The push for reform seemed to get off to a promising start. In the House, the charge was led by Rep. Barney Frank, the outspoken chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who emerged during last year's Bush bailouts as a sharp-tongued critic of Wall Street. Back when Obama was still a senator, he and Frank even worked together to introduce a populist bill targeting executive compensation. Last spring, with the economy shattered, Frank began to hold hearings on a host of reforms, crafted with significant input from the White House, that initially contained some very good elements. There were measures to curb abusive credit-card lending, prevent banks from charging excessive fees, force publicly traded firms to conduct meaningful risk assessment and allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation. There were even measures to crack down on risky derivatives and to bar firms like AIG from picking their own regulators.
Then the committee went to work — and the loopholes started to appear.
The most notable of these came in the proposal to regulate derivatives like credit-default swaps. Even Gary Gensler, the former Goldmanite whom Obama put in charge of commodities regulation, was pushing to make these normally obscure investments more transparent, enabling regulators and investors to identify speculative bubbles sooner. But in August, a month after Gensler came out in favor of reform, Geithner slapped him down by issuing a 115-page paper called "Improvements to Regulation of Over-the-Counter Derivatives Markets" that called for a series of exemptions for "end users" — i.e., almost all of the clients who buy derivatives from banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Even more stunning, Frank's bill included a blanket exception to the rules for currency swaps traded on foreign exchanges — the very instruments that had triggered the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown in the late 1990s.
White House economic adviser Larry Summers also voiced aggravation with Wall Street on Sunday. "Here is what I think they don't get…It was their irresponsible risk-taking in many cases that brought the economy to collapse," Mr. Summers, who chairs the National Economic Council, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"And they don't get in some cases that they wouldn't be where they are today, and they certainly would not be paying the bonuses they are paying today, if their government hadn't taken extraordinary actions."
"For them to be complaining about serious regulation directed at making sure this never happens again is wrong. For $300 million to be spent on lobbyists trying to gut serious efforts at financial reform is not how this country should be operating," Mr. Summers said. "For firms that have benefited from taxpayer support to be complaining about the government burdening them is, frankly, a bit rich."
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