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Financial regulation reform faces stiff opposition

Senate panel approves third controversial piece of overhaul package. Obama to make his case in New York on Thursday.

April 22, 2010|Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington —

As President Obama heads to New York City on Thursday to press for a major overhaul of financial rules, he faces stiff opposition by Wall Street to the toughest proposed regulatory crackdown since the Great Depression.

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved the final piece of the sweeping legislation — strict new oversight of the murky and unregulated market for complex financial derivatives. It is one of three significant provisions that rile Wall Street the most.

Also drawing fire from large financial firms and business groups is a proposed agency to protect consumers in the financial marketplace and a $50-billion fund, paid for in advance by the industry, to help cover the government's costs should it need to seize and dismantle a large financial firm because its impending failure would threaten the economy.

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its piece of the overhaul as the White House and Democratic allies prepared for a crucial vote within days to bring the entire reform package up for debate in the full Senate. The House passed similar legislation in December.

Obama is trying to ratchet up public support for reining in Wall Street as financial firms recover much more quickly from the deep recession than rest of the country. But reflecting optimism on Capitol Hill about a bipartisan deal, the president toned down his anti-Wall Street rhetoric Wednesday.

"We have to have a thriving financial sector," Obama said on a CNBC interview. "But we also have to have basic rules of the road in place to make sure investors, consumers, shareholders, the economy as a whole are protected against excess."

Still, Wall Street is battling aggressively against the legislation. Here's a look at the three key areas of dispute.

Tough derivatives oversight

Derivatives get their name because they derive their value from something else, such as interest rates, currency exchange rates, mortgages or the price of corn or oil.

Credit default swaps and other derivatives are complex business contracts that typically serve as insurance against future market conditions. An airline concerned that jet fuel prices would rise or a bank worried about an increase in interest rates could buy derivatives to protect against those events.

But derivatives also can be used to bet on the performance of assets or markets, and that's where the abuses took place that nearly crashed the world economy. Supporters of tough new regulations say those deals amounted to high-stakes gambling in a murky market that functioned like a huge unregulated financial casino.

Derivatives were an emerging business tool in 2000 when Congress enacted legislation that largely exempted them from federal oversight. As the housing market inflated, the use of derivatives boomed, from about $95 trillion in 2000 to $600 trillion last year.

When the housing bubble popped, the derivatives market tied to mortgages crashed with it. Among Wall Street's battered firms was American International Group Inc., which received a bailout because it could not cover billions of dollars' worth of credit default swaps it had written as insurance for investments tied to mortgages.

Regulators were largely unaware of the widespread exposure to the derivatives market by AIG and other firms. Although some derivatives are voluntarily traded on public exchanges, most are not, leaving prices and the volume of deals in the dark.

"We must bring transparency and accountability to these markets," Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said shortly before her panel voted 13-8 to approve new derivatives regulations. The Agriculture Committee has oversight because derivatives play a large role in farming.

The overhaul legislation would require about 90% of derivatives to be traded on regulated exchanges and be approved by central clearinghouses. Those processes would ensure there was enough money backing up the deals and provide details about the contracts and their prices that make it harder to defraud investors.

But major Wall Street firms and businesses said the proposed restrictions, which contain only narrow exemptions, are too tough and would simply increase the price of derivatives, with the costs passed to consumers. The rules also could drive derivatives business to countries with less regulation.

Major banks, such as Goldman Sachs Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., have huge derivatives businesses and would be big losers if the new regulations took effect. The Senate proposal would require banks to spin off their derivatives businesses to subsidiaries.

Those firms and others involved in the derivatives market are pushing to ease the new restrictions, as are many Republicans. But Obama said last week he would veto the overhaul if it did not include tough regulation of derivatives.

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