Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wall Street remains untamed

Wall Street's top banks are bracing for the backlash that will follow the announcement of last year's bonuses. They will make some cosmetic reductions.They will sound suitably apologetic. But they will make sure that no meangingful attempt to reform them succeeds.

Robert Reich, former US labour secretary, writes in FT:
Bankers are still making wild bets, still devising new derivatives, still piling on debt. The big banks have access to money almost as cheaply as in 2007, courtesy of the Fed, so bank profits are up and bonuses as generous as at the height of the boom.

The only difference is that now the Street’s biggest banks know they are “too big to fail” and will be bailed out by taxpayers if they get into trouble – which means they have every incentive to make even riskier bets. And, of course, American taxpayers are out some $120bn, while millions have lost their homes, jobs and savings.

....The bill that has already emerged from the House is hardly encouraging. Dubbed the “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act”, it effectively guarantees future Wall Street bail-outs. The bill authorises Fed banks to provide up to $4,000bn in emergency funding the next time the Street crashes. That is more than twice what the Fed pumped into financial markets last year. The bill also enables the government, in a banking crisis, to back financial firms’ debts – a wonderful insurance policy if you are a bondholder. To be sure, the bill authorises the Fed and Treasury to spend these funds only when “there is at least a 99 per cent likelihood that all funds and interest will be paid back,” but predictions about pending economic disasters can be conveniently flexible, especially when it comes to bailing out the Street.

No prizes for guessing why there is so much pussy-footing on bank reform:

A larger explanation, I am afraid, is the grip Wall Street has over the American political process. The Street is where the money is and money buys campaign commercials on television. Wall Street firms and executives have been uniquely generous to both parties, emerging as one of the largest benefactors of the Democrats. Between November 2008 and November 2009, Wall Street doled out $42m to lawmakers, mostly to members of the House and Senate banking committees and House and Senate leaders. In the first three quarters of 2009, the industry spent $344m on lobbying – making the Street one of the major powerhouses in the nation’s capital.

Money is powerful. Talk is cheap.

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Shankh said...

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