Wall Street's casino itch

Wall Street's casino itch

September 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The financial implosion that erupted in 2008 on Wall Street and ended up pushing the global economy to the brink of a disastrous rerun of the Great Depression rightly resulted in the Dodd-Frank Act. But now, with economy still choking on the aftermath of that calamity, and with barely a fourth of the required regulatory reform written -- much less approved and implemented -- Republican presidential aspirants are clamoring for the repeal of the badly needed banking regulatory reform.

Their irrational partisan stance against the reform bill, of course, mirrors the Republican Party's early and long resistance to reining in the banking industry's abusive trading practices. That position, in turn, clearly seeks to protect an industry that contributes heavily to their campaign funds.

Still, their pandering in pursuit of reversing the Dodd-Frank Act is startling. They are now saying, with a straight face, for example, that just the prospect of the full phase-in of the Dodd-Frank legislation amounts to government overreach and that it is harming "job creators" and "killing jobs."

Good grief. Banks aren't lending because unemployment from the banking crash remains high and consumers aren't spending freely, so bankers aren't sure what new developments will work in a cautious economy. That predictable dynamic has left banks more willing to sit on their cash than to make loans. But that's not the fault of the Dodd-Frank reform.

The banking overhaul was written for good reasons, and it remains vital. The bill is designed to limit the sort of reckless lending (think toxic mortgages) and trading practices by banks that killed the economy. It aims to rein in highly leveraged, high-risk trading in complex derivatives, to require transparency and public listing of most trading in derivatives, and to protect consumers from financial fraud and abusive banking and credit card fees.

The bill dealt with the reality of reckless and often fraudulent trading run amok. Prior to the crash, commercial and investment banks and hedge fund traders were using highly-leveraged loans -- sometimes at 200-to-1 margins of debt to reserves -- to buy credit default swaps on speculative trading in a virtual casino of treasure hunting.

Indeed, some of the biggest investment banks lured their clients, many of whom represented major pension funds and retirement plans, into buying highly toxic mortgage loan portfolios that they knew were likely to fail, and then quietly purchased credit default swaps that bet against their clients' interests in those funds.

As if to prove that the reform act is needed, UBS bank disclosed last week that a rogue trader at its London office had lost $2.3 billion in risky derivatives trading. He was able to mask his losses because Britain, unlike the United States now, still has not required traders to monitor certain types of derivative trading. If Britain had adopted reforms that require transparency and public listing under a "swap execution facility," the trader would not have been able to fudge his listings of his trading accounts.

That incident alone should shut up the Republicans' criticism of reform. It is not creating such uncertainty that the bankers are pulling back from making loans, as Mitt Romney and his fellow candidates' claim. Rather, reform is helping assure that big banks will not end up again needing tens of billions of dollars in a TARP fund to assure their stability -- and the nation's economic foundation.

If banks and voters do not yet understand the value of limiting Wall Street's casino itch, they need only look at the banks' press clippings circa 2008-09.