GORED BY WALL STREET: Senate Blocks Vote To Rein In Big Banks — Because It Probably Would Have Passed

Simon JohnsonSimon Johnson

: May 21, 2010 09:21 AM

Focus on This: Merkley-Levin Did Not Get a Vote

After nine months of hard fighting, yesterday financial reform came down to this: an amendment, proposed by Senators Jeff Merkley and Carl Levin that would have forced big banks to get rid of their speculative proprietary trading activities (i.e., a relatively strong version of the Volcker Rule.)

The amendment had picked up a great deal of support in recent weeks, partly because of unflagging support from Paul Volcker and partly because of the broader debate around the Brown-Kaufman amendment (which would have forced the biggest 6 banks to become smaller). Brown-Kaufman failed, 33-61, but it demonstrated that a growing number of senators were willing to confront the power of our biggest and worst banks.

Yet, at the end of the day, the Merkley-Levin amendment did not even get a vote. Why?

Partly this was because of procedural maneuvers. Merkley-Levin could only get a vote if another amendment, proposed by Senator Brownback (on exempting auto dealers from new consumer protection rules) got a vote. Late yesterday afternoon, Senator Brownback was persuaded, presumably by his Republican colleagues and by financial lobbyists, to withdraw his amendment.

Of course, Merkley-Levin was only in this awkward position because of an earlier lack of wholehearted support from the Democratic leadership — and from the White House. Again, the long reach of Wall Street was at work.

But the important point here is quite different. If Merkley-Levin did not have the votes, it was in the interest of the megabanks to have it come to the floor and be defeated. That would have been a clear victory for the status quo.

But Merkley-Levin had momentum and could potentially have passed — reflecting a big change of opinion within the Senate (and more broadly around the country). The big banks were forced into overdrive to stop it.

The Volcker Rule, in its weaker Dodd bill form (“do a study and think about implementing”), perhaps will survive the upcoming House-Senate conference — although, because this process likely will not be televised, all kinds of bad things may happen behind closed doors. Regulators may also take the Volcker Rule more seriously — but the most probable outcome is that the Fed and other officials will get a great deal of discretion regarding how to implement the principles, and they will completely fudge the issue.

Most importantly, everyone who wants to rein in the largest banks now has a much clearer idea of what to push for, what to campaign on, and for what purpose to raise money. This is the completely reasonable and responsible ask:

  1. The Volcker Rule, as specifically proposed in the Merkley-Levin amendment
  2. Constraints on the size and leverage of our largest banks, as proposed by the Brown-Kaufman amendment

When the mainstream consensus shifts in favor of these measures, or their functional equivalents, we will have finally begun the long process of reining in the dangerous economic and political power of our largest banks.

This post was originally published on The Baseline Scenario.

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Could Bloomberg Lawsuit Mean Death to Zombie Banks?

Center for Media and Democracy and http://www.BanksterUSA.org

Posted: March 28, 2010 09:43 AM
My recollection is a bit hazy. How does one kill a zombie exactly? Do you stake it? Cut off its head? Nationalize it? Perhaps it’s time to ask the experts at Bloomberg News.

Lost in the haze of the hoopla surrounding the insurance reform bill was some big news on the financial reform front. On March 19, Bloomberg won its lawsuit against the Federal Reserve for information that could expose which “too big to fail” banks in the United States are walking zombies and which banks were merely rotting.

Bloomberg, which has done some of the best reporting on the financial crisis, is also leading the charge on the fight for transparency at the Federal Reserve and in the financial sector. While many policymakers and reporters were focusing their attention on the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout bill passed by Congress, Bloomberg was one of the first to notice that the TARP program was small change compared to the estimated $2-3 trillion flowing out the back door of the Federal Reserve to prop up the financial system in the early months of the crisis.

Way back in November 2008, Bloomberg filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the Fed what institutions were receiving the money, how much, and what collateral was being posted for these loans. Their basic argument: when trillions in taxpayer money is being loaned out to shaky institutions, don’t the taxpayers deserve to know their chances of being paid back?

Not according to the Fed. The Fed declined to respond, forcing Bloomberg to sue in Federal Court. In August of 2009, Bloomberg won the suit. With the backing of the big banks, the Fed appealed , and this month, Bloomberg won again. A three judge appellate panel dismissed the Fed’s arguments that the information was protect “confidential business information” and told the Fed that the public deserved answers.

The Fed is the only institution in the United States that can print money. It can drag this case out as long as it wants, but isn’t it a bid odd that taxpayer dollars are being used to keep information from the taxpayers?

After an unexpectedly rocky confirmation battle, Ben Bernanke kicked off his new term as Fed Chair in February with pledges of openness and transparency. “It is essential that the public have the information it needs to understand and be assured of the integrity of all our operations, including all aspects of our balance sheet and our financial controls,” said Bernanke. President Obama also pledged a new era of transparency when he entered office. What is going on here?

One theory is that Fed is hiding the secret assistance it provided to the financial sector, because it would expose how many Wall Street institutions are truly walking zombies, kept alive by accounting tricks like deferred-tax assets, “a fancy term for pent-up losses that the bank hopes to use later to cut its tax bills,” according to Bloomberg’s Jonathan Wiel. If this is the case, it raises doubts about the wisdom of Congress’ only plan to take care of the “too big to fail” problem by trusting regulators to “resolve” failing banks. If there is no will to resolve them now, why should we think regulators will resolve them in the future?

Another theory is that the Fed is hiding the fact that it broke the law by accepting a boatload of toxic assets as collateral. The law says the Fed is only supposed to take “investment grade” assets as collateral.

In either case, the public deserves answers. “This money does not belong to the Federal Reserve,” Senator Bernie Sanders. “It belongs to the American people, and the American people have a right to know where more than $2 trillion of their money has gone.”

The President and the Fed Chairman must live up to their pledges of transparency. They can start by abandoning this lawsuit and opening the doors on the Secrets of the Temple.