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.

 

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