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Historic Financial Reform Moving Through Congress

It’s complicated, but there’s a lot in there for you

 Wall Street

— Christopher Anderson/Magnum

  • Derivatives. Both bills require derivatives—complex instruments that bet on the future of underlying assets—to be traded and insured through so-called third-party clearinghouses. The intent is to increase transparency for such trades, which contributed so significantly to the mortgage meltdown. But the Senate bill goes further by making it more difficult for companies to be exempt from the new rules. There’s also a Senate bill provision, sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., that could force big banks to spin off their derivatives trading operations.

The House bill doesn’t have this provision. The Fed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Treasury, as well as the banking industry, have argued against Lincoln’s amendment, and it faces a tough fight.

  • The Volcker rule. The Senate bill instructs regulators to study how best to force banks out of trading for their own accounts—so-called proprietary trading—and make them sell their interests in hedge funds and private equity firms. It would also bar any financial institution from acquiring other firms that effectively allow them to grow larger than 10 percent of U.S. financial liabilities.

The House bill was completed in December before Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman, offered up his proposal to keep banks from proprietary trades. So none of that language appears in the House bill. However, the House measure does create a financial stability oversight council that can break up a financial institution if it threatens the larger system and would create a $150 billion fund, financed by big financial companies, to unwind failed firms in an orderly way. The intent is to prevent taxpayers from having to pay the tab.

  • Fiduciary rules. Consumer advocates, as well as AARP, had hoped to get the Senate bill to tighten regulations for broker-dealers who give investment advice, so that they would have an obligation, just as financial planners do, to tell you about products which best suit your investment goals. Such restrictions appear in the House bill. The language never got to the Senate floor, but advocates are hoping the conference might add it anyway. As it stands, the Senate bill directs the SEC to study the differences between fiduciary standards for investment advisers and broker dealers and make recommendations.

Michael Zielenziger writes on the economy for the
AARP Bulletin. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

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