Out of Control The Destructive Power of the Financial Markets

AFP

Part 4: Nothing More than Piecemeal Regulations


In fact, the United States and Europe did attempt to constrain the monster that was the financial market. Governments can hardly be accused of not having made a serious effort in this direction, but the project they face is exceedingly difficult.

Solo efforts by individual countries are pointless, because the industry is globally interconnected. On the other hand, internationally coordinated solutions are difficult. As a result, the regulations remain nothing more than piecemeal.

For the financial industry, new regulations are often little more than a sportsmanlike challenge to search for new tricks with which to circumvent the rules. In their conflict with politicians and regulatory agencies, banks and hedge funds have a clear competitive advantage: They hire the brightest minds in the financial world and pay them millions. The public-sector regulators can hardly compete.

Not surprisingly, politicians haven't done much more than push around a lot of paper until now. The law with which President Obama intends to regulate the financial markets encompasses more than 800 pages. But the US government is only at the beginning of a long process, in which concrete regulations will be derived from the provisions of the new law. Both the Republicans and the banks' lobbyists can exert their influence on this process to make sure that many of the new regulations are watered down.

For instance, the law was intended to completely prohibit banks from engaging in proprietary trading, with which they speculate in the foreign currency, stock and commodities markets. But the legislation contains so many exceptions that business will continue to flourish, in some cases by simply outsourcing trading activities.

The United States also wants to force hedge funds to disclose more information about their business. But even though the law doesn't go into effect until next March, speculator Soros is already demonstrating how it can be circumvented. After buying out the outside investors in his hedge fund, he now intends to conduct business in the future as a so-called family-owned company. Funds that manage the assets of a family are not subject to the new disclosure rules.

In Europe, the European Commission has developed a draft of new capital market rules, which includes 165 pages of guidelines and another 500 pages of regulations. Under the proposed rules, banks would be required to keep more capital resources in reserve to protect against risk, and they would only be allowed to borrow up to a certain ratio.

These proposals make sense, but the financial industry is already two steps ahead. It has created a world in which the usual rules for exchanges and banks do not apply: the realm of the "shadow banks."

For bankers, this is by no means a world of illegal or semi-legal institutions, despite what the term implies. Hedge funds and private equity firms are known as shadow banks. In the United States, shadow banks have already incurred debts of more than $16 trillion, as compared with $13 trillion among commercial banks.

Regulating 'Shadow Banks' Unlikely

This poses a huge risk for the financial market. Jochen Sanio, head of Germany's banking regulatory agency, believes it is highly likely that the next crisis will emanate from this largely unregulated realm of hedge funds and other financial players. Jens Weidmann, the president of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, also cautions against the dangers of shadow banks. But why are they not subject to the same rules as commercial banks?

In this case, national egos are what stand in the way of comprehensive financial market reform. Britain, in particular, isn't keen on keeping too close an eye on hedge funds, because the financial industry is one of the few remaining sectors in which the British are still competitive worldwide.

An effective financial market reform would have to treat shadow banks the same way all other banks are treated. This would mean completely banning so-called short selling, which is essentially betting on falling prices. It would also have to improve licensing requirements on new financial instruments and ban some that already exist, because they are designed solely for speculative purposes. It would also involve establishing a number of other rules that would make doing business significantly more difficult for banks, hedge funds and private equity firms.

All of these measures would rein in the financial market and put its importance for the economy into perspective. Banks would have to concentrate once again on the role they played prior to the great deregulation of the financial market, namely to organize payment transactions, manage the investments of private customers and companies and finance their business deals with loans.

But that seems unlikely. There are too many contradictions and conflicts of interest between the countries involved and governments to allow such a massive change to occur. But the monster cannot be tamed with half-hearted reforms, which is why people who have been involved in the financial world for decades assume that it will strike again soon.

When asked whether it is possible to make future crises unlikely, Hilmar Kopper, the former CEO of Deutsche Bank and current chairman of the supervisory board of HSH Nordbank, replies with a simple "no." According to Kopper, more huge financial bubbles could happen in the future.

"I'm frustrated," says Kopper. "I don't know how a government is supposed to regulate this."

DIETMAR HAWRANEK, ARMIN MAHLER, CHRISTOPH PAULY, MICHAELA SCHIESSL AND THOMAS SCHULZ

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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