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“Risky Business”: Brinksmanship And The Return Of Financial Crisis

A government shutdown once again loomed, and familiar deadlines and ultimatums flew around Washington. And Congress just used the threat to loosen the rules created in the wake of the financial crisis, a victory for Wall Street banks in their constant and well-funded campaign against reform.

The rules they have targeted are designed to reduce the risk of another financial meltdown, like the one that drove us into the Great Recession and could have been much worse. Though the repeal has been styled by some as a technical amendment, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Think about the best way to decide legislative policy in the devilishly complex and risk-laden area of derivatives. These are the financial contracts that brought down AIG, the event that triggered the crisis. You might imagine careful deliberation and debate, leading to a thoughtful vote in Congress in which elected representatives must stand up and be counted so that they could be held responsible for a difficult decision.

Of course, that is not how the House of Representatives works, especially not the current lame duck version. A 1,600 page Omnibus Spending Bill appeared Tuesday night and passed the House late on Thursday night. We have become familiar with these spending bills that have replaced reasoned budgeting and serially risk shutdowns just so the administration can be bullied every few months.

This time around, House sponsors attached a provision amending the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. They did this in the dead of night and at the last minute. Lobbyists, who are paid to make certain that the banks can continue to do as much risky business as possible despite the new regulatory regime, pushed to have a provision repealing the “swaps push-out” section of Dodd-Frank slipped into the spending bill so that any resistance to the repeal would risk another shutdown. Citigroup lobbyists wrote 70 out of 85 lines of the original bill.

That’s Washington style representative democracy for you.

The swaps push-out provision requires banks to transact their swaps business in separate subsidiaries. The concept is that any bank swaps business should be done outside the bank itself, which is backed by FDIC deposit insurance and the many supports provided by the Federal Reserve.

Swaps are complex derivatives contracts requiring payments in the future that change as markets prices for stocks, bonds, oil and many other traded assets change. Thus, they create large and volatile financial obligations going back and forth between a bank and its contract “counterparty,” either a company (like AIG), a government or another bank.

Counterparties to the banks who rely on the banks’ performance of its obligations can rely on these federal supports and can assume that the government will step in if a problem occurs. This can embroil the government in any bank default making a bailout more likely, good news for bank creditors like the swap counterparties. To avoid this, the swaps push-out requires a separate corporation, not entitled to the federal supports, to create a firewall, insulating taxpayers from the riskiest trading.

Though swaps were regulated in Dodd-Frank, there were plenty of loopholes, so a great deal of that business will go forward just as before. The swaps push-out section now under threat was already watered down in the original Dodd-Frank deliberations. Nonetheless, it still provides important protection. With swaps push-out, there’s some possibility that the federal government wouldn’t be dragged into a bank default because of the bank safety net.

But members of Congress, urged on by big money from Wall Street, decided that this sensible buffer between casino-like derivatives trading and the American taxpayer was such a bad idea that it had to be discarded through surreptitious and disguised means.

The banks have been out to kill the swaps push-out from the beginning. That makes sense for them since the capital needed to back a subsidiary would cost them more than their basic capital. Banks can raise general capital cheaply since investors have learned that failure is not a concern for banks that are too-big-to-fail. Capital funding for a subsidiary that is separated from this safety net is more costly because a bail out is less likely.

The banks also got some of their customers who often enter into swaps with the banks to urge repeal. The customers complained that their swaps would cost more. Of course they would, since the bank subsidiary’s capital backing the swaps would cost more. But the customers, as contract counterparties, have been relying on the too-big-to-fail safety net. Like investors in the banks, these customers simply should not benefit from a pipeline to the American taxpayers. Any additional cost is an element of elimination of that benefit, nothing more.

In Washington, banks have been allowed to set the terms of the regulatory debate. The financial crisis provides many lessons, but one of its central was that allowing banks free reign leads to disastrous results for all Americans. Six years after the onset of the financial crisis, it’s too soon to forget that lesson and revive too-big-to-fail.

 

By: Wallace Turbeville, The American Prospect, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Big Banks, Congress, Omnibus Spending Bill | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The ‘Cromnibus’ Isn’t Without An Upside”: Funding Certainty And A Better Deal Than Could Be Extracted In Next Congress

The so-called Cromnibus is an ugly piece of work. On balance, I’m glad — no, make that relieved — it passed the House.

The Cromnibus is the giant $1.1 trillion spending bill that will keep the government functioning — no, make that open — through the end of the fiscal year in September.

The nickname stems from its dual function as “continuing resolution” and “omnibus” spending bill, but I like the term for its echoes of cronut, the calorie-laden combination of croissant and doughnut. Like the cronut, the Cromnibus is stuffed with some things that aren’t necessarily good for you.

Such as a toxic change in the campaign finance laws that helps usher back the bad old days of multimillion-dollar “soft money” donations to national political parties from wealthy individuals.

Without notice, without the legislative fig leaf of debate, the Cromnibus raised the limit tenfold for individual donations to the national party committees.

With the change, an individual could contribute $1.5 million during a two-year election cycle. A married couple — call them Mr. and Mrs. Plutocrat — could contribute $3 million. That’s enough money to get the Republicans’, or Democrats’, attention. This is bipartisanship in the service of self-interest.

There is a reasonable argument against tight caps on giving to political parties in the aftermath of the Citizens United decision and other developments that enhanced the power of super PACs and even less-transparent outside groups. With the cacophony of outside voices, the parties lose control of their message and their candidates, and the voters lose the ability to know what interests are financing the elections. The playing field could use some leveling.

Yes, but there remains a difference between the corrupting influence of money that flows straight to political parties and money that goes to outside groups. There was a reason Congress, just a dozen years ago, banned unlimited soft money donations from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions.

With this move, what comes next? And by what undemocratic, last-minute sleight of hand?

A similar case could be made against the stealth dismantling of part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, passed in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse. As the White House said in not threatening to veto the spending bill, the Citigroup-authored change would “weaken a critical component of financial system reform aimed at reducing taxpayer risk.”

That provision, known as Section 716, required banks and other institutions to move certain risky financial instruments into separate entities in order to limit the exposure of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve — i.e., taxpayers — from having to bail the financial institutions out if the deals should go south. Banks remained able to trade in nearly all derivatives, just not the more exotic ones.

Again, there are some reasonable arguments for undoing the remaining restriction. The change doesn’t unravel Dodd-Frank’s regulation of derivative instruments. Section 716 was controversial from the start, with some bank regulators arguing it would increase systemic risk, not reduce it. The impact of the change is debatable; after all, according to FDIC Vice Chairman Tom Hoenig, who opposes undoing the provision, it would not affect 95 percent of derivatives.

Of course, changes like these should be made in the ordinary course of legislative business, not stuffed into a Cromnibus. So why would I express relief about the Cromnibus’s passage?

Because, to some extent, my reference to the ordinary course of legislative business is civics textbook hooey. In practice, it has long been true that special-interest goodies are tucked into must-pass bills. Real-world legislating requires a horrific amount of nose-holding.

The reason is simple: The imperative for horse-trading and compromising is an immutable fact of political life. And so the question, for lawmakers and the Obama administration, is not whether the measure is perfect — it’s whether the trade-offs are acceptable. This is a judgment call; reasonable people, even reasonable Democrats, can differ.

In the case of the Cromnibus, the upside is a year of funding certainty and a better deal than could be extracted in the next Congress. Democrats avoid being blamed for causing a shutdown but, post-floor fight, reap the benefit of having fired a shot across the bow of Republicans and the White House as their caucus revolted.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had a legitimate point in contending that House Democrats were being “blackmailed” to vote for the spending bill. Still, there is something worse than legislative sausage-making in Washington. That is the inability to produce any sausage at all.

 

By: Ruth Marcus, Columnist, The Washington Post, December 12, 2014

December 13, 2014 Posted by | Bipartisanship, Campaign Financing, Omnibus Spending Bill | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Giving Wall Street More Leeway”: How Paul Ryan’s Budget Paves The Way For Another Financial Crisis

Representative Paul Ryan released his budget blueprint this week, and fans of his work were no doubt pleased: it called for $5 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, focused heavily on domestic, non-military spending. Safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps would face savage cuts, and the Affordable Health Care Act would be repealed entirely. Meanwhile, both corporate and individual tax rates would be lowered.

It is easy to make the case that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under Ryan’s so-called “Path to Prosperity” plan: one needs only to look at the literally trillions cut from Medicaid and food stamps while the rich pay much less in taxes.

But it’s important to refine that point and note that the financial sector in particular gets many special favors in the Ryan plan. After all, it is one of Ryan’s leading benefactors and he can even be spotted sipping $350 bottles of wine with industry leaders from time to time. And his budget is no doubt a path to prosperity for them.

Moreover, in three crucial ways Ryan’s budget not only gives Wall Street more leeway to act recklessly, but makes it more likely that average Americans face the consequences.

Cutting the Securities and Exchange Commission budget: Already, the head of the SEC is complaining that her agency’s budget is not nearly adequate to police the country’s massive financial sector. In a speech earlier this year at SEC headquarters, director Mary Jo White said, “our funding falls significantly short of the level we need to fulfill our mission to investors, companies and the markets.” The SEC has only 4,200 employees, but must regulate eighteen different stock exchanges and over 25,000 different market participants—and the agency’s responsibilities are growing thanks to new mandates from the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.

Ryan has a much different take in his budget: he thinks the SEC is just too big. He doesn’t apply a dollar figure, but makes it clear the agency’s already meager budget should be substantially “streamlined.”

“In the run-up to the financial crisis and its aftermath, the SEC repeatedly failed to fulfill any part of its mission,” his blueprint notes, ticking off a familiar list of whiffs, from the unsound nature of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to the Ponzi schemes run by Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff.

So far, so good. But Ryan goes on: “These failures have taken place despite significant increases in funding at the SEC, which has seen its budget increase almost sixty-six percent since 2004.”

Apparently, the extra money was the problem. “This resolution questions the premise that more funding for the SEC means better, smarter regulation. Adding reams of regulations to the books and scores of regulators to the payrolls will not provide greater transparency, consumer protection and enforcement for increasingly complex markets. Instead, the SEC should streamline and make more efficient its operations and resources.”

In short: since the SEC failed to adequately police Wall Street at a time its budget was increasing, the magic solution would be to cut the agency’s budget, because ipso facto the agency’s performance would get better.

This line of thinking would not be unfamiliar to those who follow Ryan’s recommendations for federal anti-poverty programs, and it’s just as wrong here as it is there. As the agency’s director herself pointed out (on several different occasions), the SEC plainly needs more resources to conduct better regulation of a huge financial sector. Ryan provides no evidence, aside from that odd logical twist, that reducing the number of SEC staffers poring over filings from hedge funds would somehow increase oversight of those outfits.

Transferring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau budget to Congress: Here Ryan resurrects a longstanding GOP proposal: that Congress, not the Federal Reserve, should fund the CFPB.

As it stands now, the bureau’s budget is essentially guaranteed. It can ask the Federal Reserve for funding up to a certain cap, and that request cannot be denied. The caps are fixed percentages of the Fed’s operating expenses. This guarantees autonomy from a Congress where many members (like, say, Ryan) are elected thanks to campaign contributions from the big financial institutions the CFPB polices.

Ryan claims to have a problem with this arrangement only because the Federal Reserve’s profits are supposed to be returned to the Treasury to reduce the deficit, but instead a portion of them are siphoned off to a new bureaucracy—one in which he suggests via scare quotes is ineffective. “Now, instead of directing these remittances to reduce the deficit, Dodd-Frank requires diverting a portion of them to pay for a new bureaucracy with the authority to write far-reaching rules on financial products and restrict credit to the very customers it seeks to ‘protect,’” says the blueprint.

CFPB funding would thus be transferred to Congress under the Ryan plan, and subject to annual appropriations. He doesn’t say what Congress should do with that budget once its under legislators control, but one needs only to look to his SEC budget proposals to get a sense of what would likely happen.

Ensuring Taxpayer Bailouts of Big Banks: This is another up-is-down situation where a lot of unpacking of Ryan’s language is needed. His budget says:

Although the proponents of Dodd-Frank went to great lengths to denounce bailouts, this law only sustains them. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation now has the authority to access taxpayer dollars in order to bail out the creditors of large, ‘‘systemically significant’’ financial institutions. This resolution calls for ending this regime, now enshrined into law, which paves the way for future bailouts. House Republicans put forth an enhanced bankruptcy alternative that—instead of rewarding corporate failure with taxpayer dollars—would place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.

Sounds good! But that would actually accomplish the exact opposite.

Indeed, Dodd-Frank gave the FDIC the power to wind down too-big-to-fail banks, which is called “resolution authority.” In a crisis, if a failing bank is deemed too big for traditional bankruptcy, a panel of bankruptcy judges can place it in receivership under the FDIC. That FDIC in turn then makes a plan for winding down the institution safely—something Barney Frank called a “death panel” for big banks.

Crucially, under this structure, taxpayers can’t end up paying for this wind down—Dodd-Frank explicitly forbids it. Any taxpayer money used upfront to ease the firm into bankruptcy would be recouped by a structured sale of the bank’s assets. (Note that Ryan sneakily says the FDIC has the authority to “access taxpayer dollars,” eliding the fact that in the end it has to pay them back.)

Ryan’s alternative is to end FDIC’s resolution authority and simply “place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.”

That’s akin to just saying “it will all work out.” It is unlikely in the extreme that the shareholders and managers can somehow bail out a failing big bank, especially in a crisis. Inevitably, Congress and thus taxpayers would have to step in, without any of the established authority like asset sales that the FDIC now possesses.

Ryan’s plan would lead to more taxpayer bailouts of failing big banks—and by stripping down the budgets of the agencies meant to oversee those institutions, make failure more likely in the first place. But in the meantime, his friends on Wall Street could enjoy less regulation, less oversight, and more comfort that taxpayers will someday come to the rescue.

 

By: George Zornick, The Nation, April 2, 2014

April 5, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Ryan Budget Plan | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Note To Banks: It’s Not 2006 Anymore

Nostalgia is running high on Wall Street for the days when junk mortgage underwriting and opaque derivatives trading juiced bank profits. As regulators continue to devise the machinery of the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform law, major financial institutions are working overtime in Washington to bring the good times back again.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, some of these efforts are gaining traction, particularly regarding the regulation of derivatives and mortgages.

As you may recall, Dodd-Frank was supposed to shed light on derivatives trading so that the risks and costs of these instruments would be clear to regulators and market participants. To this end, the law required derivatives to be cleared and traded on exchanges or through other approved facilities. But Dodd-Frank contained a big loophole: the Treasury secretary can exempt foreign-exchange swaps from the regulation.

Currency trading is enormous: on average, about $4 trillion of these contracts change hands each day. Major banks are huge in this market. According to the Comptroller of the Currency, trading in foreign-exchange contracts generated revenue of $9 billion in 2010 at the nation’s top five banks. That’s more than was produced by any other type of derivative.

No one was shocked when the banks began pushing the Treasury to exempt these swaps from regulatory scrutiny. From last November through January, Treasury officials met to discuss foreign-exchange swaps with 34 representatives of large financial institutions, the Treasury’s Web site shows.

A spokesman for Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, said last week that Mr. Geithner had not made up his mind on this matter. If Mr. Geithner sides with the banks, he will have bought into their argument that foreign-exchange swaps are different from other derivatives, that this market performed ably during the financial crisis and does not need additional oversight.

Others disagree. Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in October 2009, Gary Gensler, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said: “Any exception for foreign-currency forwards should not allow for evasion of the goal of bringing all interest rate and currency swaps under regulation to protect the investing public.”

Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a nonprofit organization that promotes the public’s interest in capital markets, said he was dubious of the contention that the market for foreign-exchange contracts performed well during the turmoil of 2008. Mr. Kelleher said that the only reason this market did not seize up like others was that the Fed lent huge amounts — $5.4 trillion — to foreign central banks through so-called swap lines during the fall of 2008.

“We suggested that Treasury hire truly independent experts to look at the data and provide the secretary with advice on whether or not the FX market performed well in the crisis and whether the exemption should be granted,” he said.

The analysis could be done within 60 days, he said. The Treasury told him it was confident that it had all the information it needed. “Their response was, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said.

Big financial institutions are also eager to return to the days of lax mortgage lending, judging from two initiatives being discussed in Washington. Both are intended to get the home loan market moving again — and to buoy falling home prices.

One relates to how regulators define a “qualified residential mortgage,” a term of art in the Dodd-Frank law. Issuers of asset-backed securities that are made up of such loans needn’t keep any credit risk of those securities. But sellers of loan pools that don’t consist of qualified mortgages are required to retain some of the risk in them. This provision was meant to eliminate the perverse incentives of the mortgage boom, when packagers of loan pools were encouraged to fill said pools with toxic waste because they had little or no liability for the deals once they were sold.

What constitutes a qualified mortgage has become a battleground issue because of the risk-retention rules under Dodd-Frank. Qualified mortgages should be of higher quality, based upon a borrower’s income, ability to pay and other attributes to be decided by financial regulators.

The board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will hold an open meeting on Tuesday to discuss qualified mortgages and the risk-retention rule. Among the questions to be considered is how much of a down payment should be required in a qualified loan, and whether mortgage insurance can be used to protect against the increased risks in loans that have smaller down payments.

The use of mortgage insurance during the boom effectively encouraged lax lending. Investors who bought securities containing loans with small or no down payments were lulled into believing that they would be protected from losses associated with defaults if the loans were insured.

But when loans became delinquent or sank into default, many mortgage insurers rescinded the coverage, contending that losses were a result of lending fraud or misrepresentations. When they did so, the insurers returned the premiums they had received to the investors who owned the loans. Lengthy litigation between the parties is under way but has by no means concluded.

Clearly, for many mortgage securities investors, this insurance was something of a charade. So any argument that mortgage insurance can magically transform a risky loan into a qualified residential mortgage should be laughed off the stage. And yet, mortgage insurers are making those arguments vociferously in Washington.

The final front in the mortgage battle involves a plan to restart Wall Street’s securitization machine with instruments known as covered bonds. Here, too, the big banks and the housing-financial complex are arguing that if private investors are to return to the mortgage market, we must create a new instrument that will let the good times roll again.

Covered bonds are pools of debt obligations that have been assembled by banks and sold to investors who receive the income generated by the assets. The bank that issues the bonds, meanwhile, retains the credit risk. If losses arise, the bank that issued the covered bonds must offset the loss with its own capital. That could push troubled banks closer to the edge.

If an asset in the pool defaults, a separate entity would be required to remove the assets from the bank’s control. The assets would then be out of reach of the F.D.I.C. should the bank fail and the agency step in as receiver. The investors who bought the covered bonds would have first call on the assets, ahead of the F.D.I.C.

This structure would wind up bestowing a new form of government backing to the major banks issuing the bonds, raising the potential for losses at the F.D.I.C. insurance fund, which protects savers’ deposits.

Equally troubling, the covered bond structure favored by the banks would let the pools invest in risky assets such as home equity lines of credit. These loans have been among the worst-performing assets out there. Covered bonds issued overseas, by contrast, typically consist solely of high-quality loans.

“The industry is trying to do an end run around the F.D.I.C.,” said Christopher Whalen, publisher of the Institutional Risk Analyst. “This proposal is about restarting the Wall Street assembly line for selling toxic waste to investors.”

Clearly, the battle for the safety and soundness of the nation’s financial markets is far from won. The issues are complex and confounding — by design, in many cases — and financial institutions have armies of advocates in Washington. The taxpayers do not, which makes monitoring of these crucial proceedings all the more essential.

By: Gretchen Morgenson, The New York Times, March 26, 2011

March 27, 2011 Posted by | Banks, Financial Institutions, Financial Reform, Foreclosures, Mortgages, Regulations, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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