What’s Wrong with the Financial Reform Bill
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd’s financial “reform” proposal (Barney Frank’s wasn’t much better) won’t change the nature of anything Wall Street does. Dodd’s needless watering down of a proposal to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency has been well-documented, so here is a list of 10 other problems Dodd’s bill will not fix:
Friend Nomi Prins, who in a former life worked for Goldman, this weekend sent along a link to an article in which she outlines the gaps in the current version of the financial regulatory reform bill. Given that the bill is sometimes being pitched as the answer to some of the problems underlined by the Goldman case, it’s a very sobering read.
My favorite is the halting, incomplete attempt at a rollback of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, i.e. the pseudo-restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act known as the Volcker rule. Nomi writes:
2) It won’t reduce the economic danger from rampant, overleveraged trading activities. The bill would restrict certain banks from having proprietary trading operations (trading with their own capital) under the “Volcker rule,” but it’s full of problematic exemptions:
a) Banks that claim they trade on behalf of their customers (which they all say they do) escape the rule.
b) Banks that trade for “market-making” purposes (i.e. Goldman Sachs betting against its own clients) are home-free.
c) Banks aren’t required to itemize their trading operations to regulators, so they get to decide what they consider trading for their customers and what they consider proprietary. I wonder how that will work out.
Then of course there’s the treatment of hedge funds, also relevant given the business with John Paulson:
5) It won’t contain the risk to the shadow banking system from hedge funds, private equity firms and venture capital funds. Venture capital and private equity advisers still won’t have to register or report to the SEC, though hedge funds with over $100 million in assets will. There’s also no statutory definition of what actually constitutes a hedge fund, and the bill doesn’t close the tax loophole that allows fund managers to be taxed at the lower capital-gains tax rate of 15 percent, rather than the higher income tax rate of 34 percent. If it sounds crazy to you that the richest people in America are being taxed at the lowest rates, it is: the loophole cost taxpayers about $5 billion this year alone.
There is some good stuff in the bill, but it is riddled with loopholes. Far more important than the actual bill is the effort to actually enforce existing laws. While it is true that the near-complete absence of a regulatory structure to oversee derivatives trading is problematic, there is a lot the government could have done still, if it had wanted to, to prevent catastrophes like AIG and Lehman Brothers. The decision to take a whack at Goldman for this Paulson business is therefore the best news there’s been on this front…