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Tuesday, Oct 27, 2009, 11:04 am

Weekly Audit: Dismantling the Wall Street Casino

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger
Bailout pay czar Ken Feinberg raised a ruckus last week when he announced plans to slash cash payouts to executives at seven companies that have received massive levels of taxpayer support. While better oversight of the bailout barons is helpful, the best way to change Wall Street pay practices is to adopt a set of tough, comprehensive regulations that cover everything from the executive suite to the loan department. As is, many of the executives Feinberg cracked down on will still make millions this year from stocks and other perks, while the very banks that depend the most on bailout money are spending like mad to lobby against reform.

Feinberg's new salary limits only apply to executives at Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG, GM, Chrysler, GMAC and Chrysler Financial. But while these new rules are an effort to reduce the incentive for executives to take big risks for short-term gains, the rules of the game for non-bailout barons haven't changed at all. Risky securities trading and unenforced consumer protection regulations still allow financiers to make a killing by gambling on mortgages and credit cards.

As Greg Kaufmann explains for The Nation, Feinberg has been barred from altering some of the most egregious bonus arrangements at even the biggest fund recipients, as the employment contracts were signed prior to the government's bailout. AIG plans to pay out $198 million in bonuses in March 2010, and none of Feinberg's recent rulings will change that. As Kaufmann also notes, back in March, AIG agreed to pay pack $45 million of the bonuses it shelled out early this year. After over seven months, just $19 million has been repaid.

The government's hands-off approach to AIG employment contracts is a rather flagrant display of deference to executives. Nothing stopped the government from renegotiating contracts for union laborers when it bailed out Chrysler and GM, as Dean Baker notes for The American Prospect.

Lest we forget, the government literally owns AIG, and would own both Citigroup and Bank of America had it demanded a market rate of return for its investment. Taxpayers injected several times the stock market values of both Citi and BofA into the troubled banks, but settled for a 36% stake in Citi and preferred stock in BofA. As Mike Madden emphasizes for Salon, Feinberg is still letting executives make several times the median household income in cash alone—nevermind stock—and it's unlikely that his move will spark changes among bankers outside the handful of companies ordered to make changes.

"Executives are still taking home paychecks that dwarf what the average American earns. And it's not clear whether any other companies will get on board with the Treasury plan unless they're forced to," Madden writes.

Congress hasn't taken any significant steps to curb Wall Street paydays since the crisis broke, but lawmakers did take two other important steps toward banking reform this week. Two different House committees passed bills to rein in the wild world of derivatives trading and establish a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). In a video piece for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, Amanda Zamora and Lagan Sebert detail the legislative battle to create a CFPA, which has faced an enormous lobbying push from both banks and the top lobby group for the corporate executive class, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.



Zamora and Sebert note that top bank lobbyist Ed Yingling is arguing that if regulators simply enforced the existing consumer protection laws, all of the major abuses in mortgage lending and credit cards would have been prevented. Even for a corporate lobbyist, Yingling's disingenuousness is absolutely breathtaking. He acknowledges that existing regulators are not enforcing consumer protection laws, says he wants the laws enforced, and then says it would be a bad idea to create a new agency to enforce those laws.

The CFPA won't have any mysterious new powers. It will have the same authorities on credit cards and mortgages that existing federal regulators have. But the current regulators are focused primarily on bank profits, which often run directly contrary to fair play with consumers. Yingling and Wall Street are really afraid of a serious regulator who will stand up for consumers. They're terrified that the CFPA will actually enforce consumer protection rules against powerful banks—but are talking as if all they want is effective enforcement. It's a lie, pure and simple.

On Monday and Tuesday, thousands took to the streets in Chicago to protest a meeting of Yingling's lobby group, the American Bankers Association (ABA). Esther Kaplan details the protests in a piece for The Nation, complete with video footage. The ABA retaliated against Kaplan's reporting by revoking her press credentials, but it appears to have been worth it, as her piece describes everything from citizen outrage to police intimidation and awkward banker solidarity. As Democracy Now! explains, the ABA has spent decades lobbying against rules to strengthen the economy and prevent banker abuses, and is now at the heart of an effort to use taxpayer bailout money to lobby Congress against financial reforms.

So far, their efforts seem to be paying off. Last week, one of the CFPA's chief advocates, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC), co-authored an amendment significantly restricting the agency's enforcement powers. As Sebert and Zamora note, Miller agreed to exempt banks with $10 billion or less in assets from regulatory examinations by the CFPA—roughly 98% of all banks. The existing, corrupted regulators who didn't lift a finger to prevent the subprime mortgage crisis will be the people actually going to the banks and reviewing their books. While the CFPA could send along one of its own regulators to participate in the exam, the new agency can't tax the bank to pay for it, which would make it very difficult for the CFPA to keep an eye on smaller banks.

Even worse, there is nothing to prevent a giant bank like Bank of America from moving all of its most egregiously predatory activities into a series of small corporate subsidiaries. By exploiting this loophole, 100% of U.S. banks could be exempt from CFPA enforcement, including the giant banks most heavily involved in subprime mortgage abuses.

The other big piece of Obama-backed financial legislation to make its way through Committee last week had to do with derivatives, also known as the wild Wall Street securities that brought down AIG. The best way to fix the derivatives mess is to require that derivatives be traded on an exchange the same way stocks are, so that companies can't make crazy bets without regulatory and market scrutiny. But Obama only wants "standardized" derivatives to be processed through a central clearinghouse—like an exchange, except without any public pricing information. And so long as a derivative contract can be deemed "customized," it would be totally exempt from even this limited reform.

But as Art Levine notes for AlterNet, the derivatives bill actually got worse in committee. Plenty of non-financial businesses use derivatives to legitimately hedge real risks: Airlines try to insure themselves against swings in oil prices, for instance. Lawmakers agreed to exempt any contract with these companies, termed "end-users" in the financial jargon, from central clearing requirements. The trouble is, big Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms can be classified as "end-users," opening a fatal loophole in the legislation. The five banks who control 95% of the derivatives market will just conduct all of their most reckless trades with hedge funds and avoid oversight entirely.

A modest reform on paychecks for bailout recipients is nowhere near sufficient to protect our economy from banker excess. If Wall Street is going to serve any productive economic function, it has to be subject to serious consumer protection rules, and its derivatives casino has to be dismantled.

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