The Last Hold Out: Senator Blanche Lincoln Against 13 Bankers

By Simon Johnson

By now you have probably realized – correctly – that “financial reform” has turned into a victory lap for Wall Street.

When they saved the big banks, with massive unconditional support (both explicit and implicit) over a year ago, top administration officials promised they would be back later to fix the underlying problems.  This they – and Congress – manifestly have failed to do.

Our banking structure remains unchanged, the rules will be tweaked at the margins, and the incentive and belief system that lies behind reckless risk-taking has only become more dangerous.  (The back story, if you can still stomach it, is in 13 Bankers).

There is only one small chance for any sensible progress remaining – and you are about to see this crushed in conference by the supporters of unfettered big banks.

Senator Blanche Lincoln’s proposal with regard to derivatives has much to commend it.  A fiduciary duty for swaps dealers vis-à-vis customers would be entirely appropriate – in fact long overdue.

Real time price reporting should also help regulators at least begin to understand what is driving market dynamics, for example around the May 6 “flash crash” – a point that Senator Ted Kaufman has also been making most forcefully.

Legal authority against market manipulation would be greatly strengthened and there would be more protection for whistleblowers.   And the kind of transaction that Goldman entered into with Greece – a swap transaction with the goal of reducing measured debt levels, effectively deceiving current and future investors, would become more clearly illegal.  All of this is entirely reasonable and responsible – and completely opposed by the most powerful people on Wall Street.

Of course, most of the anti-Lincoln fire has been directed against the idea that “swaps desks” would be “pushed out” to subsidiaries – i.e., the big broker-dealers could still engage in these transactions, but they would need to hold a great deal more capital against their exposures, thus making the activities significantly less profitable. 

It is striking that while Treasury argues that increasing capital is the way to go with regard to financial reform, they are adamantly opposed to what would amount to more reasonable capital levels at the heart of the derivatives business.

This is beyond disappointing.

No doubt the administration feels good about what it has “achieved” on financial reform.  The public aura of mutual congratulation will last for about three weeks.

But outside of the inner White House-Capitol Hill bubble, it is very hard to find anyone well-informed about the financial system who thinks that anything substantial has changed or that risks will be better managed as we head into the next cycle.

“Business as usual” is the abiding legacy of the Obama administration with regard to the systemic risks posed by this financial system.  Treasury and White House let us down repeatedly and completely in the last 18 months on financial sector issues – just as they did (as decision-making bodies and as some of the same individuals) at the end of the 1990s.

At one point in early 1998, Larry Summers called Brooksley Born – the last person who really tried to rein in the dangers posed by derivatives (and it was a much lower level of danger then compared with now).  Summers reportedly said, “I have thirteen bankers in my office, and they say if you go forward with this you will cause the worst financial crisis since World War II.”

We now seem to have come full circle to exactly the same people saying exactly the same things – no doubt top people in the administration are now calling Senator Lincoln and impressing upon her a version of the same point made by Summers to Born.

The 13 bankers have won, completely.  Here we go again.

56 thoughts on “The Last Hold Out: Senator Blanche Lincoln Against 13 Bankers

  1. If there are other candidates who are stronger on bank and finance reform (Kaufman, Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, Carl Levin, Maria Cantwell) I won’t be voting for President Obama in 2012. If he is going to handle the most crucial issue for our country in a superficial way I have no time for the man anymore.

    I’m finished with this administration. Excuse time is over.

  2. This answers the question about how empires crumble… the powerful elite convince “the public” that their lecherous ways are good for everyone. It will work for awhile, until the the music stops, and the ’13 bankers’ all scramble to sit in a chair, only to find they are all gone. unfortunately, their demise is ours as well….

  3. Lincoln is running ads bashing the bankers. Conveniently, her runoff happens the DAY BEFORE FinReg is supposed to be reported out of conference. If she wins, she can simply backpedal. If she loses, oh well.

  4. Yes. Thanks for your hard work Simon.

    It has been strange and awful, paying such close attention to all this over the past two or three years.

  5. It would be wonderful to see Brooskley Born come out in support of Senator Lincoln and expose the players and events one more time. Greenspan has been shown to be a misguided player. Couldn’t she expose Summers as well?

    If the derivative reform does not go through, Obama’s fate is sealed. We can begin calling him Mr. “O” Jangles. He is only dancing to the tune of Wall Street. He will not survive. Sites like this will continue to expose the folly that has been perpetuated.

    No more lobbyists. – What an absolute joke.

  6. I guess this isn’t the stuff of a million-person gathering in Washington, but that is what is sorely needed right now.

  7. The Center for Advancement of the Steady State Economy is working to have a sustainable alternative ready when global economy crashes. I read about it a few days ago in a comment on this blog, and you can, too, at

  8. “O” Jangles is a bit racist. How about OBush, or Bush III?

    I’d like to unseat Obama, too, but who would we vote for? I don’t fancy Rand Paul.

  9. Dear Prof. Johnson,

    In your book « 13 Bankers » (I posted a book review of mine in my blog) you notice that in the long term the most effective constraint on the financial sector is public opinion. How should be the public opinion encouraged and supported? What is to be done ? Which means and resources do we need ? Can you supply some arguments please ?

    @ James Kwak : James, did you get my interview request per email ? Thanks.

  10. “The 13 bankers have won, completely.”

    Does that mean you’ll finally pack up your ill-informed nonsense and go home? 

  11. Ditto. Thank you for being the chronicler for this disaster of mankind. Yes, the people will be in the streets and not just in NY.

  12. Our government be it an economic, financial, or industrial disaster has responded along the following lines

    “We will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again”

    In reality nothing happens, and every time another disaster happens we find the regulators are filled with people from the industry they are meant to regulate, and both parties have taken gobs of cash from corporations

    The crash of ’29 nobody prosecuted and jailed although congress did pass strong legislation

    Savings and loans – Neil Bush fined $50,000, cost to taxpayer $1.3 billion

    Iran contra – most of the players pardoned by BUSH senior

    NIXON – Pardoned by FORD

    Buffalo Creek Flood – 125 people killed, 1000 injured, 4000+ homeless – Toothless investigation. The governor of Virginia settled for 1 MILLION DOLLARS

    Martin County Sludge Disaster – MASSEY fined $5,000 and later that year gave $100,000 to the NATIONAL REPUBLICAN Committee

    Sago Mine Disaster – 13 Killed. Bush filled Regulation Agency with people from ENERGY INDUSTRY

    Upper Big Branch Mine – 29 dead – So far no criminal prosecution

    07/08 Financial Meltdown – Nobody prosecuted. Financial Reform toothless and does not protect the people

  13. So what do we do now Elmer, strike the tent here in Zenith and take this show on the road?

  14. Simon,
    I think your next book should be “39 Corporations”. (I don’t know the exact # of corporations but there are a small number that have the same kind of pull that the 13 banks do – and the 39 includes the banks.)

    The BP disaster resonates with people more right now because it can’t be papered over with $2T of Fed money. Regulatory capture and political influence that makes that possible is no limited to banks. We see it time and time again:

    Big Tobacco
    Big Pharma
    Big Ag
    Big Banks
    Big Oil
    . . .

    We have a Principal-Agent problem here. Our representative, who are suppose to be the Agents of the American people are compromised by crony capitalism.

  15. Do you seriously think another administration – such as the previous one or a future Republican one – would have done any better? hasty and incomplete as this ‘reform’ is, at least it’s a start. Look at what happened with the health-care realignment.

  16. Simon, You were too kind to John Hockenberry this morning, not that you got much air time to really get into the issues. Pity John wasn’t at the Sloan event yesterday to get the fuller picture.

  17. Finally ready to conclude that elections, Congressional committees and the like are just an utter waste of time? If you’re not, trust me, senility is consciousness in comparison. Mass demonstrations and the general strike fix this situation and nothing else, period.

  18. Well played, sir, well played….But all in all, this is the saddest story I have ever heard.

  19. Sorry,…but everything that’s gone down in Washington DC was foretold by “13 Bankers” at its inception. Nothing new here – other than the fact that Simon, and James wrote about the very facts, and events chronologically unfolding in real time with realistic ( sad,and shameful when one breaks bread with the devil?) maturity to date. They (S&J) tried – in all earnest too put a face of urgency on the crisis, putting themselves between a rock, and a hard place, refusing too capituate, even knowing (falling on deaf ears) it was hopelessly sad. Our Government, is on the very precipice of financial collapse,period! We have sealed our fate by cowardly ceding controll too congress our lives, our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives. Lifetime politician’s – bought, and paid for by K-Street lobbyist our part of the problem, but as we all know – congress is a revolving door for most,ie.)”Rags to Riches” politicians venturing into the private {congress(switch out congress for mom or dad) knows best?} sector? The truth is – the country (USA) has not dodged a depression or a more severe recession by no means – don’t believe Washington’s hype ,and phoney data numbers. I predict regrettably that because of “Gross-Negligence”,(leadership) we actually hurried our ensuing failure by not acting prudently when we had the chance. Why? Simply by “Not” letting the fulcrum restore its intrinsic equilibrium too righting itself, thus making the critical, but necessary structurally imbedded mechanism weighted too common functionality, allowing free market stabilization, working symbiotic within the lucid framework of de-regulation. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its a duck! It’s that simple, period. Europe, by the way, will do its best to distance itself from our (USA) financial framework, and do just the opposite, making it the best of best when it comes to regulatory reform. It will fashion itself as a living, breathing European Community that will work responsibly,and realistically, learning from America’s dreaded mistakes soon to follow. PS. Thankyou Simon ,and James ,and never stop the, “Good Digging for Americ’a Sake!”

  20. As I see it, there are at least three separate issues involving derivatives in the legislation

    1. Central clearing and/or exchange trading of derivative products that are currently traded OTC.

    2. Elimination of proprietary trading desks within the banks.

    3. Splitting swap desks off from banks.

    The first change is clearly positive. It will reduce counterparty risk, increase pricing transparency, and give regulators a clear view of position sizes for all market participants. The only exempt parties would be the end users that use the derivatives for their “intended” purpose such as airlines hedging fuel costs. There are already several clearinghouse systems being proposed, at least two of which (ICE and CME) are already clearing credit default swaps between banks; customer trades will also be cleared in the near future.

    Given the political climate, the second change was inevitable but will be difficult to implement. After all, the fundamental purpose of banks is to invest in risky assets; the degree of risk would be better addressed by capital requirements rather than blanket restrictions about what kind of investments a bank can or cannot make. Is there any difference between owning a passthrough RMBS and writing a mortgage loan held to maturity? (hint: there isn’t).

    Assuming clearing/exchange trading is implemented, there is little to be gained by moving swap dealer desks out of the banks. Prof. Johnson’s assertion that “A fiduciary duty for swaps dealers vis-à-vis customers would be entirely appropriate” seems to confuse agent/principal transactions. If you call a broker and tell him to buy 100 (or 1 million) shares of IBM, he tries to buy them for you at the best possible price either on the NYSE or any number of electronic venues. He gets paid a commission and has an incentive to get you the best price so you’ll do business with him again. If I call a swap dealer and want to buy credit protection on IBM, I know that he is the one selling to me. In other words, he is betting against me; his only incentive to give me a reasonable price is that if he doesn’t, I will trade with someone who does. This difference between ‘broker’ and ‘dealer’ is fundamental to the markets and is not unfair; the customer knows beforehand that the dealer is betting against him, at least in the short term. In reality, the dealer hopes to buy protection at a lower price from another customer who wants to sell. He earns the bid/ask spread for providing liquidity to both buyers and sellers. If the dealer is passing the risk through to his own prop desk, there is a potential conflict of interest, but this problem would be largely eliminated if prop trading at banks is eliminated or curtailed. If market-making desks are moved out of the banks, you will have end users (airlines etc.) facing counterparties that are less well capitalized so that default risk is higher even than under the current system.

  21. Ted K’s making baby steps toward sanity and you want to call him back into the asylum? Egad, girl, give the man a chance. He correctly sees that this administration is unwilling to guide meaningful change and has begun to cast about for alternatives. His biggest hurdle – and this may take time because treatment for this malady is painstaking – will be coming to grips with the fact that the whole system is irreformable, that no candidate running for office within it will ever bring change since they all, to a man, have made Faustian bargains with lobbyists in order to get there in the first place. Yes, Tessa, that’s the realization the moronically credulous out there need to reach if democracy is ever to be returned to the United States. And the first sign of health: A conviction that elections, and presidential or congressional investigations are pure bull hockey, that the only hope resides in strikes and demonstrations.

  22. Timing is everything. And due to the timing of Lincoln’s sudden “I am for reigning in Wall Street excesses”…well, I think it’s pretty obvious this is no more than a political ploy to win her primary. From David Dayden, writer at FDL:

    • When Lincoln announced her derivatives title, she was working on a weaker one with Saxby Chambliss. Asked to defend it in a Democratic caucus, she couldn’t, and had to be bailed out by Maria Cantwell.

    • When Cantwell discovered a loophole in the title that de-fangs the whole thing by offering no penalty for enforcement or illegality for uncleared swaps, Lincoln said nothing and didn’t back up Cantwell, who voted against cloture.

    • While the whole world continues to say that the most controversial part of the title, the spin-off of swaps trading desks away from the big banks, will surely be excised, Lincoln stands mute and merely touts that which will never become law.

    • Chris Dodd offered an amendment to kill the trading desk piece the night of Lincoln’s primary election, then pulled it back when it became clear she would face a runoff. The conference committee where the trading desk piece is now most likely to be killed, with Lincoln in the room, starts THE DAY AFTER HER RUNOFF ELECTION.

    There aren’t even any lines to read between. The entire derivatives title is a fake. Lincoln has already made that clear by her actions.”

  23. Cezmi, you’re completely right. Simon Johnson has to keep up his great work. But only the well-educated read these blogs. And it is
    incredible how badly informed the American public is. The MSM is in the hands of big business, the small papers are dying, so where can the average American get information which is not Government propaganda, right-wing radio nonsense or superficial infotainment on TV?

  24. I recently viewed “13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown” video lecture over at MIT World. “The Cycle of Doom” looks remarkably like Lenore Walker’s Cycle of Abuse.

    Q: Why do we stay in such a toxic relationship?

    A very good analogy.

  25. Sure there is… the government will handle it precisely as well as they manage everything else

  26. Re: @ Barbyrah____Lincoln, going on 12 years she is? Cantwell going on 10 years? But get this – Cantwell is a carpetbagger, and was admonished (campaign finance) by the senate for? PS. Feinstein from Calif. was admonished also for her role on defense (leakage) contracts? Pelosi’s husband lives off gov’t (glass ceiling, phooey!) contracts. Gender means nothing today,…? Oh, how could I forget Boxer, and her? There all crooks,period!

  27. I find little in the Senate Bill to commend it. The carve-outs have essentially left nothing but sops to the American public. To be effective the bill should have contained provisions for the reintroduction of Glass-Steagall, a ban on off-balance-sheet accounting and a plan to wind up Freddie and Fannie over the next 10 years or so. The bill contains none of these essential elements so we are destined to repeat the bail-outs starting with Freddie who will shortly be approaching Congress for a further $8B.

  28. Banning naked swaps/ shorts is required.. Anyone who does not have a stake in the pie should not be able to sell it short.. The right place for naked swaps/ shorts is vegas.. Naked sales is a mere bet and it should be moved to vegas casinos and should not be traded..

  29. While her intent is sound, the end result would be even less Treasury control over the business as bankers moved their trading operations, the billions in revenue, and the hundreds of millions in payroll and profits out of the country. Better to maintain a local relationship with the bankers and have at least some window into their actions. Bloomberg is terrified of what this bill could do to the New York City economy, and their long term status as the center if world finance.

  30. Tessa, they could have completely revamped Fannie and Freddie, both big packagers of illiquid dubprime mortgages, and this bill doesn’t even touch them. Secondly, the privacy rights citizens lose in this bill piy the Patriot Act to shame. This bill adds few controls for banks that had nothing to do with the meltdown while actually giving the biggest banks a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Worst, it reduces the dollars banks have available to lend. A bad bill all around.

  31. Yeah, but the unspoken truth is that the man before him was the Republican Jimmy Carter. Peanuts had his 18% interest rates, but Bushie had his California energy crisis, $4.50 gasoline and a bungled war. 43 bankrupted every company he ever worked for (including the Texas Rangers) and he did it to us, too.

  32. Re: @ Dave C____ Yea,Bloomberg should be nervous he just spent over $100 million getting re-elected. He’s,…oh so fond of “Term-Limits”, as long as his name remains on the ballot via infinity? Granted the NYFR, and Banks carry alot of dough, but why not let them die a slow death by a thousand cuts? Ironically, it will be their very hand that inflicts the final coup de`grace, for it was they that created HFT’s, and their “Shadow (Swaps/Prop.Trades) Banking Industry”! So go, and don’t let the door hit ya on the way out – move offshore. It doesnt get any better than this – the Europeans will tax-em too the gill’s, and the Chinese will rob-em blind. Maybe they can lend some of their money to small business, creating more off-shore jobs, as a sign of good-will? I doubt the Europeans, or Chinese will let them deduct the exemption (never mind bury it off-balnace?) from EBITA. Note: The Chinese will be easy to bribe – caveat emptor.

  33. Many posters on this site over the past few months argued that real financial reform would not occur–a plurality of reasons were offered–and that Johnson and the rest of the reformists were sowing illusions in claiming that real reform had a real chance, given the balance of political/class forces in contemporary America. Johnson should not rest with his tired “Here we go again.” If he is serious, he would examine the case for the position that he denied for months–and undoubtedly will deny the next time a crisis evokes tunes of This Time Is Different from his academic chorus of reformists.

  34. I will quote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to anyone who will listen. We are just waiting to see the tragic conclusion of one of the greatest social experiments in history, that is the American republic. It seems that, in the bumpy ride that this country had to the absolute superiority that it achieved and became apparent following WWII, it took about sixty years for us to completely and utterly lose our way. And we have. I was born in 1946. I have lived through a time to unexcelled growth and prosperity in America, greater than that of any nation since the Roman Empire, even with things like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War impairing our image. But, over the past twenty years, things have been gradually moving toward what we now have: the world’s greatest, most powerful, plutocracy.

    The success of the capture of every major segment of our economy has become a story of the failure of leadership to have any noble vision whatsoever. Oh, yes, there has been lots of noble speech making, but none of that has translated into a clear sighted idea of what to do to return the country to its citizenry. And now, on the eve of the greatest collapse in world history (which will dwarf the Great Depression by an order of magnitude), our plutocracy has become the juggler who is juggling deadly things, and soon one additional thing will be thrown up for him to catch and then it all will come tumbling. I haven’t heard anything from Niall Ferguson lately, but I bet he’s thinking that America now looks just like France circa 1775, and that Lloyd Blankfein is Marie Antoinette in a banker’s costume.

    But then, we get what we get when we refuse, as citizens, to pay attention and to act. The only remaining question is, will it be revolution (my preference in the form of an Article V convention) or evolution cause by a massive move to vote out every incumbent in November and redo reform (of health care, finance, immigration, energy, etc).

  35. Just as in health care reform. Everything keeps going straight to the top. I can tell you as a homeless volunteer/advocate in Denver that the poor are gaining in numbers daily. One office gets more than 600 new applicants each day for assistance. These people need jobs and we have tons of work for them. Our forests are almost all dead with beetle kill and those trees need removed. Where is Teddy with the Civilian Conservation Corps.? I know where the money is to do it too. So do you. Lets get it back. Get active for social and economic justice and please don’t be fooled by either party. Thanks you guys, your awesome.

  36. At the end of the day, the financial system must collect the contracted cash flows they lent out or the whole shebang goes down. Nothing that has happened has changed the ultimate imperative of big finance that they restore the desire of retail debtors they have already lent to pay their contracted cash flows.

    Look at the sectors. Sovereign debt weakness total to total is more than can be politically supported in states that rely on consumption , payroll income and Ad Valorem taxes. All these sources of state revenues to service receivables in states lacking their own currency simply decrease and decrease and decrease if income to existing debtors to the system declines. Personal debt is obvious in and of itself that there are income limits beyond which retail debtors start ceasing to pay contracted cash flows. Commercial debt requires retail debtor income or it too collapses.

    The big banks can dump junk on each other and the problem simply boomerangs back. Big bank that earn fees require new contracted cash flows to survive that must arise at the retail level. These are financed mostly by repayments of old debt plus new debt arising from growth. If growth falters, there is no net new debt. Thus, the fees eventually decrease to the point where recognized transaction losses decrease the ability to generate a new round of funds.

    These big banks are in the loss cycle of every less coming in and ever more draining of deposits as people use up their liquid reserves.

    The cycle of growth is the very basis of the financial system and they restore real growth or they fail. The wanted the power. They received the power. Now they die if they do not solve their problems. Remember, only a small marginal cessation of retail debt cash flow payments ends their system. Every loan sector has sufficient problems to create losses greater than the financial system can absorb.

    The bigwigs of finance will now be on their own. On their heads literally.

  37. Thanks, I was hoping someone else would have already made the point that requiring a fiduciary duty for swap dealers is completely contradictory. Can you imagine the reaction of proofessional investors? I think that USD rates are going higher, my customer thinks they are going lower but I can’t trade with him because I don’t agree with his view? But if I did agree with his view my price woudn’t be the best… so it would violate the concept of best excution. Think it through for Pete’s sake, it doesn’t even make sense.

  38. I am finished with the community organizer and this rotten administration as well. It has been a while since I have seen so much fraud, bribery, excuse making and out of control spending from the Democrat party. On top of that, Obama has turned out to be a dismal leader-he thrives on teleprompters and platitudes. I am totally disgusted. I really do not care who runs against him, that person has my vote.

  39. What “out of control spending”? Don’t see it, simply don’t. You are being blindsided to the point, your ignorance shows.

  40. The American people don’t want finance reform and they didn’t want health care reform. So you didn’t get either. They may say one thing, but they act another way. Get over yourselves and stop acting like their is some “rebellion” underway. There isn’t, because of the American people themselves. They are being pushed to the point of just giving up into liquidationism, which is what Corporations REALLY wants. They can preen their numbers while the old boys have all the capital to weather the storm while forcing middle level business to ‘eat labor’ to survive. Pure tyranny, genocide and famine would result. Very possible itself, that the corporations even begin creating private armies to “police”. If the government had adapted REAL health care reform, brought back GS/reformed the D’s in finance and pushed for more internal industrial production while working with the developing countries to create more internal demand, it could have all worked out. But Noooooooo, we got the worst motives.

    Nothing will save America from national socialism now. The country will try and liquidate the debt to quickly and without structural change, that will destroy the economy. Nothing more and nothing less. When white America are shoved into famine and poverty, all pre-existing beliefs will falter. Desperation for bread will drive people to what probably will be considered “extreme” behavior.

    1.The government will sieze capital markets away from the big corporations
    2.Executions will begin on Wall Street and Corporate America
    3.Intellectual pursuits will be gotten rid of
    4.Government “industrial plans” will spring up putting people back to work for re-industrialization but anger the developing world leading toward a cold war.
    5.Health Care will be nationalized
    6.Non-whites will be given steralization programs and population numbers reduced
    7.World War III. It will turn white hot.

    The Corporations are going about it the wrong way, they are so deluded into fantasies of power, they think no one else will notice their ways. But poverty and tyranny are things that they always underestimate. I suspect they fall without a whimper when Nazi like parades and rallies are marching up Georgetown.

  41. I am confused.

    On the one hand Lincoln was pilloried by progressives for her craven service to Pharma and the health insurance industry in stalling real health insurance reform.

    Now I am told by Simon J (whom I believe is correct in every way I care about) that Lincoln is behaving heroically with regard to financial reform.

    Feels paradoxical.

    I was inclined to support her primary opponent, Bill Halter, as a hope and change branded guy. But that didn’t pan out so well last time.

    Guide me.

  42. Your comments would have more credibility if you did some editing and fixed the bad grammar….

  43. Good grief. Simon is a propagandist. He works with/for the Peterson Institute, advises the United States government on economic policy, was lurking in Moscow during their privatisations, and is provided credibility by MIT where he does god knows what most of the year. You think he’s doing this because he’s a nice guy?

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