Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Dear GOP: Fannie, Freddie Did Not Cause the Financial Crisis

| Wed May 19, 2010 3:12 PM EDT

It's time to put to rest a lingering myth that, all evidence to the contrary, just won't die. On the Senate floor this morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeated, for the umpteenth time among Republicans and conservatives, a pernicious misconception that places most, if not all, of the blame for the financial crisis on the government-sponsored housing corporations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac:

"[The financial reform bill] does nothing—nothing—as I indicated, to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the main protagonists in the financial meltdown. This is absolutely worse than irresponsible; it's the legislative equivalent of wrongful conviction."

Not only is McConnell's basic grasp of storytelling wrong—if Fannie and Freddie are to blame, shouldn't they be the antagonists?—but his understanding of what caused the financial crisis is deeply flawed. Sadly, this misconception is a longstanding meme among Republicans and conservatives. In 2008, then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Fannie and Freddie were "the catalyst for this housing crisis" and thus the spark that ignited the broader economic meltdown. House Majority Leader John Boehner has said, "How you can attempt to fix [the financial system] without going to the root of the problem, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is really beyond me." And a roster of conservative pundits has played the Fannie-Freddie blame game so many times it's hard to keep track.

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Doubt Surrounds Finance Bill Passage

| Wed May 19, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

After nearly two weeks of cruising through financial reform and passing amendments that have noticeably improved the bill, Senate Democrats now face an 11th-hour scare on their Wall Street overhaul. A clutch of Democrats, including Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND), have signaled that they may not vote for the Senate's reform bill. And with complete GOP opposition practically guaranteed, that means the fate of financial reform is a lot less assured than it was earlier this week.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday and today that he wanted a final vote on financial reform as early as this afternoon or tomorrow, in effect cutting off debate on additional amendments. Reid's charge, however, has left some Democrats feeling burned.

Dorgan, for instance, wants a vote on his amendment to ban a particularly risky type of financial trading called naked short selling. That's when a trader bets that a stock or bond will fall in price without having any skin in the game—no cash or securities in hand to pay out in case the bet goes bad. Experts say naked short selling is particularly pernicious because it artificially drives down stock or bond prices, and distorts markets. (Matt Taibbi wrote a good—and highly entertaining—piece on this.) Dorgan has an amendment pending that would ban naked short selling, something Germany has temporarily done. But earlier today it didn't look like Dorgan would get a vote on his amendment, and in response, he's saying he might not vote for the full bill when the time comes. Whitehouse is pulling the same move over an amendment of his that would cap credit card interest rates and that has yet to be voted on.

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) are also pushing hard to get a vote on their amendment, which would ban big banks from "proprietary trading," that is, trading for their own benefit instead of for clients'. Cutting out prop trading, as it's called, would eliminate the kinds of conflicts of interest seen in big investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Goldman in particular has taken criticism for selling mortgage-linked products to clients the firm itself was betting against. The Merkley-Levin amendment would further block banks from sponsoring hedge or private equity funds, and set caps on banks' growth.

It's unclear whether Levin or Merkley would vote against the full bill if their amendment isn't voted on. Reuters reported today that a back-door compromise had been reached on the amendment, which means it could ultimately see the light of day—and give Democrats the boost they need to reach 60 votes (or more) when they vote on the full financial bill.

Dodd's Death Blow to Swaps Spin-off

| Wed May 19, 2010 10:44 AM EDT

[UPDATE]: Talking Points Memo is reporting that Dodd intends to drop his death-by-study amendment on spinning off big banks' swaps desk. TPM quotes a couple of anonymous Senate Democratic aides who say the Connecticut senator plans to ditch the amendment after taking a lot of heat from the financial sector, liberal lawmakers, and especially the proposal's author, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) quietly sought to end yesterday one of the most contentious battles in the Senate's Wall Street overhaul: how to reform derivatives, the complex financial products that can be used safely—to hedge risk and protect against swings in the market—or to make risky gambles on swings in financial markets. A proposal from Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who's emerged as a derivatives reform crusader, would've forced big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup to cut out their lucrative, highly profitable "swaps" trading desks and make them separate subsidiaries. The logic behind Lincoln's proposal is that banks engaging in risky swaps trading shouldn't have access to federal (i.e., taxpayer) support when needed, and that if they want to retain access to those funds, they need to cut loose their swaps desks. Lincoln's proposals have been vehemently contested by Wall Street, and opposed even by the White House and respected outsiders like Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman.

Just before Tuesday's deadline for submitting amendments, Dodd, a top Democratic senator on financial reform, filed one that he presumably thought would appease everyone. To his credit, the Lincoln swaps desk language will remain. But here's the catch: The rule will be "studied" for two years before any action. As I've written before, calling for a study is essentially committing a rule to a slow, prolonged death. It's a tactic straight out of the GOP playbook in this year's financial reform battle when they wanted to kill a part of the bill without blatantly doing so.

From the looks of it, few people—except Dodd himself—are happy with the swaps-desk study. Lobbyists for the financial industry said the uncertainty created by the study amendment would "introduce a comic amount of uncertainty." In a statement to the Washington Post, Lincoln said, "I remain fully committed to my provision and will fight efforts to weaken it." But with time for debate in the Senate just about over—Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to vote on the bill in the next day or two—it looks like Dodd's study amendment, despite Lincoln's avowed opposition, will most likely end up in the Senate's reform bill.

JPMorgan Breaks Silence on MTR

| Tue May 18, 2010 1:41 PM EDT

For the first time, megabank JPMorgan Chase publicly announced its position on financing companies that engage in mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining, a particularly destructive—to nearby water sources, wildlife, and communities—practice that involves the demolition of mountain summits. As I've previously reported, JPMorgan has financed close to 20 deals worth $8.5 trillion for companies that engage in MTR mining. For that, various environmental groups have blasted the bank for not cutting off financing for these companies, and for refusing to make public its policy on MTR.

When I was reporting my story, JPMorgan declined multiple requests to interview James Fuschetti, managing director of the bank's Office of Environmental Affairs. Then, when the article came out, Fuschetti emailed me to say his office had no record of my requests and that my story "would have substantially benefitted" had I spoken to someone at JPMorgan. When I emailed Fuschetti back to say I'd asked several times (a fact his office did indeed have a record of), I said I'd be happy to speak with someone at the bank and update my story. Again, the request was turned down.

Now, with its 2009 Corporate Responsibility Report (pdf), JPMorgan has finally opened up about its MTR policy. The bank says in November 2008 its environmental affairs office began an "in-depth and comprehensive examination" of MTR and its impact on Appalachia. And starting in early 2009, the report says JPMorgan's environmental and social risk management team has been reviewing all deals involving companies engaged in MTR. As new state and federal regulations on MTR are developed, the bank says it will "continue to follow the actions" of those regulators to stay in line with the latest MTR rules.

Environmental groups praised JPMorgan for its first public MTR disclosure. Rainforest Action Network, which has consistently pressured the bank to completely phase out all MTR-related financing, called the statement "a welcome step forward." RAN tempered that praise, though, by saying JPMorgan needed to get tougher on MTR companies by cutting them off altogether. "If JPMorgan wants to lead instead of follow on environmental responsibility," the group said in a statement, "the way forward is a complete phase-out of mountaintop removal coal financing."

Brownback's Twisted Auto Logic

| Tue May 18, 2010 10:41 AM EDT

Last week, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) went head to head on financial reform with the biggest US bureaucracy of them all, the US military—and, it turns out, used some dubious facts in doing so. On May 14, Brownback wrote to an undersecretary of defense, Clifford Stanley, with questions about exempting auto dealers from oversight by a proposed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a centerpiece of the financial regulatory reform being debated in Congress. The letter pitted Brownback against one of the biggest opponents of this auto dealer loophole—the US military. As Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer has reported, soldiers are frequently targeted by predatory and unscrupulous car salesmen, and are duped into buying overpriced cars on unfair terms. The military wants auto dealers to fall under the bureau's oversight, and has lobbied just as hard to kill a dealer loophole as dealer organizations, such as the National Auto Dealers Association, have lobbied to preserve it.

Here's where it gets messy with Brownback. In his letter to Stanley, Brownback mentioned a recent news article as evidence of why new dealer regulation was a bad idea:

CNN Money on May 13 reported that "Raj Date, executive director of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, agreed that the additional [CFPA] regulation might cause some dealers to stop arranging loans."

Today, a presumably pissed-off Date sent a letter to the DOD's Stanley, pointing out that Brownback had seriously twisted his position to fit an existing agenda. Here's how Date's comments appeared in full in the article:

Raj Date, executive director of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy, agreed that the additional regulation might cause some dealers to stop arranging loans. "There will be some dealers who say 'If I have to play by an honest set [of] rules, then I can't be in this business anymore,'" Date said. "I'm not going to shed any tears for these dealers."

Date goes on to write in the letter, "It is my strong opinion that only those auto dealers that cannot play by honest rules would exit the business." Which should be the objective of any tough consumer protections, right? If you can't play by the rules, then get out. A request for comment by Mother Jones from Sen. Brownback's office wasn't immediately returned.

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