published Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Large reform fights loom

Beyond the fight to reduce debit-card swipe fees (discussed above) lie larger battles over far more significant areas of financial reform.

Chief among these is the most urgent battle to bring transparency and order — through registration, verification and conduct standards — to the $583 trillion over-the-counter market for derivatives, the financial instruments that hedge funds and investors use to counter financial risks and to make speculative investments.

These were the primary source of the trading in securitized mortgages, collateral debt obligations and credit default swaps that were abused and unregulated to the extent that trading in them brought on the financial meltdown of 2008-09.

Opposition to pending rules for a new regulatory structure for trading and clearing derivatives is far more important, needed and heated than the fight over debit-card swipe fees. Trade in these instruments merits serious reform. It also should be broadened, as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called for last week, to include global harmonization of trading rules for derivatives to prevent banks from spinning off unregulated operations in lax foreign exchanges.

Another major battle is being fought over the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is designed to ensure transparency and help protect consumers from dubious mortgage, banking and investment dealings. Current chairwoman, Elizabeth Warren, is under attack by Republican opponents of the agency. They object to the bureau’s independence and scope of authority in assuring fair dealing in mortgages and other financial interests, and in helping settle consumer complaints about the mortgages and foreclosures that have wrecked their lives.

The lesson in the battles to foster financial reform and reduce the unbridled power of big banks and Wall Street is that congressional Republicans, and some Democrats, are more inclined to help the banks and Wall Street than ordinary consumers, because their chief interests is to keep their campaign funds lubricated by rich lobbyists.

Without more assertive public pressure, the banking industry will defeat competent reform — and tempt another meltdown.

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