Elizabeth Warren got a lot of attention last week for rallying liberals against a provision of the cromnibus spending bill that repealed a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. This particular bit of the law had required FDIC-insured banks to get out of the custom swaps business. If they wanted to buy and sell risky derivatives, the parent company needed to do it at a separate entity outside the bank, not with government-insured cash.
But why did Wall Street actually care about this? Even if the swaps are “pushed out” to a subsidiary outside the FDIC umbrella, they’re still part of the bank holding company. If the swaps are profitable, the holding company makes money either way. Ditto if they lose money. So who cares? Via Matt Yglesias, here is John Carney of the Wall Street Journal to explain why this was so important:
The advantage: [The bank depository units], with implicit government backing, are considered less risky than parent holding companies….Citigroup’s insured depository unit is rated A2 by Moody’s; the parent company is a far lower Baa2. So a bank buying a derivative contract from the parent would receive a higher capital charge than if it bought it from the depository unit. So the price Citi could fetch for it would be lower. The same divergence exists at the other banks, though to a lesser degree.
The result: Each would suffer from having to push derivatives out of their depository units. In effect, they would lose the advantage of the higher rating and perception of government support.
FDIC-insured depository units have higher credit ratings thanks to their government guarantee. Because of this, swaps sold under the depository umbrella also have a higher rating, and can be sold at a higher price. Outside this umbrella, with its lower parent company rating, the price would have to be discounted. That makes the swaps business less profitable.
As Matt points out, this is an indication that Dodd-Frank is actually doing its job: “Investors aren’t confident that Citi is ‘too big to fail’ and likely to get future bailouts. That’s why Citi wants to get as much business as possible done under the shield of the FDIC.”
I guess, in a way, this is a small bit of solace to take from last week’s sordid episode of congressional capitulation to Wall Street: it only mattered because financial reform seems to be working. A little bit, anyway. If it were really working, of course, bank parent companies would be so well capitalized that their credit ratings would be nearly as good as their FDIC-insured subsidiaries. Obviously we’re not quite there yet.