The Journal Continues to Focus on the Banking Lobby

I’ve been impressed recently by the business press’s—particularly The Wall Street Journal’s—reporting on the aggressive lobbying by the financial industry to impose its will, even as it costs taxpayers trillions in dollars.

The Journal keeps it up today, revisiting the sudden ambush of mark-to-market accounting by Congress in March. It turns out, of course, that coincided with a big lobbying push by the banks, along with lots of campaign donations.

First a bit of background on mark to market. It’s an accounting policy that means banks have to mark their assets on their books to market prices. Before 2007, they could mark their assets to their own models, meaning basically whatever they wanted to, or “mark to myth.”

But free-market-loving banks now say the market can’t be trusted—when it goes against them. They say things are too bad out there for market prices to mean much.

For instance:

Conrad Hewitt, then the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief accountant, says financial-services representatives, including the ABA’s, called his office repeatedly. He says he met with executives of Citigroup and Wells Fargo, among others.

Last year, Mr. Hewitt recalls, he challenged ABA lobbyist Donna Fisher and a Wells Fargo executive on their valuation complaints. “If you say you’re required to value the securities at 50 cents,” he recalls asking, “and you believe that the securities are really worth 80 or 90 cents, do you have a lot of buyers because of this unusually low valuation?”

The two responded that there were no buyers, according to Mr. Hewitt.

“Then maybe the securities should be valued at less than 50 cents,” Mr. Hewitt says he responded.

But what’s logic when you’ve got cash?

Thirty-one financial firms and trade groups formed a coalition and spent $27.6 million in the first quarter lobbying Washington about the rule and other issues, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of public filings. They also directed campaign contributions totaling $286,000 to legislators on a key committee, many of whom pushed for the rule change, the filings indicate.

The Journal follows the money to the ground level:

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the House Financial Services subcommittee that pressed for the accounting change, received $18,500 from coalition members in the first quarter, the second-highest total among committee members, according to Federal Election Commission records. Over the past two years, Mr. Kanjorski received $704,000 in contributions from banking and insurance firms, the third-highest total among members of Congress, according to the FEC and the Center for Responsive Politics.

This raises an obvious question: Why should a congressman on a financial-services committee be able to get campaign donations from the industry he oversees?

Watch the congressmen snap to as the banking lobby rears its head:

On Feb. 18, FASB said it didn’t expect to complete its examination of mark-to-market standards until the end of June.

Banks, credit unions, Federal Home Loan Banks and insurance company trade associations launched in late February what they called the “Fair Value Coalition.” Its goal was to change the accounting rules. The coalition itself raised no funds, leaving it to its members to make political contributions.

On March 5, Reps. Perlmutter and Lucas introduced legislation to broaden oversight of FASB, putting it under the purview of not only the SEC, but also the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury Department, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board…

Rep. Kanjorski scheduled a hearing on the issue for March 12. Bank lobbyists jammed a congressional hearing room. In his opening remarks, Rep. Kanjorski threatened that Congress would get involved if FASB didn’t act. Rep. Perlmutter said mark-to-market accounting was “exaggerating and multiplying” the economic slump. “We have been dithering while this patient’s been sick,” he said.

So how are banks marking their assets now? To their own models. The Journal is good to point out that the markets turned right about the time of this accounting change as banks began posting much higher than expected profits by remarking their assets.

This is a nice effort by the WSJ.

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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.