June 24, 2010

Astonishingly, as Wall Street reform enters its final hours a tired, generic corporate refrain against regulation is gaining traction. As bigwig bankers and their lobbyist brethren fight to defeat tough new rules on derivatives—the crazy casino that brought down AIG—all their sloganeers can come up with is the trite wail that serious rules will send this risky business overseas. It’d be funny if members of Congress weren’t taking it seriously.

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“Oh no—the business will go overseas!” is the last-ditch, we’re-about-to-lose-this-one cry of despair for corporate executives in every industry. Crack down on a profitable abuse in the United States, and the entire business will move to London or Mumbai, sending jobs and tax revenue abroad with it– or so the argument goes. You only hear this line when CEOs know they have no case, and have to divert attention away from the real substance of the policy debate. In the case of Wall Street abuses, this nonsense is especially ridiculous. The bank lobby really just doesn’t have any good arguments to launch in its favor, so it’s falling back on generic corporate jargon.

In reality, the U.S. has extremely broad authority to crack down on derivatives activity abroad, we just don’t have a whole lot of good rules on derivatives for regulators to enforce. It’s extremely difficult for financial institutions to simply offshore their risky derivatives business to avoid oversight. Under current law, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has the authority to regulate any trading done by foreign firms on behalf of U.S. clients, any trading of U.S. assets conducted by foreign institutions and any trading that causes a “substantial disruption” in U.S. markets. Just about anything the CFTC wants to get its hands on, it can, and the current CFTC Chairman, Gary Gensler, is a committed reformer. We just need to write good rules for his agency to enforce.

Moreover, finance tricksters will have no incentive to move their destructive derivatives trading abroad, because the rules in other countries are, in fact, much tougher than those the U.S. is currently considering.


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