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Failed Financial Reform And Failed Justice

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April 26, 2010

As the long-awaited financial reform legislation finally seems to be headed toward enactment, the groans of disappointment are loud and clear.  My favorite reporter at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, did a fine job of exposing the shortcomings destined for inclusion in this lame bill:

Unfortunately, the leading proposals would do little to cure the epidemic unleashed on American taxpayers by the lords of finance and their bailout partners.  The central problem is that neither the Senate nor House bills would chop down big banks to a more manageable and less threatening size.  The bills also don’t eliminate the prospect of future bailouts of interconnected and powerful companies.

Too big to fail is alive and well, alas.  Indeed, several aspects of the legislative proposals sanction and codify the special status conferred on institutions that are seen as systemically important.  Instead of reducing the number of behemoth firms assigned this special status, the bills would encourage smaller companies to grow large and dangerous so that they, too, could have a seat at the bailout buffet.

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It is disappointing that none of the current proposals call for breaking up institutions that are now too big or on their way there.  Such is the view of Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“The social costs associated with these big financial institutions are much greater than any benefits they may provide,” Mr. Fisher said in an interview last week.  “We need to find some international convention to limit their size.”

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Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College and an authority on financial institutions and regulators, said that it was not surprising that substantive changes for both groups are not on the table.  After all, powerful banks want to maintain their ability to privatize gains and socialize losses.

“To understand why defects in in solvency detection and resolution persist, analysts must acknowledge that large financial institutions invest in building and exercising political clout,” Mr.Kane writes in an article, titled “Defining and Controlling Systemic Risk,” that he is scheduled to present next month at a Federal Reserve conference.

But regulators, eager to avoid being blamed for missteps in oversight, also have an interest in the status quo, Mr. Kane argues.  “As in a long-running poker game in which one player (here, the taxpayer) is a perennial and relatively clueless loser,” he writes, “other players see little reason to disturb the equilibrium.”

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner focused on the human failings responsible for the bad behavior of the big banks with his emphasis on the notion that “a fish stinks from the head”:

No well-intentioned reform bill that will pass Congress can prevent the mind-blowing stupidity, hubris and denial utilized by the big fish of Wall Street from stinking from the head.

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Transparency won’t help if the Obama plan does not absolutely require all derivatives to be registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission.  It’s an invitation for abuse as five major market making banks like JPMorgan Chase account for 95% of all derivatives transactions and a very large share of their profits.  We haven’t seen evidence that they police themselves satisfactorily.

Derivatives expert Janet Tavakoli recently expressed her disgust over the disingenuousness of the current version of this legislation:

Our proposed “financial reform” bill is a sham, and the health of our society and our economy is at stake.

Ms. Tavakoli referred to the recent Huffington Post article by Dan Froomkin, which highlighted the criticism of the financial reform legislation provided by Professor William Black (the former prosecutor from the Savings and Loan crisis, whose execution was called for by Charles Keating).  Froomkin embraced the logic of economist James Galbraith, who emphasized that rather than relying on the expertise of economists to shape financial reform, we should be looking to the assistance of criminologists.  William Black reinforced this idea:

Criminologists, Black said, are trained to identify the environments that produce epidemics of fraud — and in the case of the financial crisis, the culprit is obvious.

“We’re looking at incentive structures,” he told HuffPost.  “Not people suddenly becoming evil.  Not people suddenly becoming crazy.  But people reacting to perverse incentive structures.”

CEOs can’t send out a memo telling their front-line professionals to commit fraud, “but you can send the same message with your compensations system, and you can do it without going to jail,” Black said.

Criminologists ask “fundamentally different types of question” than the ones being asked.

Back at The New York Times, Frank Rich provided us with a rare example of mainstream media outrage over the lack of interest in prosecuting the fraudsters responsible for the financial disaster that put eight million people out of work:

That no one at Lehman Brothers has yet been held liable for its Enronesque bookkeeping deceit is appalling.  That we still haven’t seen the e-mail and documents that would illuminate A.I.G.’s machinations with Goldman and the rest of its counterparties amounts to a cover-up.  That investigative journalists have consistently been way ahead of the authorities, the S.E.C. included, in uncovering Wall Street’s foul play is a scandal.  If this culture remains in place, the whole crisis will have gone to waste.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that any significant financial reform will be enacted as a result of the financial crisis is about the same as the likelihood that we will see anyone doing a “perp walk” for the fraudulent behavior that caused the meltdown.  Don’t expect serious reform and don’t expect justice.



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