Audit Notes: Stopping Wall Street, Kate Kelly, Labor Laws

Michael Lewis has a useful Bloomberg column detailing how some on Wall Street are getting around the financial-reform law’s ban on proprietary trading. The bigger question is why Wall Street wants to let its traders gamble with its capital:

One answer — which Wosnitzer points to — is that this is what Wall Street firms now mainly do. Beginning in the mid- 1980s, the Wall Street investment bank, seeing less and less profit in the mere servicing of customers, ceased to organize itself around its customers’ needs, and began to build itself around its own big and often abstruse gambles.

The outsized gains (and losses), the huge individual paychecks, the growing ability of traders to bounce from firm to firm from one year to the next, the tolerance for complexity that doubles as opacity: all of the signature traits of modern Wall Street follows from the willingness of the big firms to allow small groups of traders to make giant bets with shareholders’ capital, which the shareholders themselves don’t and can’t understand.

Indeed. Another reason is they know that the downsides are limited. The taxpayers can’t afford to let them blow up, so they’ll get bailed out when their bets go awry again. These guys knew this even before 2008.

So Lewis proposes a radical solution—the only way to keep Wall Street from cheating on prop trading:

There’s a simple, straightforward way for the GAO to construe the Dodd-Frank language, and it would reform Wall Street in a single stroke: to ban any sort of position-taking at the giant publicly owned banks. To say, simply: You are no longer allowed to make bets in the same stocks and bonds that you are selling to investors.

If that means that Goldman Sachs is no longer allowed to make markets in corporate bonds, so be it. You can be Charles Schwab, and advise investors; or you can be Citadel, and run trading positions. But if you are Citadel you will be privately owned. And if you blow up your firm, you will blow up yourself in the bargain.

Sounds good to me.

— This one’s fun.

CNBC’s Kate Kelly outed some major investment firms attending a secret meeting to talk about suing the banks for putbacks on the toxic mortgages they bought from them.

How’d she get the scoop? Old-fashioned shoe leather.

Alphaville’s Tracy Alloway got hold of a memo from the conference’s organizer apologizing to attendees:

To Those Who Attended our Conference on Robosigners:

I have just learned that CNBC purports to have reviewed a list of those who attended today’s conference. This morning CNBC asked me for a list, and I refused. I told CNBC (as well as other journalists who asked) that we respected the privacy of those who did not want their attendance to be publicized. Apparently, CNBC’s reporter looked over the shoulder of our employee who was receiving our guests and who had a list of those who had registered. I have told CNBC that that reporter is not welcome to return to any conference that we sponsor.

Keeping confidences is our most important obligation. My colleagues and I apologize profusely to those whose attendance at our conference was publicized in this underhanded way.

Nicely done.

The New York Times’s Steven Greenhouse has a good Economix blog post on flaws in the Wagner Act, the landmark New Deal labor law that gave federal protection to organizing workers.

Greenhouse looks at a Harvard paper that shows how the National Labor Relations Board’s penalties are far too weak to combat illegal anti-union activity by corporations, which has allowed them to crush labor over the last half a century:

Mr. Freeman, one of the nation’s foremost labor economists, wrote that the act was passed to replace the costly unionization fights of yesteryear - often involving strikes, lockouts, violent confrontations — with “a ‘laboratory conditions’ elections process for ascertaining workers’ attitudes toward union representation that would be free from employer pressures or dishonest statements by employers or unions.” He said unionization elections in the private-sector “have turned into massive employer campaigns against unions.”

There’s no doubt about that. See this (emphasis mine):

Mr. Freeman pointed to a case involving a unionization effort at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where an independent arbitrator ruled in 2007 that the hospital had violated an agreement calling for both sides to respect principles aimed at guaranteeing a fair election. The arbitrator wrote that the workers “ were threatened with more onerous working conditions and even loss of their jobs if the union were selected.”

She said the workers were victimized and ordered the hospital to pay the 1,700 workers a total $2.2 million - the amount the hospital had paid to antiunion consultants. She also ordered the hospital to repay the union its $2.3 million in organizing expenses. Professor Freeman noted that this $4.5 million penalty, which was ordered outside the National Labor Relations Act, was 20 percent more than the $3.6 million that the labor board awards on average each year to all workers nationwide for all back pay for being retaliated against for supporting a union. He cited a paper by Morris M. Kleiner and David Weil stating that “the Act for decades has been ineffective in curbing behaviors that are antithetical to its fundamental aims.”

And this is interesting, too:

He noted that there was a 20 to 30 percent gap between the percentage of workers who said they wanted union representation and those who had unions - the largest gap among advanced English-speaking countries.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.