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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
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The Subprime Mess and Phil Gramm: An Experiment in Deregulation

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In 1933, a few years following the stock market crash, Congress passes the Glass-Steagall Act, in hopes that regulating banks will help prevent market instability, particularly amongst Wall Street banks. The purpose of the act is to separate commercial banks that focus on consumers from investment banks, which deal with speculative trading and mergers.

The Glass-Steagall Act provided the proper oversight and entity separation that would prohibit banks and other financial companies from merging into giant trusts (conflict of interests) — giant trusts or corporations being more powerful, naturally, and having the seemingly limitless capital to lobby their corporate interests, however, with a very myopic scope (particularly when it comes to factoring in potential losses — most banks, as seen in contemporary times, chose not to anticipate losses in the mortgage market; they presumed home prices would continue to appreciate).

In 1999, former Senator Phil Gramm (who is, incidentally, Senator John McCain’s economic adviser and cochairs his presidential campaign) set out to completely gut the Glass-Steagall Act, and did so successfully, replacing most of its components with the new Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act: allowing commercial banks, investment banks, and insurers to merge (which would have violated antitrust laws under Glass-Steagall). Sen. Gramm was the driving force behind the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, as he had received over $4.6 million from the FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate donations) over the previous decade, and once the Act passed, an influx of “megamergers” took place among banks and insurance and securities companies, as if they had been eagerly awaiting the passage of Gramm’s Act. Everything in between Glass-Steagall and Gramm-Leach-Bliley (i.e. Savings and Loan crisis/bust) was, in large part, the incubation period for what would take place over the nine years that would follow the passage of Gramm’s Act: an experiment in deregulation.

Shortly after George W. Bush was elected president, Congress and President Clinton were trying to pass a $384 billion omnibus spending bill, and while the debates swirled around the passage of this bill, Senator Phil Gramm clandestinely slipped a 262-page amendment into the omnibus appropriations bill titled: Commodity Futures Modernization Act. It is likely that few senators read this bill, if any. The essence of the act was the deregulation of derivatives trading (financial instruments whose value changes in response to the changes in underlying variables; the main use of derivatives is to reduce risk for one party). The legislation contained a provision — lobbied for by Enron, a major campaign contributor to Gramm — that exempted energy trading from regulatory oversight. Basically, it gave way to the Enron debacle and ushered in the new era of unregulated securities. Interestingly enough, Gramm’s wife, Wendy, had been part of the Enron board, and her salary and stock income brought in between $900,000 and $1.8 million to the Gramm household, prior to the passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act.

In 2003, Gramm left the Senate to join UBS, which had acquired investment house PaineWebber due to his deregulation bill. At UBS, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Fed and the Treasury Department. During Gramm’s tenor at UBS and as a lobbyist, Congress passed the Responsible Lending Act, billed as an anti-predatory-lending measure, but was called the “Loan Shark Protection Act” by consumer advocates, as it was designed to preempt stronger state laws against anti-predatory lending. The Fed largely ignored the underlying and growing problems within the subprime mortgage/housing markets, as Bernanke famously acknowledged the housing market in April, 2007 as, “[showing] signs of softening,” but said that a “sharp slowdown,” is unlikely. Then, according to Mother Jones magazine, Henry Paulson became the Treasury Secretary in July, 2007, when, “In 2005, [at] Goldman [he] securitized $68 billion in residential mortgages and $23 billion in ‘other assets’ primarily related to CDOs,” (Mother Jones, August, 2008). With such self-interest, and a lack of the nation’s interest, we can see how this subprime mess was allowed to escalate to such great proportions.

Some justice was served, however, this spring, as UBS became one of the subprime debacle’s biggest losers, having to write down $37 billion — the same amount as their previous four years of profits combined. UBS also made the public aware that two-thirds of its losses were due to reckless investing in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

Now, Gramm has a second chance of extending his out-of-touch and ill-performing policies, as Senator John McCain appointed Gramm to be his “economic expert” and cochair of his presidential campaign, last year. Also, it is likely that if Senator McCain were to win in November, Gramm would be our next Treasury Secretary, which means more of the same deregulatory mess and the continuation of failed and insidious economic policies.