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A Zillion Banks, One Set of Rules

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Financial Reform
Illustration by Bloomberg View

March 11 (Bloomberg) -- Shortly after the financial crisis spread around the globe like a plague, the world’s leaders developed what they thought would be an antidote.

Working through the Group of 20, they agreed to adopt common rules for all financial companies, no matter where they operated. The global system would be less risky, the thinking went, if derivatives dealing, an opaque $639 trillion market, worked more like stock trading on exchanges. If large banks had more capital, they would be able to absorb losses so taxpayers wouldn’t have to. And if money-market funds and other parts of the shadow banking system were more tightly regulated, there would be fewer hidden risks.

Since that 2008 pact, progress has been made on the road to convergence. One example: Starting on March 11, Wall Street’s largest banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., must process derivatives trades through clearinghouses, an accomplishment of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, itself part of the U.S.’s commitment to convergence. By holding collateral and standing between buyers and sellers, clearinghouses can prevent one participant’s default from infecting all the others. In another step forward, the EU decided in December to create a single bank regulator.

In Reverse

But the dream of convergence remains, well, a dream. Conflicting national and regional laws, regulations and accounting standards have blocked the world from getting on the same page on financial reform. This, in turn, has jeopardized the ability of regulators to work across borders to address the next crisis. Shutting down a large failing bank that, say, loses all its capital because of a trading strategy gone haywire isn’t possible without universal rules for resolving sick banks. Moreover, financial companies will be able to take advantage of regulatory arbitrage -- shifting operations to countries with the loosest rules.

What happened? Let’s take a tour.

In the U.S., regulators have been lobbied to a standstill. They have yet to name a single nonbank financial company or industry as systemically risky, despite the immense size and vital roles played by money-market funds, hedge funds, insurers and nonbank lenders.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is backing away from some of its early positions on derivatives, moves that could have broken the big-bank stranglehold over the swaps business. The agency looks likely to revoke a proposal that would have required large investors to solicit quotes from at least five dealers, as a way to promote pre-trade price transparency.

Regulatory agencies have also stalled over the Volcker rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker. The measure is supposed to limit speculative trading by federally insured banks. For more than a year, five agencies have been debating with large banks and among themselves about where to draw the line between trading and making markets for clients, which the law exempts from the Volcker rule.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties and both chambers want to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, including the requirement that banks move derivatives trading to separate affiliates with their own capital.

Nasty Split

In Europe, the situation is no more auspicious. A nasty split has opened between the Continent and the U.K. The European Parliament and national governments have moved in recent weeks to tax financial transactions and cap bankers’ bonuses. This has (rightly) rubbed the British the wrong way, as their model of finance -- the Anglo-Saxon model -- is less regulated, more centered on trading and pays bigger bonuses than its counterparts in, say, France or Germany.

Another rift is between Europe and the U.S. -- this one over capital requirements. New rules being written in Basel, Switzerland, have been watered down after much bickering. The level is now set at 7 percent of risk-weighted assets, up from 2 percent. Still, it falls short of the 10 percent initially sought by the U.S., and way short of the 20 percent of total assets that some economists and academics recommend. France and Germany led the opposition, seeking to protect the interests of their biggest lenders, which would have needed to raise more capital than foreign competitors, Bloomberg News has reported.

Not only is the global financial system no safer now than it was in 2008, it’s also clear that the project of convergence is badly stalled. Is the world really prepared to let the great convergence turn into the great divergence?

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