclusion of the Kanjorski provision will give regulators the explicit authority to break up megabanks that pose a "grave threat" to financial stability. And I was pleased that the bill includes a provision I helped develop to give regulators enhanced tools and powers to pursue financial fraud.

Through the Collins provision, the bill also establishes minimum leverage and risk-based capital requirements for bank holding companies and systemically risky non-bank institutions that are at least as stringent as those that apply to insured depository institutions. In light of the failures of past international capital accords, this requirement will set a much-needed floor on how low capital can drop in the upcoming Basel III negotiations on capital requirements. It will also ensure that the capital base of megabanks is not adulterated with debt that masquerades as equity capital.

That being said, unfortunately, I believe the bill suffers from two major problems. First, the bill delegates too much authority to the regulators. I've been around the Senate for 37 years. As I said on the Senate floor on February 4th of this year and in several speeches since then, I know that many times laws are not written with hard and clear lines. Laws are a product of legislative compromise, which often means they are vague and ambiguous. We often justify our vagueness by saying the regulators to whom we grant statutory authority are in a better position than we are to write the rules - and then to apply those regulatory rules on a case-by-case basis. But, as I have said, this was not one of those times. This was a time for Congress to draw hard lines that get directly at the structural problems that afflict Wall Street and our largest banks.

Despite repeated urging from me and others to pass laws that would help regulators to succeed, Congress largely has decided instead to punt decisions to the regulators, saddling them with a mountain of rulemakings and studies. The law firm Davis Polk has estimated that the SEC alone must undertake close to 100 rulemakings and more than a dozen studies.

Indeed, Congress has so choked the agencies with rulemakings and studies, the totality of the burden threatens to undermine the very ability of the agencies to accomplish their ongoing everyday mission. I for one urge the agencies to triage carefully these required rulemakings and studies, establish a hierarchy of priorities, and ensure that the agencies do not shift all resources to new rules meant to address old problems to such a degree that they fail to stay on top of current and growing problems. I will have more to say on this subject in a future speech.

Second, the legislation does not go far enough in addressing the fundamental problem of "too big to fail."
Instead of erecting enduring statutory walls as we did in the 1930s, the bill invests the same regulators who failed to prevent the financial crisis with additional discretion and relies upon a resolution regime to successfully unwind complex and interconnected mega-banks engaged across the globe. I am also disappointed that key reform provisions like the Volcker Rule and the Lincoln swaps dealers spin-off provision were scaled back in conference.

The bill mainly places its faith and trust in regulatory discretion and on international agreements on bank capital requirements and supervision. After decades of deregulation and industry self-regulation, it is incumbent upon the regulators now to reassert themselves and establish rulemaking and supervisory frameworks that not only correct their glaring mistakes of the past, but also anticipate future problems, particularly risks to financial stability. Unfortunately, the early indications we are seeing out of the G-20 and so-called Basel III discussions are not encouraging, as critical reforms are already being watered down and pushed back in part because some foreign regulators carelessly refuse to heed the risks posed by their megabanks.

The legislation also puts in place a resolution authority to deal with these institutions when they inevitably get into trouble. While such authority is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient. That is because no matter how well Congress crafts a resolution mechanism, there can never be an orderly wind-down of a $2-trillion financial institution that has hundreds of billions of dollars of off-balance-sheet assets, relies heavily on wholesale funding, and has more than a toehold in over 100 countries. Of course, since financial crises are macro events that will undoubtedly affect multiple megabanks simultaneously, resolution of these institutions will be enormously expensive. And until there is international agreement on resolution authority, it is probably unworkable.

Given the history of financial regulatory failures and the enormous burden of rulemakings and studies with which the regulators are being tasked, Congress has a critical oversight responsibility. Congress first must ensure that the regulators have enough staff and resources at their disposal to follow through on their serious obligations. Just as important, Congress must monitor the regulatory phase of this bill's implementation closely to ensure that the regulators don't return to "business as usual" when the experience of the most recent financial crisis fades into memory.

Volcker Rule

For example, in addition to granting great discretion to regulators on how they interpret the ban on proprietary trading at banks, the scaled-back Volcker Rule contains a large loophole that allows megabanks to continue to own, control and manage hedge funds and private equity funds under certain conditions. Most notably, it includes a de minimis exception that permits banks to invest up to three percent of Tier 1 capital in hedge funds and private equity funds so long as their investments don't constitute more than three percent ownership in the individual funds.

The impact of a supposedly small three percent de minimis exception for investments in hedge funds and private equity firms has the potential to be massive. For example, a $2 trillion bank that has $100 billion in Tier 1 capital would be able to invest $3 billion into hedge funds. Since that $3 billion could only constitute three percent ownership, it would need to be invested alongside at least $97 billion of funds from outside investors. The bank would therefore be able to manage $100 billion in hedge fund assets, a massive amount equal to the current size of the largest hedge funds in the world combined. What's more, that $100 billion in assets can be leveraged several times over through the use of borrowed funds and derivatives into overall exposures that could exceed a trillion dollars. And given the ambiguity of the legislative language, unless clarified by a rulemaking, some commentators have indicated that megabanks could potentially provide prime brokerage loans to hedge funds they partially own and run.

Fortunately, the final bill does place costs on banks' de minimis investments in hedge funds and private equity funds. Specifically, the legislation requires a 100% capital charge on these proprietary investments, making them expensive for banks to hold. While this may be a helpful deterrent, I am concerned that it will not be enough of one, particularly when considering how lucrative and risky an activity it is for banks to run hedge funds and private equity funds.

The overarching problem is that banks will continue to be able to offer and run - never mind, partially own - risky investment funds. Even though the scaled-back Volcker Rule includes a "no bailout" provision, I have concerns about the credibility of that edict. Under any circumstance, the failure of a massive hedge fund run by a megabank would pose serious reputational and financial risks to that institution.

Just look at what happened when the structured investment vehicles (or SIVs) of Citigroup and other megabanks began to falter. Because of the reputational consequences of liquidating these funds and allowing them to default on their funding obligations, they were bailed out by the megabanks that spawned them even though the SIVs themselves were generally separate, off-balance-sheet entities with no official backing from the banks.

Finally, the strength of the core part of the Volcker Rule - the ban on proprietary trading - will depend greatly on the interpretation of the regulators. They will ultimately be the arbiter of whether broad statutory exceptions for "market making" or "risk-mitigating hedging" or "purchases" or "sales" of securities on "behalf of customers" are allowed to swallow the putative prohibition. I therefore urge the regulators to construe narrowly those activities that constitute exceptions to proprietary trading to ensure that the Volcker Rule has some teeth in it.

Swaps Dealer Spin-Off

Senator Lincoln's original swap dealer spin-off provision would have prohibited banks with swap dealers from receiving emergency assistance from the Federal Reserve or FDIC. By essentially forcing megabanks to spin off their swap dealers into an affiliate or separate company, this section would have helped restore the wall between the government-guaranteed part of the financial system and those financial entities that remain free to take on greater risk. It would also have forced derivatives dealers to be adequately capitalized.

While the final bill includes the Lincoln provision, it limits its application to derivatives that reference assets that are permissible for banks to hold and invest in under the National Bank Act. Since that exception covers interest rate, foreign exchange and other swaps, it ultimately exempts close to 90% of the over-the-counter derivatives market. Regulators must therefore reduce counterparty exposures by requiring the vast majority of derivatives contracts to be cleared and calibrate carefully the amount of capital that bank derivative dealers must maintain. Only then can we be sure we never again face a meltdown caused by excessively leveraged derivatives exposure that no regulator helps to keep in check.


The financial reform bill places enormous responsibilities and discretion into the hands of the regulators. Its ultimate success or failure will depend on the actions and follow-through of these regulators for many years to come. It is estimated that various federal agencies will be charged with writing over 200 rulemakings and dozens of studies. Many of the same regulators who failed in the run-up to the last crisis will once again be given the solemn task of safeguarding our financial stability. Like many others, I am concerned whether they have the capacity and wherewithal to succeed in this endeavor.

I repeat again, Congress has an important role to play in overseeing the enormous regulatory process that will ensue following the bill's enactment. The American people, for that matter, must stay focused on these issues, if just to help ensure that Congress indeed will fulfill its oversight duty and its duty to intervene if the regulators fail. Likewise, although I will be leaving the Senate in November, I will be watching closely to see how the regulators follow through on the enormous responsibilities they are being handed.

Let us not forget why reform is so necessary and important. After years of Wall Street malfeasance and the systematic dismantling of our regulatory structure, our financial system went into cardiac arrest and our economy nearly fell into the abyss. Wall Street, which had grown out of control on leverage and financial gimmickry, blew up. More than 8 million jobs were wiped out; millions more have lost their homes. We spent trillions of dollars in monetary easing and emergency measures to avert the wholesale failure of many of our megabanks. Not surprisingly, we continue to feel the aftershocks of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The banks are not lending. Fed Chairman Bernanke just days ago urged them to do more for small businesses. Companies and consumers alike remain shaken in their confidence. And despite dramatic stimulus measures, the economic recovery has been slow and tentative.

Many of the opponents of Wall Street reform would like to make the dubious claim that the recovery is being held back by uncertainty about future regulations and taxes. In reality, it is being held back by the financial shock and the fact that we are still in a period of financial instability and undergoing an excruciating process of deleveraging. Even now it is unclear whether a European banking crisis based on their holdings of sovereign debt will continue to impede that recovery.

It is therefore imperative that we build a financial system on a firmer foundation. The American economy cannot succeed unless we restore and maintain financial stability. We simply cannot afford another financial crisis or continued financial instability if the American economy is to succeed in the coming decades. Getting financial regulation right and maintaining it for years to come should be one of this nation's highest priorities because the price of failure is far too high.


Dylan Ratigan Says "Watered-Down" Financial Reform Bill Won't Prevent Another Finacial Collapse--- Please watch video for Details

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Dylan Ratigan:

--40% of financial contributions to Congress come from Financial Industry.

--After Senate Bill passed committee, big bank stocks rebounded sharply.

--According to Bloomberg poll, 4 of 5 Americans don't trust Wall Street/Fin-Reg.

--Over $300 million spent by Financial Industry to get the bill they wanted.

--Fin-Reg bill did not reign-in excessive leveraging by investment banks.

--Bill does not prevent future tax-payer bailouts of too big to fail banks.


How Financial Brokers Became Bookies: The Insidious Transformation of Markets Into Casinos

By Ellen Brown

Global Research,
July 13, 2010

"You all are the house, you're the bookie. [Your clients] are booking their bets with you. I don't know why we need to dress it up. It's a bet." Senator Claire McCaskill, Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, investigating Goldman Sachs (Washington Post, April 27, 2010)

Ever since December 2008, the Federal Reserve has held short-term interest rates near zero. This was not only to try to stimulate the housing and credit markets but also to allow the federal government to increase its debt levels without increasing the interest tab picked up by the taxpayers. The total public U.S. debt increased by nearly 50% from 2006 to the end of 2009 (from about $8.5 trillion to $12.3 trillion), but the interest bill on the debt actually dropped (from $406 billion to $383 billion), because of this reduction in interest rates.

One of the dire unintended consequences of that maneuver, however, was that municipal governments across the country have been saddled with very costly bad derivatives bets. They were persuaded by their Wall Street advisers to buy credit default swaps to protect their loans against interest rates shooting up. Instead, rates proceeded to drop through the floor, a wholly unforeseeable and unnatural market condition caused by rate manipulations by the Fed. Instead of the banks bearing the losses in return for premiums paid by municipal governments, the governments have had to pay massive sums to the banks – to the point of bankrupting at least one city (Montgomery, Alabama).

Another unintended consequence of the plunge in interest rates has been that “savers” have been forced to become “speculators” or gamblers. When interest rates on safe corporate bonds were around 8%, a couple could aim for saving half a million dollars in their working careers and count on reaping $40,000 yearly in investment income, a sum that, along with social security, could make for a comfortable retirement. But very low interest rates on bonds have forced these once-prudent savers into the riskier and less predictable stock market, and the collapse of the stock market has forced them into even more speculative ventures in the form of derivatives, a glorified form of gambling. Pension funds, which have binding pension contracts entered into when interest was at much higher levels, are so strapped for returns that they actually seek out the riskier investments, which have higher returns. That means they can and do regularly get fleeced when the risk occurs.

Derivatives are basically just bets. Like at a racetrack, you don’t need to own the thing you’re betting on in order to play. Derivative casinos have opened up on virtually anything that can go up or down or have a variable future outcome. You can bet on the price of tea in China, the success or failure of a movie, whether a country will default on its debt, or whether a particular piece of legislation will pass. The global market in derivative trades is now well over a quadrillion dollars – that’s a thousand trillion – and it is eating up resources that were at one time invested in productive enterprises. Why risk lending money to a corporation or buying its stock, when you can reap a better return betting on whether the stock will rise or fall?

The shift from investing to gambling means that not only are investors making very little of their money available to companies to produce goods and services, but the parties on one side of every speculative trade now have an interest in seeing the object of the bet fail, whether a company, a movie, a politician, or a country. Worse, high-speed program traders can actually manipulate the market so that the thing bet on is more likely to fail.

High frequency traders -- a field led by Goldman Sachs -- use computer algorithms to automatically bet huge sums of money on minor shifts in price. These bets send signals to the market which can themselves cause the price of assets to shoot up or tumble down. By placing high-volume trades, the largest speculative traders can thus intentionally “fix” prices in any direction they want.

“Prediction” Markets

Casinos for betting on what something will do in the future have been promoted as reliable “prediction” markets, and they can cover a broad range of issues. MIT’s Technology Review launched a futures market for technological innovations, in order to bet on upcoming developments. The NewsFutures and TradeSports Exchanges enable people to wager on matters such as whether Tiger Woods will take another lover, or whether Bin Laden will be found in Afghanistan.

A 2008 conference of sports leaders in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mark Davies, head of a sport betting exchange called Betfair. Davies observed that these betting exchanges, while clearly gambling forums, are little different from the trading done by financial firms such as JPMorgan. He said:
“I used to trade bonds at JPMorgan, and I can tell you that what our customers do is exactly the same as what I used to do in my previous life, with the single exception that where I had to pore over balance sheets and income statements, they pore over form and team-sheets.”

The online news outlet Slate monitors various prediction markets to provide readers with up-to-date information on the potential outcomes of political races. Two of the markets covered are the Iowa Electronic Markets and Intrade. Slate claims that these political casinos are consistently better at forecasting winners than pre-election polls. Participants bet real money 24 hours a day on the outcomes of a range of issues, including political races. Newsfutures and Casualobserver are similar, smaller exchanges.

Besides shifting the emphasis to gambling (“Why Vote When You Can Bet?” says Slate’s “Guide to All Political Markets”), prediction markets can be manipulated so that they actually affect outcomes. This became evident, for example, in 2008, when the John McCain campaign used the InTrade market to shift perception of his chances of winning. A supporter was able to single-handedly manipulate the price of McCain’s contract, causing it to move up in the market and prompting some mainstream media to report it as evidence that McCain was gaining in popularity.

Betting on Terrorism

The destructive potential of betting on political outcomes became particularly apparent in a notorious prediction market sponsored by the Pentagon, called the “policy analysis market” (PAM) or “terror futures market.” PAM was an attempt to use the predictive power of markets to forecast political events tied to the Middle East, including terrorist attacks. Trading in American Airlines shares in the days before the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center was one of the bases of the Pentagon’s justification for the program. According to the New York Times, the PAM would have allowed trading of futures on political developments including terrorist attacks, coups d’├ętat, and assassinations.

The exchange was shut down a day after it launched, after commentators pointed out that the system made it ridiculously easy to make money with terror attacks.
At a July 28, 2003 press conference, Senators Byron L. Dorgan (D-ND) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke out against the exchange. Wyden stated, “The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it's grotesque,” while Dorgan called it “useless, offensive and unbelievably stupid”.
“This appears to encourage terrorists to participate, either to profit from their terrorist activities or to bet against them in order to mislead U.S. intelligence authorities,” they said in a letter to Admiral John Poindexter, the director of the Terrorism Information Awareness Office, which developed the idea. A week after the exchange closed, Poindexter offered his resignation.

Carbon Credit Trading

A massive new derivatives market that could be as destructive as the derivatives that contributed to the current economic meltdown is the trading platform called Carbon Credit Trading, which is on its way to dwarfing world oil trade. The program would allow trading not only in “carbon allowances” (permitting companies to emit greenhouse gases) and “carbon offsets” (allowing companies to emit beyond their allowance if they invest in emission-reducing projects elsewhere), but carbon derivatives -- such as futures contracts to deliver a certain number of allowances at an agreed price and time. Eoin O’Carroll cautioned in the Christian Science Monitor:

“Many critics are pointing out that this new market for carbon derivatives could, without effective oversight, usher in another Wall Street free-for-all just like the one that precipitated the implosion of the global economy. . . . Just as the inability of homeowners to make good on their subprime mortgages ended up pulling the rug out from under the credit market, carbon offsets that are based on shaky greenhouse-gas mitigation projects could cause the carbon market to tank, with implications for the broader economy.”

Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and a cofounder of the U.S. Climate Task Force, warns, “We are on the verge of creating a new trillion-dollar market in financial assets that will be securitized, derivatized, and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities market.”

The proposed form of cap and trade has not yet been passed in the U.S., but a new market in which traders can speculate on the future of allowances and offsets has already been launched. The largest players in the carbon credit trading market include firms such as Morgan Stanley, Barclays Capital, Fortis, Deutsche Bank, Rabobank, BNP Paribas, Sumitomo, Kommunalkredit, Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Cantor Fitzgerald. Last year, the financial services industry had 130 lobbyists working on climate issues, compared to almost none in 2003. The lobbyists represented companies such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

Billionaire financier George Soros says cap-and-trade will be easy for speculators to rig. “The system can be gamed,” he said last July at a London School of Economics seminar. “That’s why financial types like me like it — because there are financial opportunities.”

Time to Board Up the Casinos and Rethink Our Social Safety Net?

At one time, gambling was called a sin and was illegal. Derivative trading was originally considered an illegal form of gambling. Perhaps it is time to reinstate the gambling laws, board up the derivatives casinos, and return the stock market to what it was designed to be: a means of funneling the capital of investors into productive businesses.

Short of banning derivatives altogether, the derivatives business could be slowed up considerably by imposing a Tobin tax, a small tax on every financial trade. “Financial products” are virtually the only products left on the planet that are not currently subject to a sales tax.

A larger issue is how to ensure adequate retirement income for the population without forcing people into gambling with their life savings to supplement their meager social security checks. It may be time to rethink not only our banking and financial structure but the entire social umbrella that our Founding Fathers called the Common Wealth.

Deficit hawks cry that we cannot afford more spending. But according to Richard Cook, who formerly served at the U.S. Treasury Department, the government could print and spend several trillion new dollars into the money supply without causing price inflation. Writing in Global Research in April 2007, he noted that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in 2006 came to $12.98 trillion, while the total national income came to only $10.23 trillion; and at least 10 percent of that income was reinvested rather than spent on goods and services.

Total available purchasing power was thus only about $9.21 trillion, or $3.77 trillion less than the collective price of goods and services sold. Where did consumers get the extra $3.77 trillion? They had to borrow it, and they borrowed it from banks that created it with accounting entries on their books. If the government had replaced this bank-created money with debt-free government-created money, the total money supply would have remained unchanged. That means a whopping $3.77 trillion in new government-issued money could have been fed into the economy in 2006 without increasing the inflation rate.

In a 1924 book called Social Credit, C. H. Douglas suggested that government-issued money could be used to pay a guaranteed basic income for all. Richard Cook proposes a national dividend of $10,000 per adult and $5,000 per dependent child annually. In 2007, that would have worked out to about $2.6 trillion to provide a basic security blanket for everyone.

The Federal Reserve has funneled $4.6 trillion to Wall Street in bailout money, most of it generated via “quantitative easing” (in effect, printing money); yet hyperinflation has not resulted. To the contrary, what we have today is dangerous deflation. The M3 money supply shrank in the last year by 5.5 percent, and the rate at which it is shrinking is accelerating. The explanation for this anomaly is that the Fed’s $4.6 trillion added by quantitative easing fell far short of the estimated $10 trillion that disappeared from the money supply when the “shadow lenders” exited the market, after discovering that the “triple-A” mortgage-backed securities they had been purchasing from Wall Street were actually very risky investments.

Whether or not a national dividend is the best way to reflate the money supply, the important point here is that the government might be able to issue and spend several trillion dollars into the economy without creating hyperinflation. The money would merely make up for the shortfall between GDP and purchasing power, replacing the debt-money created as loans by private banks. As long as resources are sitting idle and people are unemployed -- and as long as the new money is used to put these resources together productively to create new goods and services -- price inflation will not result. Creating the national money supply is the sovereign right of governments, not of banks; and if the government wants to remain sovereign, it needs to exercise that right.