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[Washington Babylon]

An Object Lesson in Governmental Failure: Derivatives reform

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If you want to understand why Congress seems completely incapable of checking the power of Wall Street, look back to a hearing on the Hill last October 7, and the subsequent events surrounding it. On that day, the House Financial Services Committee hosted a panel on reform of the market for derivatives, the financial instrument which played such a notable role in the country’s economic meltdown.

Everyone rational knows that there is an enormous need to seriously reform the derivatives market, but the committee, headed by Congressman Barney Frank (D-Wall Street), invited a panel of eight guests who were distinguished by their uniformly pro-industry positions. They included Jon Hixson of Cargill, James Hill of Morgan Stanley (on behalf of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association), Stuart Kaswell of the Managed Funds Association (which, through one of its lobbyists, has delivered significant “bundled” donations to Frank) and Christopher Ferreri of the Wholesale Markets Brokers Association.

In response to complaints from Americans for Financial Reform, which represents hundreds of consumer groups and labor unions, the committee issued an invitation – the night before the hearing was held — to Rob Johnson of the Roosevelt Institute. For the committee, the last minute inclusion of Johnson — a former managing director at Bankers Trust Company and former economist at the Senate Banking Committee and Senate Budget Committee — apparently constituted sufficient balance.

Predictably, witnesses at the hearing trotted out positions urging caution in regard to the matter of reform. Derivatives and other exotic financial devices have reaped the finance industry vast profits, but for Hixson of Cargill the common man and woman would be the real losers if Congress were to act too severely. “We offer customized hedges to help bakeries manage price volatility of their flour so that their retail prices for baked goods can be as stable as possible for consumers and grocery stores,” he told the committee’s wagging heads. “We offer customized hedges to help a restaurant chain maintain stable prices on their chicken so that the company can offer consistent prices and value for their retail customers when selling chicken sandwiches.”

Johnson, who came last, offered the only serious critical viewpoint, saying that the American public had been “quite demoralized by…the bailouts that we experienced last fall.” After about five minutes of his testimony, Congresswoman Melissa Bean – another industry-funded committee member who chaired the hearing because Frank was absent – had heard enough. “I’m just going to ask you to wrap up because we’re running out of time,” she told Johnson.

Johnson gamely continued. “When I hear the testimony today that are largely financial institutions and end users, I believe that I represent a third group that comes to the table, which is the taxpayers, the working people of the United States,” he said.

“I do need a final comment,” Bean interjected seconds later.

That put an end to Johnson’s testimony. “I was just called to this hearing last night, so I will provide detailed comments on your bill and a statement for the record that will finish my comments,” he concluded.

About five days later Johnson submitted his full testimony to the committee, to be included on its website along with the statements of the other eight panelists. When it wasn’t posted, Johnson asked Lynn Parramore, editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s blog, to see what was up. Parramore emailed and spoke to staffers at the Financial Services Committee, and received a number of explanations for why Johnson’s testimony had not been posted: first she was told it hadn’t been received, then that it had to be submitted as a PDF, then that the committee was having IT problems. “I couldn’t decide whether it was incompetence or mischief, but I began to suspect the latter,” Parramore told me.

Finally, she was informed that the committee’s general counsel would not allow posting of the testimony because Johnson had not submitted it during the hearing. (Of course, since Johnson had been invited at the last minute it was impossible for him to fulfill this pointless requirement.) So you still can’t read Johnson’s prepared testimony at the committee website, but you can check it out on the Roosevelt Institute’s blog.

Meanwhile, Frank’s committee has put forth its “reform” bill. “Too tepid, too weak, too late,” Johnson says of the legislation. “Very industry influenced. We had a crisis and they are pandering to the perpetrators.”

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