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Well Played, Wall Street!

So the markets are getting skittish and the media is obsessing about the many things that could go wrong out there. It's like 2007 all over again, but with one big difference: Back then the mega-banks were reasonably sure the government would, if necessary, bail them out of their hundreds of trillions of dollars of derivatives liabilities. Otherwise, as they actually did tell a befuddled George W. Bush in 2008, the next day would see martial law declared.

Then, in the wake of the near-evaporation of the global financial system caused by the aforementioned derivatives, Congress passed a law, Dodd-Frank, that required banks to move their derivatives trading to divisions that aren't protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). In other words, no bailouts next time around.

But having to cover their own derivatives losses presents an unfair and unacceptable risk for the banks, so after helping finance the successful campaigns of a slew of new congress-folk in November, Wall Street immediately cashed in its chits, getting that provision of Dodd-Frank stripped out. From Bloomberg:

Wall Street's Win on Swaps Rule Shows Washington Resurgence

Wall Street is re-emerging as a force in Washington as it closes in on one of its biggest wins against regulation since the financial crisis.

With must-pass spending legislation making its way through Congress this week, banks seized on an opportunity to attach a measure that would halt a planned restriction on derivatives trading they had long opposed. The industry's lobbying extended to the highest levels of finance with JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon pressing lawmakers to support the change.

Wall Street's success, after four years of struggling to persuade Congress to ease the Dodd-Frank Act, is a precursor to more fights next year against some of the law's hallmarks: the consumer protection bureau and stiff oversight of big financial companies whose failure could threaten the financial system.

Banks had modest expectations even under the new Republican Congress that will convene in January, a group they presume will be more receptive to their agenda. Their surprising success this week may embolden lenders to seek deeper regulatory changes as Republicans take control of the Senate from Democrats.

The industry's lobbying campaign on the provision gained momentum after a move by the Obama administration itself, which signaled last year that it was willing to bend on the swaps rule, said a person familiar with the bank's campaign who sought anonymity to discuss the effort.

As the negotiations went down to the wire, Dimon picked up the phone and called senators urging their support for the deal, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

Wall Street outspent any other industry on the November election, with employees of securities and investment companies and their political action committees contributing $169 million, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. About two-thirds of the donations went to Republican candidates.

After the record giving on a midterm election, finance-industry lobbyists said they want to make headway on a number of items in the next Congress, including some that Republican lawmakers failed to get in the spending bill. Those provisions will probably be a heavier lift, as Wall Street faces resistance from a broader swath of Democratic lawmakers, the lobbyists said.

Revisions to Dodd-Frank that were excluded this week include prohibiting the SEC from writing tough disclosure rules on stock brokers' conflicts-of-interest, preventing regulators from imposing stringent regulations on large asset managers and barring the SEC from forcing companies to reveal their political contributions, according to a Democratic official with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

Another measure kept out of the spending bill would have given Congress authority over the budget of the consumer bureau, an agency long-opposed by banks that was created to oversee mortgage lending and credit cards, the official said. The regulator is now funded by the Federal Reserve. Handing lawmakers authority over its budget would allow them greater control of the agency.

Next year, the banks' wish list will be even broader. They will be targeting burdensome regulations on lenders deemed "too-big-to-fail" and the Volcker Rule, which bans Wall Street from making market bets with their own money, lobbyists said.

"In terms of opening up Dodd-Frank, I think that train has left the station," said Wayne Abernathy, executive vice president for financial institutions policy at the American Bankers Association. "The problems are piling up and it's becoming embarrassing."

For more on the politics of this issue see Dodd-Frank Budget Fight Proves Democrats Are a Bunch of Stuffed Suits by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi.

In any event, this legislative victory couldn't have come at a better time for the banks because all kinds of risky paper, including energy-company junk bonds and emerging market currencies along with related derivatives, have suddenly turned into losing bets. If the banks had had to wait through another election cycle to hand those risks off to taxpayers it might have been too late.

So congratulations, Wall Street. You've once again demonstrated that when it comes to milking the 99%, you are world-class financial dairy farmers. And don't worry about us taxpayers. We'll cover your 2015 losses by borrowing from our grandkids, and they'll pay you the interest on those loans forever. So when you think about it, you win both ways. Again, nice work and great timing.

 

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