16 Jul 2010

America Gets Financial Reform

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The New York Times rejoiced in the passage of the massive and occult 2300-page Financial Reform Bill with its customary propagandistic progressive nonsense.

Congress approved a sweeping expansion of federal financial regulation on Thursday, reflecting a renewed mistrust of financial markets after decades in which Washington stood back from Wall Street with wide-eyed admiration.

The bill, heavily promoted by President Obama and Congressional Democrats as a response to the 2008 financial crisis, cleared the Senate by a vote of 60 to 39, largely along party lines, after weeks of wrangling that allowed Democrats to pick up the three Republican votes to ensure passage.

The vote was the culmination of nearly two years of fierce lobbying and intense debate over the appropriate response to the financial excesses that dragged the nation into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The result is a catalog of repairs and additions to the rusted infrastructure of a regulatory system that has failed to keep up with the expanding scope and complexity of modern finance.

Over the last half-century, as traders and lenders increasingly drove the nation’s economic growth, politicians of both parties scrambled to get out of the way, passing a series of landmark bills that allowed financial companies to become larger, less transparent and more profitable.

Usury laws were set aside. Banks were allowed to expand across state lines, sell insurance, trade securities. The government watched and did nothing as the bulk of financial activity moved into a parallel universe of private investment funds, unregulated lenders and black markets like derivatives trading.

That era of hands-off optimism was gaveled to an end on Thursday as the Senate gave final approval to a bill that reasserts the importance of federal supervision of financial transactions.

The financial crisis, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with usury, banks expanding across state lines, selling insurance, or trading securities. The crisis had everything to do with mortgage lenders who, rather than being unregulated, were specifically federally required to make more risky loans to persons with dubious credit. At the center of the current financial crisis are the federally-created mortgage corporations and they are completely overlooked by the new legislation.

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As the Wall Street Journal explains our saviours are now going to protect us with a bevy of new agencies and a blizzard of yet-to-be-defined regulations, to be worked out later behind closed doors.

The bill, to be signed into law soon by President Barack Obama, marks a potential sea change for the financial-services industry. Financial titans such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp. may be forced to make changes in most parts of their business, from debit cards to the ability to invest in hedge funds.

Congress approved a sweeping rewrite of rules that touch every corner of finance in the biggest expansion of government power over banking and markets since the Great Depression.

The Senate passed the bill 60-39 Thursday, following House passage last month. Earlier in the day, three northeastern Republicans joined with Democrats to block a filibuster, allowing the bill to squeak through.

Now, the legislation hands off to 10 regulatory agencies the discretion to write hundreds of new rules governing finance. Rather than the bill itself, it will be this process—accompanied by a lobbying blitz from banks—that will determine the precise contours of this new landscape, how strict the new regulations will be and whether they succeed in their purpose. The decisions will be made by officials from new agencies, obscure agencies and, in some cases, agencies like the Federal Reserve that faced criticism in the run-up to the crisis. …

The legislation creates a council of regulators to monitor economic risks; establishes a new agency to police consumer financial products; and sets new standards for the way derivatives are traded. “These reforms will benefit the prudent and constrain the imprudent,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a press conference. “Strong banks, the well-managed financial innovators, will adapt and thrive under the new rules of the road.”

Republicans said the bill could jeopardize the recovery by constraining credit and crimping the banking industry, and chided the expansion of government power it envisions.

The bill “is a 2,300-page legislative monster…that expands the scope and the powers of ineffective bureaucracies,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).

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It’s all a farce, of course. The professional political class is simply taking advantage of the financial crisis it created itself to ride to the supposed rescue and carve itself out another huge chuck of power over the economy.

Well-connected people with the right kinds of background and education will regulate in collusion with the wealthiest and most influential financial industry players, friends of the system in Washington will get favors, their less-well-connected competitors will get the shaft, higher entry barriers will be put into place, and regulators when they leave office will move on to more lucrative positions and consultancies. The powers that be will prosper and the public will pay.

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Still the financial system will survive:

Kate Sullivan: One day we’ll smarten up and pass some laws and put you out of business.

Lawrence Garfield: They can pass all the laws they want. All they can do is change the rules. They can never stop the game. I don’t go away. I adapt.

—Other People’s Money (1991)

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