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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The delaying tactics we told you about nearly two years ago have worked beautifully. The bailout worked (if not for homeowners, at least for the banks). It worked so well that the underlying problems that led to the financial crisis have remained largely ignored.

The regulations that have been written (and continue to languish during their extended comment period) are on their way to being eliminated or weakened yet again by Congress. The House helped out this week by passing a bill (HR 4413) that ensures that if any regulations do get approved, they will be difficult to enforce.

As we reported back in 2012, JPMorgan Chase in London managed to avoid examination and enforcement by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission simply by labeling their massive speculation in credit default swaps as “portfolio hedging.” It was a loophole big enough for a whale to swim through.

Another loophole made enormous by HR 4413 is the cutoff separating “end users” from “swap dealers.” In the CFTC draft regulations written after Dodd-Frank initiated oversight on the swap business, any market player with more than $100 million in swaps per year was considered a dealer, and subject to stricter oversight and capital requirements.

After the industry complained, the CFTC agreed to delay that stronger oversight for two years and put in a temporary $8 billion cap that was due to drop to $100 million later this year. The bill that passed the House makes that $8 billion cap permanent. Now any firm that wants to do $100 billion in business without regulation has the option to create 13 separate companies.

From the point of view of the people who profit from the lack of regulation, streamlining the lack of oversight is financially sound. After all, real estate values in waterfront Greenwich estates, the Hamptons, and even Park Avenue will likely suffer if bankers and hedge fund managers make less money.

For those who trade in opaque markets, profits are maximized when some participants have information that their customers and competitors don’t have. An open market with published prices and capital reserves would limit profits and return on equity. Complying with regulations and keeping records available for supervisory review costs money. It all cuts into profits.

And if profits get squeezed by an overbearing, overregulating government, how can a valuable part of our capital markets survive? It’s not cheap, after all, to employ the people needed to execute this business that virtually no one understands and that the government doesn’t want to regulate.

Remember when AIG Financial Products blew up? Even though there were traders, accountants, clerks, lawyers and others from Lehman who found themselves jobless, the Treasury Department decided to pay more than a million dollars in bonus payments to each of the valuable AIG employees that had bet so big, and so badly.

Thankfully, the lobbyists hired by the industry have figured out how to keep the business profitable, and how to turn the task of complying with new regulations into a potential new profit center. They helped incorporate a brilliant strategy into HR 4413, and got 265 members of the House to vote for it.

The CFTC will be required to create and publish cost-benefit studies prior to adopting new compliance policies, and those studies will be subject to judicial review. That will take some time. After the CFTC rules go into effect, market participants will be free to argue that the cost estimates were inaccurate. Because the studies are subject to judicial review, the companies being regulated can theoretically get the government to pay them for any additional costs they incur when complying. With a little creative accounting, maybe the swap dealers will turn a profit on compliance departments.

While the delaying tactics written into the bill keep regulation at bay, trading in credit default swaps will continue as it has, with the risks it has, here and abroad. Over half of the hundreds of trillions of dollars in swaps on the books of our banks belong to foreign subsidiaries. A condition of the new bill requires the CFTC and the SEC to certify that derivatives regulations are not already in place in those foreign jurisdictions before they become subject to the new “regulations.” All a bank or hedge fund needs to do is dispute the nature of existing derivatives regulations in their legal places of business overseas, and any oversight can come to a grinding halt while they all work it out. In the meantime, they can enter into lots of credit default swap contracts.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of HR 4413 is hidden in the budget. The congressionally mandated increased workload has no accompanying increase in the commission’s budget. It won’t be easy to run thousands of legal and economic analyses without the people to do it or the money to hire them.

Speaking of people, the bill passed in the House also peculiarly reinvents the org chart. Key regulatory and enforcement personnel currently report directly to the commissioner of the CFTC, but under the new law, those people would instead report to five different members of the commission. Hiring, firing, and departmental budgeting will be decided by all five members together.

Have you ever reported to five bosses at the same time? I did, for about a year, and it’s nearly impossible to get anything done.

By the way, in case you thought our government didn’t have a sense of humor, Congress tells us we can call HR 4413 the “Customer Protection and End User Relief Act.”

Howard Hill is a former investment banker who created a number of groundbreaking deal structures and analytic techniques on Wall Street, and later helped manage a $100 billion portfolio. He writes and blogs at mindonmoney.wordpress.com

Correction: The “hundreds of trillions of dollars” figure cited in the 12th paragraph refers to all swaps, not just credit default swaps as this post originally stated.

Photo: mlmdotcom via Flickr

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