In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules

As the financial crisis entered one of its darkest phases in October, a handful of the nation’s largest banks began holding daily telephone sessions. Murmurs were already emanating from Washington about the need for a wide-ranging regulatory overhaul, and Wall Street executives girded for a fight.

Atop the agenda during their calls: how to counter an expected attempt to rein in credit-default swaps and other derivatives — the sophisticated and profitable financial instruments that were intended to limit risk but instead had helped take the economy to the brink of disaster.

The nine biggest participants in the derivatives market — including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Bank of America — created a lobbying organization, the CDS Dealers Consortium, on Nov. 13, a month after five of its members accepted federal bailout money.

To oversee the consortium’s push, lobbying records show, the banks hired a longtime Washington power broker who previously helped fend off derivatives regulation: Edward J. Rosen, a partner at the law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. A confidential memo Mr. Rosen drafted and shared with the Treasury Department and leaders on Capitol Hill has, politicians and market participants say, played a pivotal role in shaping the debate over derivatives regulation.

Today, just as the bankers anticipated, a battle over derivatives has been joined, in what promises to be a replay of a confrontation in Washington that Wall Street won a decade ago. Since then, derivatives trading has become one of the most profitable businesses for the nation’s big banks.

The looming fight over regulation is the beginning of a broader debate over the future of the financial industry. At the center of the argument: What is the right amount of regulation?

Those who favor more regulation say it would offer early warning signals when companies take on too much risk and would help avert catastrophic surprises like the huge derivatives losses at the giant insurer the American International Group, which has so far received more than $170 billion in taxpayer commitments. The banks say too much regulation will stifle financial innovation and economic growth.

The debate about where derivatives will trade speaks to core concerns about the products: transparency and disclosure.

There are two distinct camps in this argument. One camp, which includes legislative leaders, is pushing for trading on an open exchange — much like stocks — where value and structure are visible and easily determined. Another camp, led by the banks, prefers that some of the products be traded in privately managed clearinghouses, with less disclosure.

The Obama administration agrees that more regulation is needed. A proposal unveiled recently by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner won plaudits for trying to make derivatives trading less freewheeling and more accountable — a plan that hinges in part on using clearinghouses for the trades.

Critics in both the financial world and Congress say relying on clearinghouses would be problematic. They also say Mr. Geithner’s plan contains a major loophole, because little disclosure would be required for more complicated derivatives, like the type of customized, credit-default swaps that helped bring down A.I.G. A.I.G. sold insurance related to mortgage securities, essentially making a big bet that those mortgages would not default.

Mr. Rosen and other bank lobbyists have pushed on Capitol Hill to keep so-called customized swaps from being traded more openly. These are contracts written for the specific needs of a customer, whose one-of-a-kind nature makes them very hard to value or trade. Mr. Rosen has also argued that dealers should be able to trade through venues closely affiliated with banks rather than through more independent platforms like exchanges.

Mr. Rosen’s confidential memo, dated Feb. 10 and obtained by The New York Times, recommended that the biggest participants in the derivatives market should continue to be overseen by the Federal Reserve Board. Critics say the Fed has been an overly friendly regulator, which is why big banks favor it.

Mr. Rosen’s proposal for change was similar to the Treasury Department’s recently announced plan to increase oversight. Treasury officials say that their proposal was arrived at independently and that they sought input from dozens of sources.

Even so, market participants, analysts and members of Congress who have proposed stricter reforms worry that the Treasury proposal does not go far enough to close several important regulatory gaps that allowed derivatives to play such a destructive role in the current financial crisis.

But increased transparency of derivatives trades would cut into banks’ profits — hence the banks’ opposition. Customers who trade derivatives would pay less if they knew what the prevailing market prices were.

“The banks want to go back to business as usual — and then some. And they have a lot of audacity now that everyone has bailed them out,” said Yra Harris, an independent commodities trader who was involved in an effort to regulate derivatives nine years ago. “But we have to begin with the premise that Wall Street doesn’t want transparency, because more transparency means less immediate profits.”


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