Friday, July 23, 2010

Financial reform thoughts

I have none but others have so I thought I'd put them here. In my spare time I think I'd like to follow up on how the enacted reforms reflect what lawmakers (or lobbyists) think are the most important causes of the financial crisis:

1. Mark Thoma's roundup: I'd summarize his thoughts as that the law doesn't go far enough.
a) Consumer protection agency addresses the fraud issue, I think.
b) Exchange for derivatives addresses the lack of transparency/securitization issue.
c) Resolution authority doesn't really address a cause but just allows a better clean-up procedure.
d) TBTF isn't addressed at all though Mark thinks it should.
e) Proprietary trading, capital requirements, leverage limits are not really addressed or are too weak. (i.e. the compromise version of the Volcker rule)
f) Credit rating agencies appear to have been given a pass.
g) Executive pay is also not addressed. A clawback would have been interesting.

2. This article (HT: MR) on the derivatives exchange was interesting:

As the U.S. Senate recently debated a major financial reform bill in which the credit default swap, a kind of derivative, played a significant part, Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) proposed an amendment to that bill that would have banned banks from proprietary trading. There were a lot of high-rolling bankers who did not want that amendment to pass, because it would have messed up their plans to repatriate foreign profits into the United States, untaxed, by trading in derivatives on their own accounts. The clearinghouse ICE Trust U.S. forms a central part of these plans.

What is ICE Trust U.S., and who owns it? ICE US Holding Co., which was established in 2008 as the parent of ICE Trust U.S., is located in the Cayman Islands. Yet none of the owners of ICE US Holding Co. are based in the Caymans. IntercontinentalExchange, Inc., which owns 50 percent of ICE US Holding, is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Among the other owners of the Caymans company are Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, which are headquartered in New York. Bank of America, which now owns Merrill Lynch, is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Deutsche Bank (Frankfurt) and both UBS and Credit Suisse (Zurich) are also part owners.

... ICE US Holding Company L.P., Cayman Islands, which owns ICE Trust U.S., is “a blocking company” used to prevent the foreign subsidiary from being deemed as loaning margin to a “U.S. person” (namely, ICE Trust U.S.). “They are loaning the money to a Cayman Islands person”, he said. This means that banks can keep their profits abroad and untaxed, but still use them to trade on a U.S. exchange, making investments in U.S. credit default swaps while not paying tax on the collateral placed on the exchange. It’s precisely what Section 956 was designed to prevent.

... University of Michigan Law School professor Reuven Avi-Yonah, who frequently testifies as an expert witness on tax issues in congressional hearings, said the ICE structure ought to be examined by the public, even if it is legal. “Not only do we have an entity in a tax haven, but it’s also an entity with no substance, which is really a killer combination.” A former corporate lawyer, Avi-Yonah told me, “I am not sure the IRS would reject it, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay; Congress should take a look.”

This whole thing strikes me as hypocritical (approved by the Fed! no less - they're not going to win any friends here, me thinks), especially since there are all these proposals to prevent tax abuses.

3. John Cassidy on the evolution of the Volcker Rule (which led to the watered down version):

“There is a great amount of ambiguity about how the bill will evolve in practice,” Raghuram Rajan, a University of Chicago professor who was one of the few economists to warn about the risks of a financial blowup, told me. “It has tremendous promise, but also tremendous scope for disappointment.”

... Many independent analysts agreed, arguing that Bear and Lehman had been destroyed by excessive borrowing and by their sunny view of the subprime-mortgage market. Their proprietary-trading desks had not been the problem. Benn Steil, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me that, if bank deposit insurance didn’t exist, he would consider an investment with Goldman’s prop-trading desk safer than one with a Midwestern bank that would turn around and lend it to local businesses. If Volcker’s recommendations had been in effect before 2008, Steil said, “the crisis would have unfolded precisely as it did.”

Volcker countered that the Treasury’s approach risked exacerbating the likelihood of future bailouts. In proposing to grant the biggest financial firms special legal status as “Tier 1 financial holding companies,” the Treasury came close to designating them as too big to fail, thereby encouraging them to take more risks.

... Yet a larger question remains: Will the reform package be sufficient to prevent future bailouts? Among economists, there is considerable skepticism about the Volcker rule. “If you have the incentive to take risks, there are so many ways that you can do it, and banning one specific activity is not very useful,” Raghuram Rajan said. “If I am a bank and I want to load up on risk, I can give loans to walking wrecks, and that will give me all the risk I want.” In fact, prohibiting banks from proprietary trading could “give you false confidence that they are not taking risks when they are.”

... Volcker may have won the intellectual debate, but, as he readily concedes, the practical challenge lies ahead. Two years from now, when the Volcker rule goes into effect, some firms may well try to skirt it, by, for example, placing big proprietary bets and trying to define them as something else. Without the legislative purity that Volcker was hoping for, enforcing his rule will be difficult, and will rely on many of the same regulators who did such a poor job the last time around, particularly those at the Fed. If the Obama Administration had been able to force the banks to hold a lot more capital in perpetuity, this would not matter very much: a financial system with low leverage can survive the occasional implosion. But international negotiations on a new set of capital requirements are going slowly, and there is no assurance that they will yield meaningful results. If they don’t, once the next credit boom gets going, leverage ratios will start rising again.

In this area, as in many others, the Dodd-Frank Bill is at most a useful beginning. As Volcker told me, it doesn’t really deal with a number of issues that contributed to the crisis, such as extravagant Wall Street compensation practices, misleading accounting, and incompetent credit rating. Ultimately, it also leaves open the question of what would happen if one of the biggest financial firms got into the same sort of trouble that brought down Bear Stearns and A.I.G. As a legal matter, the federal government could now euthanize such a firm instead of bailing it out. But is the threat of closure credible? If in five years Goldman, say, were to suffer a catastrophic trading loss, then, regardless of whether it had given up its banking license, the Treasury and the Fed would come under great pressure to save the firm.

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