Wednesday, September 17, 2008

3 Ways to Fix Wall Street

Robert Kuttner of Mother Jones outlines the 7 deadly sins of financial deregulation and recommends 3 changes to fix the current mess.
Reform One: If it Quacks Like a Bank, Regulate it Like a Bank. Barack Obama said it well in his historic speech on the financial emergency last March 27 in New York. "We need to regulate financial institutions for what they do, not what they are." Increasingly, different kinds of financial firms do the same kinds of things, and they are all capable of infusing toxic products into the nation's financial bloodstream. That's why Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson has had to extend the government's financial safety net to all kinds of large financial firms like A.I.G. that have no technical right to the aid and no regulation to keep them from taking outlandish risks. Going forward, all financial firms that buy and sell products in money markets need the same regulation and examination. That will be the essence of the 2009 version of the Glass-Steagall Act.

Reform Two: Limit Leverage. At the very heart of the financial meltdown was extreme speculation with esoteric financial securities, using astronomical rates of leverage. Commercial banks are limited to something like 10 to one, or less, depending on their conditions. These leverage limits need to be extended to all financial players, as part of the same 2009 banking reform.

Reform Three: Police Conflicts of Interest. The conflicts of interest at the core of bond-raising agencies are only one of the conflicts that have been permitted to pervade financial markets. Bond-rating agencies should probably become public institutions. Other conflicts of interest should be made explicitly illegal. Yes, financial markets keep "innovating." But some innovations are good, and some are abusive subterfuges. And if regulators who actually believe in regulation are empowered to examine all financial institutions, they can issue cease-and-desist orders when they encounter dangerous conflicts.
To that I would add:

4) More stringent and comprehensive asset valuation. Firms like Moody's have a solid share of the blame when it comes to the financials buying riskier-than-thought securities, but once they're on the books few, if any, financials took the time and effort to conduct a thorough valuation of what they'd bought. Part of it is the complexity of the product (think an array of supercomputers chugging away for several hours calculating a probability universe and then spitting out "42"), and part of it was just being cheap and lazy.

As they say, go read the whole thing.

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