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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Financial Engineering “He didn’t run for president to fix derivatives,” says Greenberger.


The giant bill Obama signed early in the summer of 2010 brought trillions of dollars in “dark” trading in over-the-counter derivatives into the open. It created new, tough watchdogs for credit-card and mortgage companies, as well as banks. It gave the government new powers to liquidate failing financial firms rather than bail them out.

The biggest firms knew that much of what their powerful lobbyists had failed to block or water down in the bill could be taken care of later on. They’d still be able to influence the vast set of rules on capital, leverage, and other financial issues that would be written by regulators. Led by Summers and Geithner, Obama’s economic team resisted almost every structural change to Wall Street—in particular, Volcker’s plan (initially) and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s idea to bar banks from swaps trading. The administration’s program for getting underwater mortgage holders out of trouble was also criticized as too modest. Obama’s team accepted “too many givens,” says a former senior career Fed official who asked to remain anonymous so as not to offend his former colleagues. Obama’s effort “certainly wasn’t like FDR’s because reform wasn’t driven by the White House,” says Michael Greenberger, a former senior regulator who did much to shape derivatives legislation behind the scenes. “If anything, during most of the journey the White House was a problem and Treasury was a problem.”

Obama’s aides claimed they were only making necessary compromises, placating the Republicans and centrist Democrats they needed to pass the law. And they did stand firm on creating a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But by midsummer of 2010 the Volcker rule that Obama finally backed was so full of exemptions—allowing banks to invest substantially in hedge and equity funds—that even Volcker expressed dismay. The fundamental structure of Wall Street had hardly changed. On the contrary, the new law effectively anointed the existing banking elite, possibly making them even more powerful. The major firms got to keep the biggest part of their derivatives business in interest-rate and foreign-exchange swaps. (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley control more than 95 percent, or about $200 trillion worth, of that market.)

The same banks may end up controlling or at least dominating the clearinghouses they are being pressed to trade on as well. New capital charges, meanwhile, have created barriers to entry for new firms. This consolidation of the elites has in turn kept alive the “too big to fail” problem. “It makes it way tougher now to kiss somebody off when they get in trouble,” says the former Fed official. Eugene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency, believes the new law’s impact will be “profound” in changing the way banks do business. But he worries about a “skewing of the playing field” in favor of the big banks, putting community banks at a disadvantage.

The Obama administration also did little to use its bully pulpit to reorient pay packages at the big financial houses, where bonuses still often run in the tens of millions of dollars. Critics make the case that changing this pay structure would do more than punish those who helped spur the meltdown. It might also encourage some of America’s greatest minds to stay away from financial engineering, which contributes little of substance to the economy, and instead consider real engineering. Nor has the Justice Department launched prosecutions as it did after the S&L crisis, or during the insider-trading scandals of the ’80s, when Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky were led off in handcuffs. (One problem this time around, lawyers say, is that virtually everyone was complicit in the subprime-mortgage scam.)

“He didn’t run for president to fix derivatives,” says Greenberger. “And when he brought in Summers and Geithner, he just thought he was getting the best of the best”—good financial mechanics, in other words, who would “get the car out of the ditch,” to use one of Obama’s favorite metaphors.

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