Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Financial regulation

On health care, the Obama administration sat back and waited for Congress to come up with something — anything. On financial regulation, the bill came straight from the administration, and it sailed right through the House.

Obama, as I've noted in the past, picked the wrong Bob — Rubin, rather than Reich. That left us with Geithner and Summers, zombie slaves of the financial industry. I'd feel a lot happier about the package from the White House if it had been written by people less ideologically committed to Wall Street. When a bill starts out weak, it only can end up as an even weaker law.

Oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with the likes of Richard Shelby and John Cornyn on at least one point: it is time to revisit the 1995 repeal of Glass-Steagall, one of the most unfortunate legacies of Robert Rubin's time in the Clinton administration. Commercial banks and investment banks should, once again, be separate — if for no other reason than to reduce the overall size of the largest institutions. Even if that were done, though, there are some institutions which would need further whittling down to ensure that there no longer are any that are "too big to fail."

At this time, the biggest banks have an unfair competitive advantage over smaller banks, in that they can borrow money at lower rates. They get those lower rates because it is assumed that government will not allow them to fail, no matter what pledges come out of Congress and the White House — and they use their surplus profits not to invest in productive businesses, but to place bets in the high-stakes casino Wall Street has become over the past fifteen years.

I can see absolutely no reason for synthetic CDOs to exist. They are nothing but side bets on real economic activity, but bets large enough to disrupt the financial system and create crises. Credit default swaps on synthetic CDOs were a large part of what brought down AIG, and made its government bailout necessary. If the very rich want to make bets on whether bonds they don't own will or will not default, let them open their own betting parlor and gamble with their own money — not with our pension funds.

Other derivatives must be openly traded, on an exchange like the one provided for in the bill now before the Senate Agriculture Committee, but with no exceptions for companies that are particularly large or well-connected. Markets cannot operate properly when they operate in secret.

Naturally, I don't expect much of the current effort to improve financial regulation, but hope it might be a step in the right direction. Yes, my fingers are crossed — but I'm not holding my breath.

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