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Wall Street's War

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FRONT #4
REINING IN DERIVATIVES

When all the backroom obfuscation doesn't work, of course, there is always one last route in Congress to killing reform: the fine print. And never has an amendment been fine-printed to death as skillfully as the proposal to reform derivatives.

Imagine a world where there's no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei: no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark. Nobody has a clue how much a share of IBM costs or how many of them are being traded. In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists. It's called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country's biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark. If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation: Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market. That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP. Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008. Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform. Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

The basic pillar of derivatives reform is simple: From now on, instead of trading in the dark, most derivatives would have to be traded on open exchanges and "cleared" through a third party. Last fall, Wall Street lobbyists succeeded at watering down the clearing requirement by pushing through a series of exemptions for "end-users" – that is, anyone who uses derivatives to hedge a legitimate business risk, like an airline buying swaps as a hedge against fluctuations in jet-fuel prices. But the House then took it even further, expanding the exemption to include anyone who wants to hedge against balance-sheet risk. Since every company has a balance sheet, including giant insurers like AIG and hedge funds that gamble in derivatives, the giant loophole now covered pretty much everyone except a few megabanks. This was regulation with a finger crossed behind its back.

When it came time for the Senate to do its version, however, the lobbyists were in for a surprise. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas – best known as one of the few Democrats to vote for Bush's tax cuts – suddenly got religion and closed the loophole. Facing a tough primary battle against an opponent who was vowing to crack down on Wall Street, Lincoln tweaked the language so derivatives reform would apply to any greedy financial company that makes billions trading risky swaps in the dark.

Republicans went apeshit, pulling the same tactics they tried to gut the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Sen. Enzi, back at the lectern after his failed attempt to claim that the CFPB was a government plot to control the orthodontics industry, barked to the Senate gallery that Lincoln's proposal would harm not millionaire swap dealers at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, but "a wheat-grower in Wyoming." Unmoved by such goofy rhetoric, the Senate shot down an asinine Republican amendment that would have overturned Lincoln's reform by a vote of 59-39.

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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