After the first week of the conference committee for Wall Street reform, I would call the verdict middling. Reformers have won some victories – all hedge funds and private equity firms will have to register with the SEC, credit rating agencies will be on the hook for standard liability for negligence, the Fed audit is more robust and ongoing. At the same time, there have been some losses – the Franken amendment changing the way rating agencies work is reduced to a study (though something will have to be done to remedy the conflict of interest and change the issuer-pays model), proxy access on corporate governance was raised to a threshold that gives shareholders almost no power, pre-funding resolution authority looks dead. In a general sense, good things that were in the Senate bill are difficult to get out, but good things from the House bill have been difficult to get in.
Of course, many important issues have either been deferred (like fiduciary duty and resolution authority) or haven’t come up for debate yet. But that doesn’t mean that nobody’s working them. With Wall Street due to lose billions – perhaps 23% of Goldman Sachs’ profit is at risk – they have been marshaling all their power and influence to try and make a favorable outcome. And their supporters and lackeys in Congress are helping. Here are some of the villains:
• Gary Ackerman and the New York Democrats: Ackerman, from Queens, is trying to put together a coalition of House Democrats from his state to kill Blanche Lincoln’s derivatives title, particularly Section 716, which would force the mega-banks to spin off their lucrative swaps trading desks into separately capitalized subsidiaries. Ackerman frets that this would send banking business out of the US, and particularly out of New York, and that wouldn’t sit well with his buds on Wall Street. Ackerman actually said “Those of us in New York represent not only Main Street, but Wall Street as well, and understand very much that Main Street is affected by Wall Street,” defending his coalition, and a letter he wrote to House Democrats opposing Section 716. They also want to weaken the “Volcker rule” which would ban a bank from owning a hedge fund or engage in proprietary trading from their own account.
Ackerman defended his stance to the New York Observer:
Ackerman isn’t backing off.
“If our objective is to protect consumers and increase transparency, it is essential that we keep banks here so that we can regulate them,” the congressman wrote in a statement to The Observer. “Driving banks out of New York does not fix the problem. If they leave, we have no reach, no way to regulate them and no way to protect people on Main Street. This is about ensuring the best protections for consumers while keeping a multi-trillion dollar industry in New York. Not choosing Wall Street over Main Street.”
Of course, keeping a highly risky industry in New York that can blow up at any moment is potentially devastating, not just for New York but the whole country.
• Bill Owens, Mike McMahon and the used car salesmen: McMahon (D-NY), also part of the Ackerman initiative, and Owens have put together a letter signed by 62 House Democrats supporting the auto dealer exemption in the House version of the bill. That would exempt car dealers from oversight from the federal consumer protection agency which will either be independent or housed at the Federal Reserve. The White House strongly opposes the exemption, but it passed the House and a nonbinding “motion to instruct conferees” in the direction of the exemption passed the Senate with 60 votes. Exempting car dealers from oversight, Pat Garofalo notes, gives an unfair advantage to them over credit unions and other sources of auto financing, and exempts one of the biggest financial transactions that most people ever make.
• Melissa Bean and the New Dems: The New Democrats were able to shoot the House derivatives plan full of holes, and now they’re taking aim at the Senate’s. They want to kill the Section 716 plan and add multiple carve-outs for “end users” in the derivatives title. 43 members of the 69-member coalition signed the letter on this. Bean and the New Dems claim that the Volcker rule, which they support, makes Section 716 unnecessary, a fact contradicted by the authors of the strongest Volcker rule, Jeff Merkley and Carl Levin.
• Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the swipe fee defenders: Wasserman Schultz, a member of the House leadership, has rounded up a large coalition to protect big bank “swipe fees,” the fee that banks charge retailers to make a debit card or credit card transactions. These fees are routinely much larger than the cost of actually making the transaction, especially in the case of debit cards, where the banks are really just moving money they already have in their clients’ accounts with no risk. Wasserman Schultz claims in her letter, signed by as many as 131 House members (Democrats and Republicans), that small lenders would be adversely affected by this regulation. But her letter contained several grievous errors, many of them noted by Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) in a response:
Misstatement of Fact: ―A 2008 study by London economists, however, concluded that this intervention harmed consumers in ways neither intended nor foreseen. In fact, the study showed that, on average, the annual fees paid by consumers for standard credit cards increased by 22 percent, while annual fees for reward cards increased by between 47 and 77 percent. As a result, Australian cardholders paid approximately AU$480 million more in additional fees on credit cards each year.
Truth: The Reserve Bank of Australia is the regulator that has evaluated that nation’s reforms. As opposed to a couple of London economists paid by any private entity to produce a report. The Reserve Bank found: “The most notable impact of the reforms has been a marked reduction in merchants’ costs of accepting credit cards, which in turn, is flowing through into lower prices of goods and services for all consumers.”
Check out the whole letter.