Journal Drumbeat Continues on Wall Street Lobbying

The Journal continues to shine a bright light on the efforts by Wall Street to go back to the way things were before the crisis.

Today’s story is part of a drumbeat of pieces, including one on page one yesterday, detailing how Wall Street is flexing its still-considerable muscle to stave off changes that would restrict how much damage it can do to the economy—but also restrict its profit-making machine. Unlike its repeated pounding of the congressional-expense thing the paper is hyping (which I criticized earlier today), this one’s actually a story—and this is important reporting.

The Journal reports now that the industry is lobbying to keep its off-balance-sheet entities in netherworld, instead of back on their balance sheets where they should have been in the first place. This is happening out of view of the public, of course—that’s how the sausage gets made. The Journal’s beat reporting is giving us a full-on factory-floor tour. The Journal’s story yesterday showed congressmen hopping to as Wall Street floods their campaign coffers with cash.

Today’s story reports on this letter:

A group that includes the Chamber of Commerce, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the American Council of Life Insurers and others sent a letter on June 1 to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, regarding the off-balance-sheet accounting-rule change, saying it should be adopted “cautiously and seek to minimize any chilling effect on our frozen credit markets.”

Of course, Wall Street will use this excuse till Kingdom come to stave off any changes. “Don’t change pay rules or all our talent will leave!” “Let us ‘mark to myth’ or we’ll never dig out of this hole!” “Don’t touch credit-default swaps or…” I’m not exactly sure what the excuse is there.

The Journal is wry here:

Some accounting experts say they aren’t surprised by the banking industry’s latest effort. “Here we go again. They will get out their checkbooks and go to the Hill,” says Lynn Turner, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s former chief accountant.

But these special-purpose vehicles are at the heart of the crisis. They enabled banks securitization machines to warehouse the “super-senior” parts of their toxic securities and derivatives without having to put up nearly as much capital in reserve. That freed up more capital to take on more and more risk. Thus, the bubble.

Ending this practice and forcing these assets back on the banks’ balance sheets would force an end to the capital charade that regulators allowed in the first place. That will make the banks less profitable, and they’re fighting hard. I’m glad the Journal is documenting it.

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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.