Posts Tagged ‘Securities and Exchange Commission’

JP Morgan Chase’s $2 Billion Loss Under Investigation

Monday, May 21st, 2012

As the Department of Justice and the FBI open their investigation into how JP Morgan Chase lost $2 billion, the government is investigating to determine if any criminal wrongdoing occurred.  The inquiry is in the preliminary stages.  Additionally, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), which regulates derivatives trading, are also looking into JPMorgan’s trading activities.  JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said that the bank made “egregious” mistakes and that the losses tied to synthetic credit securities were “self-inflicted.”

The probe is perceived as necessary, given the ongoing debate about bank regulation and reform, and one expert said it raised the level of concern around what happened.  “The FBI looks for evidence of crimes and goes after people who it alleges are criminals.  They want to send people to jail.  The SEC pursues all sorts of wrongdoing, imposes fines and is half as scary as the FBI,” said Erik Gordon, a professor in the law and business schools at the University of Michigan.

According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the trading loss “helps make the case” for tougher rules on financial institutions, as regulators implement the Dodd-Frank law aimed at reining in Wall Street.  Geithner said the Federal Reserve, the SEC and the Obama administration are “going to take a very careful look” at the JPMorgan incident as they implement new regulations like the “Volcker Rule,” which bans banks from making bets with customers’ money.  “The Fed and the SEC and the other regulators — and we’ll be part of this process — are going to take a very careful look at this incident and make sure that we review the implications of what that means for the design of these remaining rules,” Geithner said.  Under review will be “not just the Volker Rule, which is important in this context, but the broader set of safeguards and reforms,” Geithner said, noting that regulators will also scrutinize capital requirements, limits on leverage and derivatives markets reforms.  “I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to make sure those come out as tough and effective as they need to be,” Geithner said.  “And I think this episode helps make the case, frankly.”

Geithner said that Dodd-Frank wasn’t intended “to prevent the unpreventable in terms of mistakes in judgment, but to make sure when those mistakes happen — and they’re inevitable — that they’re modest enough in size, and the system as a whole can handle them.”  The loss “points out how important it is that these reforms are strong enough and effective enough,” he said.

With the passage of Dodd-Frank, banks are required to hold more capital, reduce their leverage and assure better cushions across the financial system to accommodate losses.  Geithner’s comments are similar to those made by other White House officials, who have avoided blasting the bank for its bad judgment, and instead used the event to bolster the case for the financial overhaul.

“We are aware of the matter and are looking into it,” a Justice Department official said “This is a preliminary look at what if anything might have taken place.”  The inquiry by the FBI’s financial crimes squad is in a “preliminary infancy stage,” the official said, and federal law enforcement agents are pursuing the matter “because of the company and the dollar amounts involved here.”

JPMorgan’s and the financial system’s ability to survive a loss that large showed that reforms put in place after the 2008 financial crisis have succeeded.  Nevertheless, the loss by the nation’s largest bank highlights the need for tough implementation of the Volcker Rule on proprietary trading and other rules that regulators are still finalizing.  “The whole point was, even if you’re smart, you can make mistakes, and since these banks are insured backed up by taxpayers, we don’t want you taking risks where eventually we might end up having to bail you out again, because we’ve done that, been there, didn’t like it,” according to President Obama.

Mark A. Calabria, Director of Financial Regulation Studies for the Cato Institute, takes a contrarian view.  Writing in the Huffington Post, Calabria says that “Unsurprisingly, President Obama and others have used the recent $2 billion loss by JPMorgan Chase as a call for more regulation. Obviously, our existing regulations have worked so well that more can only be better!  What the president and his allies miss is that recent events at JPMorgan illustrate how the system should — and does — work.  The losses at JPMorgan were borne not by the American taxpayer, but by JPMorgan.  The losses also appear to have been offset by gains so that in the last quarter JPMorgan still turned a profit.  This is the way the system should work.  Those who take the risk, take the loss (or gain).  It is a far better alignment of incentives than allowing Washington to gamble trillions, leaving someone else holding the bag.  The losses at JPMorgan have also resulted in the quick dismissal of the responsible employees.  Show me the list of regulators who lost their jobs, despite the massive regulatory failures that occurred before and during the crisis.

According to Calabria, “President Obama has warned that ‘you could have a bank that isn’t as strong, isn’t as profitable making those same bets and we might have had to step in.’  Had to step in?  What the recent JPMorgan losses actually prove is that a major investment bank can take billions of losses, and the financial system continues to function even without an injection of taxpayer dollars.  It is no accident that many of those now advocating more regulation are the same people who advocated the bailouts.  Banks need to be allowed to take losses.  The president also sets up a ridiculous standard of error-free financial markets.  All human institutions, including banks and even the White House, are characterized by error and mistake.  Zero mistakes is an unattainable goal in any system in which human beings are involved.  What we need is not a system free of errors, but one that is robust enough to withstand them.  And the truth is that the more small errors we have, the fewer big errors we will have.  I am far more concerned over long periods of calm and profit than I am with periods of loss.  The recent JPMorgan losses remind market participants that risk is omnipresent.  It encourages due diligence on the part of investors and other market participants, something that was sorely lacking before the crisis.”

A New Chapter for Iconic Empire State Building

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The landmark 102-story Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan could raise as much as $1 billion in a share sale and become a real estate investment trust (REIT), if the company that controls that iconic structure if its plans pan out.  According to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Empire State Realty Trust, Inc., intends to list the shares on the New York Stock Exchange.  The firm, Malkin Holdings, LLC, will consolidate a group of closely held companies to form the REIT as part of the IPO, according to a separate filing.

Malkin, supervisor of the company the holds the title to the tower, said that it had “embarked on a course of action” that could result in the Empire State Building becoming part of a new REIT.  Malkin Holdings supervises property-owning partnerships led by Peter and Anthony Malkin, and owns the 2.9 million-square-foot Empire State Building in conjunction with the estate of Leona Helmsley.  Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. will advise on the IPO.  The price and number of shares were not disclosed in the filing.

The proposed IPO would give investors a rare opportunity to own a piece of one of the world’s most famous buildings as New York’s real estate values rebound after the recession.  Midtown Manhattan office property prices have recovered 87 percent of their value since bottoming out in mid-2009, according to Green Street Advisors Inc., a REIT research firm.

The REIT would consolidate Manhattan and New York area properties owned by companies including Empire State Building Associates LLC, 60 East 42nd St. Associates LLC and 250 West 57th St. Associates LLC. Participants can opt to receive cash instead of shares for as much as 15 percent of the value.

Since gaining control of the building 10 years ago, Malkin has invested tens of millions of dollars to improve the office spaces and cut the cost of heating and maintaining the 81-year-old structure.  That helped attract tenants such as social networking site LinkedIn.  According to the SEC filing, Malkin said that upgrading the building still requires additional investment of between $55 million and $65 million over the next four years.

As with many recent tech and internet IPOs, the company plans to have two classes of stock — class A shares that are sold to the public and worth one vote, as well as class B shares with 50 votes each.  The structure leaves the Malkin family with significant control.  The proceeds will pay existing stakeholders in the buildings who chose to take cash in exchange for their interests, and to repay debt.  The REIT will list itself on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “ESB.”

The Malkins realize that leasing in New York is “highly competitive,” and faces new rivals in the skyline, primarily the One World Trade Center, which will have a broadcast antenna and observation deck that could attract tenants away from the Empire State Building.

At 1,250 feet and 102 floors, the art deco-style building is one of New York City’s most recognizable tourist destinations, enjoying its second stint as the city’s tallest building.  It was the world’s tallest building from its 1931 opening until 1974, when the 442-meter Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) was completed in Chicago.

The building played a starring role in several movies, most notably “King Kong,” “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Gordon Gekko Changes His Mind, Says Greed Is Bad

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Actor Michael Douglas is playing a new and rather surprising role as spokesman for the FBI to fight corruption on Wall Street.  The actor – famous for his line “greed is good” in the 1987 film “Wall Street” – is sending a new message in a public service announcement, explaining that insider trading is a serious crime.  “The movie was fiction, but the problem is real. To report insider trading, contact your local FBI office,” Douglas says in the spot.

“In the movie ‘Wall Street,’ I played Gordon Gekko, a greedy corporate executive who cheated to profit while innocent investors lost their savings,” according to Douglas.  “The movie was fiction, but the problem is real.  Our economy is increasingly dependent on the success and integrity of the financial markets.  If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is,” he concludes.  The one-minute commercial opens with Douglas as he looked in 1987 and in the Gekko character famously addressing a fictional shareholders meeting in the movie, before the clip cuts to the grey and older actor who is now working for federal law enforcement.

Douglas’ new role is part of the FBI’s “Perfect Hedge” operation, which has successfully prosecuted 57 individuals in the last five years for insider trading, and is targeting 120 more suspects.  The commercial is part of the ongoing effort, and will feature segments of actual FBI wiretaps from successful prosecutions.

So far, the new video — which is being shown on CNBC and Bloomberg Television — is part of the government’s broader initiative aimed at drawing cooperating witnesses and tipsters from Wall Street.  Previously, insider trading was not one of the FBI’s areas of focus, so potential informants might not have known where to turn, according to the accepted wisdom.  Now that the crime is a top priority for securities investigators, the video is part reminder, part plea for those who have seen something illegal to come forward and provide information.  Additionally, the video is an effort to raise the FBI’s public profile.  As David A. Chaves, a supervisor and special agent, said, “It’s important for us to have the FBI brand out on Wall Street.  He’s talking about himself as Gordon Gekko and the role that he played and how that was fiction and this is not but about real crime on Wall Street.”

Several government agencies are investigating illegal behavior on Wall Street, from the FBI to the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators.  To build their cases, investigators use uncompromising tactics once reserved for organized crime and terrorism cases, such as wiretaps and well-placed cooperators.  The FBI’s attitude is who could be a better spokesman against insider trading than the man who played Gordon Gekko, who came to personify Wall Street crime in both the 1980s and in the recent financial crisis with the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”  “The more people out there aware of the problem, the more opportunities we have to get tips,” said Richard T. Jacobs, a FBI supervisory special agent, who helped bring a major insider trading case which resulted in the conviction of a billionaire hedge fund manager.

The campaign also is targeting embezzlements by stockbrokers and Ponzi schemes — which have surged since the financial collapse of 2008.  Since then, securities and commodities fraud investigations have risen 52 percent, from 1,210 inquiries to 1,846 last year, the FBI said.

According to FBI spokesman Bill Carter, the spot will be distributed to 15 cities — Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and New Haven, CT – all of which have seen an increase of fraud cases or evidence of potential trouble.

Surprisingly, Douglas was “startled over the positive response he received as Gordon Gekko,” Chaves said.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with Wall Street but I would be approached all the time, people would ‘high-five’ me or shake my hand for being this terrible man who stole people’s money.  Where are the values?  What are people thinking when I’m held like a hero in that role?  The culture has to change.”

Attorney General Eric Holder affirmed that the Justice Department is committed to rooting out corporate crime.  “From securities, bank and investment, to mortgage, consumer and health-care fraud, we’ve found that these schemes are as diverse as the imaginations of those who perpetrate them, and as sophisticated as modern technology will permit,” Holder said.

CFTC Gives Tentative Green Light to Volcker Rule

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

The federal Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed limiting banks’  proprietary trading and hedge fund investments under the Dodd-Frank Act’s Volcker rule. The CFTC  3-2 vote makes it the last of five regulators to seek public comment on the proposal. This vote opens the measure to 60 days of public comment.  The rule, named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, was included in Dodd-Frank to rein in risky trading at banks that benefit from federal deposit insurance and Fed discount window borrowing privileges.

The CFTC stayed mum when the Fed, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Securities and Exchange Commission and Office of Comptroller of the Currency released their joint proposal last year. The four agencies extended the comment period on their proposal until February 13 after financial-industry groups and lawmakers cited the complexity of the rule and the lack of coordination with the CFTC in requesting an extension.

The CFTC may soften Dodd-Frank a bit, granting Wall Street banks exceptions to rules requiring dealers to sensibly believe their derivatives are suitable for clients and in the best interests of endowments and other so-called special entities.  The rules “implement requirements for swap dealers and major swap participants to deal fairly with customers, provide balanced communications, and disclose material risks, conflicts of interest and material incentives before entering into a swap,” CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler said.

Opponents say the CFTC proposal would cause “severe market disruption” by transforming the relationship between swap dealers and clients such as pensions and municipalities, according to Sifma and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, Inc.. Under the final rule, dealers must disclose material risks and daily mid-market values of contracts to their clients. The CFTC may also complete rules designed to protect swap traders’ collateral that is used to reduce risk in trades. The rule insulates the collateral if the broker defaults, while allowing the customer funds to be pooled before a bankruptcy, according to a CFTC summary of the regulation.

Commissioner Scott O’Malia voted in favor or the rule, but said he did not want to give market participants “a misleading sense of comfort” that it would have prevented the loss of customer money at the brokerage giant.  “This rulemaking does not address MF Global,” O’Malia said. “This rulemaking would not have prevented a shortfall in the customer funds of the ranchers and farmers that transact daily in the futures market. Nor would it have expedited the transfer of positions and collateral belonging to such customers in the event of a collapse similar to that of MF Global.”

Commissioner Jill Sommers, who voted against the rule, criticized the rule for doing nothing to protect a futures commission merchant’s futures customers.  “Given recent events, we need to re-think this approach so we can provide adequate protections, in a comprehensive and coherent way, to swaps customers and to futures customers,” Sommers said. “I do not favor a piecemeal approach to customer protection.”

Is the Timing Right for a Facebook IPO?

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Facebook is contemplating the idea raising about $10 billion in an IPO that would value the predominant social-networking website at more than $100 billion.  At $10 billion, the offering would raise significantly more money than any other technology IPO, and Facebook expects investors to be eager to buy into the social-networking company.  The IPO would overshadow that of the previous record holder, Infineon Technologies AG, which generated $5.23 billion in its 1999 debut.  Agere Systems Inc., which raised $4.14 billion in 2000, currently occupies second place.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 27-year-old founder and CEO, will undoubtedly be rewarded by the website’s rise.  A valuation of $100 billion will further increase Zuckerberg’s net worth which had earlier been estimated at $17 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

Facebook expects federal regulators to call for the firm to disclose its financial results by April 30, 2012 — if it doesn’t go public sooner.  Facebook chose to wait until next year to launch its IPO to give CEO Mark Zuckerberg extra time to add users and increase sales.  Facebook, which has a staggering 800 million users, is also increasing its focus on mobile technology, aiming to leverage the shift to smart phones and tablets.  The firm expects its next billion users to connect primarily via mobile devices, rather than desktop computers.

Zuckerberg noted that an IPO isn’t something he has spent “a lot of time on a day-to-day basis thinking about.  We’ve made this implicit promise to our investors and to our employees that by compensating them with equity and by giving them equity, that at some point we’re going to make that equity worth something publicly and in a liquid way.  Now, the promise isn’t that we’re going to do it on any kind of short-term time horizon.  The promise is that we’re going to build this company so that it’s great over the long term.  And that we’re always making these decisions for the long term, but at some point we’ll do that.

Writing in the New York Times’ “Deal Book” column, Steven M. Davidoff isn’t certain that this is the correct time for a Facebook IPO.  “Facebook is in a corner.  Another Internet hotshot, Groupon, is trading below its offering price, and the market for internet initial public offerings over all appears to be deflating.  The European sovereign debt crisis isn’t helping the market gloom.  The coming months are shaping up to be a bad time to undertake an IPO.  Still, Facebook will almost certainly have to go public during this time whether it wants to or not — and whether or not it can get a valuation of $100 billion or more in doing so.  And it’s partly Facebook’s fault — it just has too many shareholders.  Securities regulation requires a United States company with 500 or more shareholders of record to begin filing reports, including audited financial information, with the Securities and Exchange Commission four months after the year it exceeds this threshold.  Facebook most likely exceeded 500 shareholders this year.  By the end of April 2012, it will become subject to this heightened regulation and have to disclose a spate of confidential business information.”

What does the prospect of an IPO mean to potential investors? TechCrunch writer Josh Constine wasn’t optimistic in a post bluntly titled “Why Greedy Stockholders and a $100 Billion IPO Could Hurt Facebook.” Constine says that if Facebook becomes subject to the desire of its stockholders, the site will innovate less by making profit a higher priority than user experience.  For example, more ads are likely to pop up on users’ pages.  “Outside stockholders could detract from Facebook’s vision and momentum,” he wrote.  “They could push for faster returns, and pressure the company to display more ads, turn mobile into a direct revenue stream, and play it safe with product.  This might produce short-term gains, but could hamper what CEO Mark Zuckerberg has built into a core communications utility for the world.”

Potential Facebook IPO Could Value Company at $100 Billion

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Facebook is likely to file for an initial public offering (IPO) as early as October or November that could value the popular social networking site at more than a whopping $100 billion.   Goldman Sachs is the top candidate to manage the lucrative offering, which could come in the 1st quarter of 2012.  Facebook, whose chief operating officer last month called an IPO “inevitable,” made no comment on the report.

The company’s IPO likely would probably be prompted by a section of the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act known as “the 500 rule” At heart, the rule mandates that once a private company has more than 500 investors, it must release quarterly financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission, just as public companies do.  Facebook, which is likely to cross the 500-investor threshold this year, would probably launch a formal IPO in advance of a public-company reporting obligation that would be required next April.  Another factor motivating the IPO, according to people familiar with the plans, is Facebook’s wish to increase employee compensation.  Early in 2010, Facebook curbed employees’ ability to sell their company shares privately to other investors — a move that may now be prompting employees to quit Facebook so they can monetize their shares.  If the company goes public, however, employees will be able to sell their stock on the open market, allowing them to cash in on their holdings.

“Unable to sell their private shares, Facebook employees are growing restless,” according to Kate Kelly at CNBC.   “An initial public offering is expected.  A factor in the company’s IPO timing is the Securities and Exchange Commission’s requirement that some companies like Facebook must disclose financial information if they have more than 500 private investors.”  The IPO speculation and record high valuation is comes on the heels of recent numbers showing declining user-ship in some of Facebook’s leading markets.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Shira Ovide says that “Facebook is on track to exceed $2 billion in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization for 2011.  That’s even higher than the expected 2011 profit circulated in the early part of the year when Goldman Sachs and Russian investment house Digital Sky Technologies invested in Facebook at a $50 billion valuation.  If Facebook ends the year with $2 billion in Ebitda, would IPO investors stomach a 50 times trailing multiple valuation?  Seems bubble-like.  Trust us.  Wall Street bankers, lawyers, P.R. mavens, caterers and everyone else are slobbering for a slice of the Facebook IPO magic.  Facebook has been meeting with potential bankers that want to shepherd the IPO.  Goldman Sachs is thought to have an inside track to lead the IPO thanks to its recent investment in Facebook, but don’t count out big banks such as J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley, which have led recent big tech IPOs.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been non-committal about an IPO for a long time.  As recently as December, Zuckerberg gave his weird deer-in-headlights stare when ’60 Minutes’ asked him whether he would ever push his baby into the public markets.  ‘Maybe’ was Zuckerberg’s answer.  But momentum is taking over.”

Not so fast, says Fortune magazine’s Dan Primack. According to Primack, “Pay attention to news that Facebook is planning its IPO.  But take its proposed valuation with a grain of salt.  First, the most recent private trades of Facebook stock came in at around $85 billion, and private trades are meant to be done at a discount to public valuations.  LinkedIn shares, for example, traded at $23 per share on the private markets six months before going public at $45 per share.  At that velocity, Facebook actually would be valued at $165 billion next January.  More importantly, it’s impossible to intelligently speculate on an Internet company valuation 6-10 months out.  Will the bubble still be inflating?  Will it have popped?  Will macro trends have continued their anemic recovery, or double-dipped back down?  Facebook is probably immune to the timing issues related to IPO windows, but it does not stand apart from the economy at large.  If we experience a massive advertising pullback, for example, then Facebook could take a hit in its largest revenue pot (or at least a growth slowdown).  Not saying that will happen, but obviously it could.  To me, the only value in today’s ‘$100 billion’ report is in referring back to it when the company has an actual public valuation.”

House Republicans Want to Water Down Dodd-Frank Financial Reforms

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Republican congressmen searching for sizeable spending cuts are targeting Wall Street’s regulators over a plan to slash millions from the budgets of several vital agencies. They are setting their sights on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).  The workload of both agencies is expected to increase significantly as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law is implemented. House Republicans want to slash the CFTC’s funding by $56.8 million – nearly 33 percent of the agency’s entire budget — over the next seven months.  The SEC’s funding would be cut by $25 million over the same time.

CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler said he would have no option but to reduce his staff from 680 to fewer than 440 if the cuts are approved.  “We’d have to have significant curtailment of our staff and resources,” Gensler said.  “We would not be able to police…or ensure transparent markets in futures or swaps.”  Under Dodd-Frank, the CFTC regulates the multi-trillion dollar derivatives market that includes over-the-counter products called credit default swaps.  The story is similar at the SEC, which is working to augment its enforcement of Dodd-Frank.  “It (budget cuts) will have a very real effect on the SEC’s ability, not just with respect to Dodd-Frank implementation, but also with respect to our core mission,” SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro said in testimony before Congress.

Leading the charge in Congress is Representative Randy Neugebauer, chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. One of Neugebauer’s top priorities is assuring that regulators are not “overreaching” and moving too quickly with their new authorities under Dodd-Frank.  Neugebauer expressed concern about whether regulators are adequately performing cost-benefit analyses on every rule in Dodd-Frank, a process required under federal rule-making procedures.  He expects to call SEC Chairman Schapiro and CFTC Chairman Gensler back to testify about the issue, especially since he believes that Gensler gave him “vague” responses about cost-benefit analyses on derivatives rules.  Neugebauer said another of his major priorities will be to rein in the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an entity created under Dodd-Frank.  The Texas congressman wants to move the bureau to the Treasury Department and out of the Federal Reserve’s control.

Another congressional Republican makes this point.  “When the House and Senate passed the Dodd-Frank Act, supporters continually purported that small financial institutions, like many I represent, were exempt,” Representative Shelley Moore Capito, (R-WV) said.  “As the provisions of Dodd-Frank are going through the rule making process, I am starting to hear concerns from small institutions about the unintended consequences that could adversely affect them.”

One point of contention with the Republicans is the orderly liquidation provision that authorizes regulators to seize large financial institutions that are about to fail and dismantle them in a way that is less disruptive than either taxpayer bailouts or bankruptcy.

“People are saying we won’t have the guts” to invoke orderly liquidation, acknowledged Democratic Representative Barney Frank, (D-MA), who co-sponsored the legislation with now-retired Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT).  “Well, we had the guts with regard to the TARP to get the money back.  We got it back,” he said, referencing the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that bailed out Wall Street firms and which has been largely repaid.  “I don’t have any question that we’re going to go through with it,” Frank said.

Dodd-Frank Bill Collides Head On With Deficit Realities

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Implementation of the historic Dodd-Frank bill – which President Barack Obama signed into law last July to regulate Wall Street against the excesses that led to the Great Recession — is in danger of being gutted if Republicans’ proposed deep spending cuts become a reality.  Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) pointedly criticized Republicans’ proposal to slash government spending to 2008 levels. According to Frank, that is not an option because the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) need funding to hire hundreds of employees to write and issue regulations to give the new law teeth.  Frank co-sponsored the bill with former Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT).

Unfortunately, the positive things that Dodd-Frank was designed to accomplish have run head on into the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) bleak warning about the direction of the nation’s debt.  According to NPR  Planet Money correspondent David Welna, “It was not a pretty picture that CBO director Douglas Elmendorf painted as he sat before the budget committee”. This year’s deficit, he said, will be nearly $1.5 trillion dollars, nominally the largest in history.  And if the tax breaks that got extended this year continue throughout the next decade, Elmendorf said the nation’s debt would grow to be the size of its economy, something that hasn’t happened since the end of World War II.  The time to do something about it, he told the grim-faced panel of senators, is now.”

Elmendorf warned that “The longer the necessary adjustments are delayed, the greater will be the negative consequences of the mounting debt, the more uncertain individuals and businesses will be about the future government policies, and the more drastic the ultimate policy changes will need to be.”  Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said “The thing that makes the most sense is there is a summit between the White House, leaders in the House and the Senate, because at the end of the day, the White House has got to be at the table. And unfortunately, during the budget process, the president is left out.”  NPR’s Welna continues, “The revenue side of the equation, of course, is taxes and raising them has been a taboo topic for most in the GOP.  But the likely need for more revenues was underscored toward the end of today’s hearing when Conrad noted that the Social Security surplus that lawmakers have been raiding for years disappeared this year and instead, Social Security has started cashing in its IOUs with the Treasury.”  Social Security will post nearly $600 billion in deficits over the next 10 years as the economy recovers and millions of baby boomers begin retiring, according to new congressional projections.

House Republicans, led by Representative Scott Garrett (R-NJ), chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government-Sponsored Enterprises, wants to cut $55 to $60 billion in non-defense spending during fiscal year 2011.  “A dramatic spending increase to fund the SEC and CFTC, as envisioned by the authors of the Dodd-Frank legislation, would further the mindset that our nation’s problems can be solved with more spending, not more efficiency,” according to Garrett.  Frank countered that Garrett’s comments only reinforce his “fear that Republicans are attempting to cripple regulation by failing to fund it.  I had thought even among people in the Tea Party that credit default swaps were not that popular.  We’re arguing the security of the average American was far more endangered by the financial crisis than by a lot of other things that our military does.”

If the cuts are put into place, the SEC and CFTC would be frustrated in their mandates, such as setting up a new office of municipal securities, according to Frank.  The Republican response to Democratic concerns is that their goal is to make federal regulators more efficient.  Representative Spencer Bachus (R-AL), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said “Past experience indicates that a few investigative reporters have been more effective than the many employees at the SEC in addressing and exposing financial wrongdoing.”

Financial Reform Forces Transformation on Alternative Investments

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Wall Street reform law places new restrictions on alternative investment companies.  The alternative investment management business will undergo major changes, thanks to passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Although no specific rules have yet been written, the Wall Street reform law could impact investment returns, leverage and risk-taking, innovation and transparency of private equity, real estate and hedge fund managers.

“This will change the way alternative investment businesses are run.  They will have to use more capital and less leverage and less risk-taking,” said Henry Kahn, partner in the law firm Hogan Lovells.  “This fundamentally changes what types of businesses financial services are in.”  The large financial services firms now must choose which lines of alternatives business they will keep and how they will be set up.  Smaller firms might have to deal with Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) registration for the first time.  This will give the world – and regulators – an inside look at their investment strategies, which they do not welcome.

Investors are concerned that increased transparency and greater oversight by the SEC will make investment managers less willing to be innovative because their proprietary strategies will be open to review by regulators and their competitors.  According to Kahn, “Some large institutional clients are concerned that regulations will put additional costs on medium-size advisers and inhibit beneficial innovation in investing.”

Financial Reform Legislation Faces Uphill Battle in the Senate

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

The most sweeping financial reform legislation since the 1930s will be debated in a polarized Senate.  Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, introduced revised legislation to regulate the nation’s financial system.  The plan would create a nine-member council, led by the Treasury secretary, to be on the alert for systemic risks, and direct the Federal Reserve to oversee the nation’s largest and most interconnected financial institutions.

The bill, which would be the most comprehensive change in financial rules since the Depression, would preserve much of the existing regulatory system, which has been criticized as being too disjointed.  Additionally, it would rely on a new mechanism for seizing and liquidating large financial companies on the verge of failure.  This would reduce, but not eliminate, the possibility of future bailouts.

The legislation incorporates a version of the Volcker Rule, a proposal from former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker that would make certain that legislators ban banks from investing in or owning hedge and private-equity funds.  Republicans and Wall Street strongly object to that idea.  Dodd’s legislation takes a fairly tough line with financial firms in general.  The proposed consumer protection agency would be given the authority to write and enforce rules for banks with more than $10 billion in assets.  The oversight also would apply to mortgage companies, credit card issues and other lenders – a move that Republicans oppose.

“Our regulatory structure, constructed in a piecemeal fashion over many decades, remains hopelessly inadequate,” Dodd, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of this term, said.  “There hasn’t been financial reform on the scale that I’m proposing this afternoon since the 1930s….  It is certainly time to act.”