The Onion recently joked that Wall Street is just about ready to ruin the world again. But what is truly terrifying about this headline is how accurate it is. Wall Street has been busy trying to con US regulators into gutting the very reforms meant to prevent a future crisis. What is at stake in this fight is nothing less than future bailouts. And one regulator—Mark Wetjen—will ultimately decide whether or not to endanger Main Street for the benefit of Wall Street.
Following the financial crisis, Congress took pains to ensure that any derivatives trades that could impact the country should adhere to US financial reform rules. This is crucial to prevent history from repeating itself: many of the firms bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 were US firms operating overseas. The most infamous of these was AIG, a company of 116,000 brought to its knees by the trades made by its 377-person office in London. The toxic derivatives done out of the London-based AIG Financial Products unit led to a $182 taxpayer bailout.
To prevent a bailout like AIG from happening again, Congress created new rules to bring more transparency to the derivatives markets. But Wall Street hates transparency, as it encourages competition, pushing profits down. Rather than compete in the new, safer environment, Wall Street wants to do what it has always done—move their riskiest trading to the parts of the world with the most lax rules.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is the regulator tasked with deciding precisely which trades must obey the new US rules. The specifics are hashed out in what is called “cross-border guidance”. And there is debate within the agency over just how much leeway Wall Street will get in obeying US rules.
The CFTC’s chairman, Gary Gensler, has fought for strong cross-border guidance, arguing that without it, “all of these common-sense reforms Congress mandated…could be undone.” Commissioner Chilton appears to be on Gensler’s side. Two Republican Commissioners, on the other hand, want to punt: they recommend delaying finalizing the guidance, which also happens to be exactly what Wall Street is advocating. They are likely hoping to run out the clock until a new commissioner with less zeal than Gensler is appointed.
Commissioner Mark Wetjen is the tie-breaking vote.
In a recent speech, Commissioner Wetjen insisted the CFTC’s final rules “must protect U.S. taxpayers and the U.S. financial system.” But he also expressed concern that the CFTC “avoid creating needless and arbitrary advantages for certain markets.”
In his latter remarks, Wetjen is implying that forcing firms whose trades affect the United States to obey our rules would create advantages for firms that do not do business with the United States in any way. There are two problems with this argument. The first is that any financial firm of substance has a presence in the United States. The second is that it is difficult to see how firms operating in countries with insufficient safeguards are at an advantage. When the United States lacked strong regulations in the lead-up to the crisis, we paid for it dearly: Better Markets estimates the cost of the crisis at over $12.8 trillion. A loss of that size would devastate any market.
In the same speech, Commissioner Wetjen says that “regulators here and abroad must do what they can to avoid incentivizing complex corporate structures.” The commissioner is right—and the best way to avoid complex corporate structures is to ensure that if financial firms want to play in US markets, they play by US rules. Failing to finalize the kind of strong cross-border guidance that Commissioner Gensler has proposed will lead to the very situation Wetjen fears. As Gensler pointed out, “Lehman Brothers had 3,300 legal entities here and abroad when it failed.” Had strong cross-border rules been in place prior to the crisis, Lehman would not have had an incentive to spread their risk across so many different international entities. But the most discouraging part came at the end of Wetjen’s speech, when he recommended “interim final guidance” instead of simply finalizing the guidance, a term Chairman Gensler decoded: “It means delay. And I think we’ve had a year to do this.”
The CFTC will vote on cross-border this week, and the pressures are mounting. A group of eight senators sent a letter last week urging the CFTC to finalize cross-border guidance without loopholes. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said, “It would be a real mistake for commissioners to think they can run out the clock and just hold tight until Gary Gensler’s term expires” and that she will be “watching this process very closely.” And when Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer of New York predictably trotted out the Wall Street talking points on this issue and called for a delay, The New York Times issued a scathing rebuttal of their arguments. Let’s not forget that listening to Senator Schumer is a great way to run ourselves off a cliff. When voting for Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the bill that killed Glass-Steagall, Schumer claimed, “If we don’t pass this bill, we could find London or Frankfurt or years down the road Shanghai becoming the financial capital of the world.” Bowing down to the gods of “international competitiveness” at any cost ushered in the 2008 crisis. Is Commissioner Wetjen ready to take us over the edge again?
This fight is Commissioner Wetjen’s to lose. Does he want to be remembered like Brooksley Born, the former CFTC chairman who fought hard against the dangers of unregulated derivatives, and whose warnings were vindicated when the system came crashing down? Or does he want to be remembered as a Rob Rubin, who sowed the seeds of our financial destruction in order to secure a lucrative future career? Unfortunately for us, there is far more than Wetjen’s own legacy at stake. Let us hope he makes his choice with all of us in mind.