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The Case for Regulation March 25, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in economics, financial crisis.

The New York Times article referenced below makes as succinct a case as possible for regulation of the financial industry. It is a spectacle to watch the anti-regulation forces split into two groups: those begging for the S.S. Bernanke and to toss out a flotation device, and the hard-core who say “Aw, let ’em swim!”

Two months before he resigned as chief executive of Citigroup last year amid nearly $20 billion in write-downs, Charles O. Prince III sat down in Washington with Representative Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Among the topics they discussed were investment vehicles that allowed Citigroup and other banks to keep billions of dollars in potential liabilities off of their balance sheets — and away from the scrutiny of investors and analysts.

“Why aren’t they on your balance sheet?” asked Mr. Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. The congressman recalled that Mr. Prince said doing so would have put Citigroup at a disadvantage with Wall Street investment banks that were more loosely regulated and were allowed to take far greater risks. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Prince confirmed the conversation.)

It was at that moment, Mr. Frank says, that he first realized just how much freedom Wall Street firms had, and how lightly regulated they were in comparison with commercial banks, which have to answer to an alphabet soup of government agencies like the Federal Reserve and the comptroller of the currency.

“Not only did Wall Street have so much freedom, but it gave commercial banks an incentive to try and evade their regulations,” Mr. Frank says. When it came to Wall Street, he says, “we thought we didn’t need regulation.”

In fact, Washington has long followed the financial industry’s lead in supporting deregulation, even as newly minted but little-understood products like derivatives proliferated.


“We have a terribly global world and, over all, financial regulation has not kept up with that,” [JPMorgan CEO Jamie] Dimon said in an interview on Monday, the day after his bank agreed to take over Bear Stearns at a fire-sale price. “I can’t even describe the seriousness of that. I always talk about how bad things can happen that you can’t expect. I didn’t fathom this event.”



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