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On Wednesday evening, the House passed a bipartisan bill that would allow US banks to avoid new financial regulations by operating overseas. But financial reformers are seizing on a silver lining: most Democrats voted against the bill—something one financial reformer calls a "miracle"—signaling a tougher-than-expected road ahead for similar efforts to scale back new rules on banks that crashed the economy a few years ago, and making the bill's passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate less likely.
"In our defeatist, Eeyore sort of way, we won today," says Bart Naylor, a financial policy advocate at the consumer group Public Citizen.
"I'm pretty psyched about [the vote]," says Marcus Stanley, policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, a group of national and state organizations that advocate for Main Street-friendly financial rules. "A majority of Democrats voted against a pro-Wall Street bill… even though it was co-sponsored by Democrats… that was heavily lobbied by Wall Street and everyone had predicted would win by a landslide."
The bill in question, the clunkily titled Swap Jurisdiction Certainty Act, was introduced earlier this year by Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Mike Conaway (R-Tex.), John Carney (D-Del.), and David Scott (D-Ga.). It would exempt foreign arms of US banks from the new regulations on derivatives (which are financial products with values derived from from underlying variables, such as crop prices or interest rates) that are required by the Dodd-Frank Act, the big post-crisis Wall Street reform law.
When Garrett introduced the bill, he described it as an effort to stem government overreach, saying, "Our job creators—millions being crushed by overly burdensome Washington rules and regulations—deserve to be on a fair, level playing field with the international community." But financial reformers say the legislation would just encourage banks to move risky activities to their less regulated overseas subsidiaries. And since the derivatives market is global, if, for example, JPMorgan Chase's London office made some bad bets, the trading loss would immediately poison JPMorgan's US-based offices, and the broader US economy could come tumbling down again.
The House financial services committee passed the bill a few weeks ago, with just 11 Democrats and no Republicans on the 61-member committee voting against it. But Wall Street reformers and their allies in Congress, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), rallied the troops, and changed some minds. On Wednesday, 122 out of 195 Democrats voted against the bill, while only 2 Republicans voted against. It passed 301 to 124.
This is a "huge comeback for Maxine Waters," and financial reformers, says Jeff Connaughton, former investment banker, lobbyist, and author of The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. Past moves to weaken financial regulation have often had strong bipartisan support. But it's now clear that "there is a large constituency in Congress who want to defend financial reform efforts," Stanley says. The fact that most of the Democratic caucus was willing to buck Wall Street's wishes and oppose this bill could help stiffen the spines of regulators, reformers argue. The vote "sends an important message that people are just not going to roll over for Wall Street trying to gut this stuff," Stanley adds.
Reformers hope that Democratic disapproval of this bill could imperil other attacks on rules governing US banks' foreign operations. Wall Street is currently lobbying regulators to weaken their rules governing how Dodd-Frank regulations would apply to US banks overseas (yes, the very rules Garrett's bill would gut); some worry that the financial industry is also trying to roll back regulations on foreign operations through a giant free trade deal now being negotiated; and Europe, too, is calling US regulators' proposed overseas rules too aggressive.
If US banks overseas are allowed to run wild and unregulated, they will concentrate business in less-regulated foreign markets, Naylor says. That's bad news: Almost every major financial scandal involving derivatives has involved trades conducted through a foreign entity. Sooner or later, Naylor says, "Either a spreadsheet error or a rogue trader will bring down an investment firm. American taxpayers then face the Hobson's Choice of… bailing out the bank…or watching [the] destruction."