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The Wall Street Ticking Time Bomb That Could Blow Up Your Bank Account

Derivatives turn the financial system into a casino. And the House always wins.

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Super-priority Status for Derivatives Increases Rather Than Decreases Risk

Harvard Law Professor Mark Row maintains that the super-priority status of derivatives needs to be repealed. He writes:

. . . [D]erivatives counterparties, . . . unlike most other secured creditors, can seize and immediately liquidate collateral, readily net out gains and losses in their dealings with the bankrupt, terminate their contracts with the bankrupt, and keep both preferential eve-of-bankruptcy payments and fraudulent conveyances they obtained from the debtor, all in ways that favor them over the bankrupt’s other creditors.

. . . [W]hen we subsidize derivatives and similar financial activity via bankruptcy benefits unavailable to other creditors, we get more of the activity than we otherwise would. Repeal would induce these burgeoning financial markets to better recognize the risks of counterparty financial failure, which in turn should dampen the possibility of another AIG-, Bear Stearns-, or Lehman Brothers-style financial meltdown, thereby helping to maintain systemic financial stability.

In The New Financial Deal: Understanding the Dodd-Frank Act and Its (Unintended) Consequences , David Skeel agrees. He calls the Dodd-Frank policy approach “corporatism” – a partnership between government and corporations. Congress has made no attempt in the legislation to reduce the size of the big banks or to undermine the implicit subsidy provided by the knowledge that they will be bailed out in the event of trouble.

Undergirding this approach is what Skeel calls “the Lehman myth,” which blames the 2008 banking collapse on the decision to allow Lehman Brothers to fail. Skeel counters that the Lehman bankruptcy was actually orderly, and the derivatives were unwound relatively quickly. Rather than preventing the Lehman collapse, the bankruptcy exemption for derivatives may have helped precipitate it.  When the bank appeared to be on shaky ground, the derivatives players all rushed to put in their claims, in a run on the collateral before it ran out. Skeel says the problem could be resolved by eliminating the derivatives exemption from the stay of proceedings that a bankruptcy court applies to other contracts to prevent this sort of run.

Putting the Brakes on the Wall Street End Game

Besides eliminating the super-priority of derivatives, here are some other ways to block the Wall Street asset grab:

(1) Restore the Glass-Steagall Act separating depository banking from investment banking. Support Marcy Kaptur’s H.R. 129.

(2) Break up the giant derivatives banks.  Support Bernie Sanders’ “too big to jail” legislation.

(3) Alternatively, nationalize the TBTFs, as advised in the New York Times by Gar Alperovitz.  If taxpayer bailouts to save the TBTFs are unacceptable, depositor bailouts are even more unacceptable.

(4) Make derivatives illegal, as they were between 1936 and 1982 under the Commodities Exchange Act. They can be unwound by simply netting them out, declaring them null and void.  As noted by Paul Craig Roberts, “the only major effect of closing out or netting all the swaps (mostly over-the-counter contracts between counter-parties) would be to take $230 trillion of leveraged risk out of the financial system.”

(5) Support the Harkin-Whitehouse bill to impose a financial transactions tax on Wall Street trading.  Among other uses, a tax on all trades might supplement the FDIC insurance fund to cover another derivatives disaster.

(5) Establish postal savings banks as government-guaranteed depositories for individual savings. Many countries have public savings banks, which became particularly popular after savings in private banks were wiped out in the banking crisis of the late 1990s.

(6) Establish publicly-owned banks to be depositories of public monies, following the lead of North Dakota, the only state to completely escape the 2008 banking crisis. North Dakota does not keep its revenues in Wall Street banks but deposits them in the state-owned Bank of North Dakota by law.  The bank has a mandate to serve the public, and it does not gamble in derivatives.