Wall Street lobbyists are awesome. I’m beginning to develop a begrudging respect not just for their body of work as a whole, but also for their sense of humor. They always go right to the edge of outrageous, and then wittily take one baby-step beyond it. And they did so again last night, with the passage of a new House bill (HR 2827), which rolls back a portion of Dodd-Frank designed to protect cities and towns from the next Jefferson County disaster.
Jefferson County, Alabama was the most famous case – the city of Birmingham went bankrupt after being bribed and goaded into taking on billions of dollars of toxic swap deals – but in fact it was just one of hundreds of similar examples of localities being duped into suicidal financial deals by rapacious banks and financial companies. The Denver school system, for instance, got clobbered when it opted for an exotic swap deal pushed by J.P. Morgan Chase (the same villain in Jefferson County, incidentally) and then-school superintendent/future U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, that ended up costing the school system tens of millions of dollars. As was the case in Jefferson County, the only way out of the deal involved a massive termination fee that might have been even more destructive than the deal itself.
To deal with this problem, the Dodd-Frank Act among other things included a simple reform. It required the financial advisors of municipalities to do two things: register with the SEC, and accept a fiduciary duty to respect the best interests of the taxpayers they are advising.
Sounds simple, right? But Wall Street couldn’t have that. After all, if companies are required to have a fiduciary responsibility to cities and towns, how in the world can they screw cities and towns? The idea was a veritable axe-blow to the banks’ municipal advisory businesses.
So what did Wall Street lobbyists and trade groups like SIFMA (the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association) do? Well, they did what they’ve been doing to Dodd-Frank generally: they Swiss-cheesed the law with a string of exemptions. The industry proposal that ended up being HR 2827 created several new loopholes for purveyors of swaps and other such financial products to cities and towns. Here’s how the pro-reform group Americans for Financial Reform described the loopholes (emphasis mine):
For example, any advice provided by a broker, dealer, bank, or accountant that is any way “related to or connected with” a municipal underwriting would be exempted from the fiduciary requirement. A similar exemption would be created for all advice provided by banks or swap dealers that is in any way “related to or connected with” the sale to municipalities of financial derivatives, loan participation agreements, deposit products, foreign exchange, or a variety of other financial products.
So basically, if you’re underwriting a municipal bond for a city or a town, and you happen also to give the city or town advice about some deadly swap deal that will put the city into bankruptcy for the next thousand years, you don’t have a fiduciary responsibility to that city or town. The banks’ view is that being asked to perform the merely-technical function of underwriting a bond is very different from advising someone to take on an exotic swap deal – so if a bank is mainly an underwriter and happens to offhandedly recommend this or that swap deal, it just isn’t fair to drop this onerous financial responsibility, this weighty designation of municipal financial advisor, on its shoulders.
Here’s how SIFMA describes what that awful burden would have been under Dodd-Frank’s original reform:
The consequences of being deemed to be a municipal advisor are very serious. Providing municipal advice without having registered is “unlawful”—i.e. potentially criminal. The highest standard of conduct—a fiduciary duty—is imposed.
God forbid! Thankfully, this new law provides an exemption from that “highest standard of conduct” providing the bank or financial company is not just giving advice, but also performing a merely technical function like underwriting.
The details of this law are pretty hairy, but the basic idea is simple: provided a bank isn’t dumb enough to only provide advice, or to ask for separate compensation for advice, it doesn’t owe anyone any goddamned fiduciary responsibility. So they can keep screwing cities and towns as much as they’d like.