WSJ Keeps a Close Watch on the Wall Street Lobby

The Wall Street Journal scoops that Wall Street is up to its old tricks. It’s lobbying against greater transparency rules in the derivatives markets that would cost it fees.

This story follows one two days ago in the Journal that had banks lobbying to be allowed to self-deal in the PPIP program, buying their own junk assets with taxpayer money.

If anyone can sense weakness, it’s the Street, and the recent lull in the crisis has emboldened them to make arguments they would have made two years ago—at least in the corridors of power. They’re still a little gunshy about the public. Those bus tours of AIG homes must have really put the fear of the Lord into them:

The banks are treading a fine line. They are being careful not to publicly oppose any rules and know that more regulation is inevitable. But at the same time they are seeking to stymie legislation that could seriously hurt their ability to generate fees. The banks plan to release a letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S. and overseas regulators in coming days, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Journal says Wall Street speaketh with forked tongue:

Wall Street banks with large derivative-trading businesses have been outwardly supportive of greater regulatory oversight of the $684 trillion market. But behind the scenes, there has been hand-wringing over the details of certain proposals and discussions about how the industry can help shape the rules. Many bankers are against mandatory exchange-trading and real-time price reporting of trades.

But this is all to be expected. The really interesting stuff is why Wall Street is so concerned about these new regulations: They’re not going to be able to screw investors as much anymore.

For credit-default swaps, information about intraday trades and prices has long been controlled by a handful of large banks that handle most trades and earn bigger profits from every transaction they facilitate if prices aren’t easily accessible.

For example, credit-default swaps tied to bonds of companies such as General Electric Capital and Goldman Sachs typically have a pricing gap of 0.1 percentage point between the bid and offer price. That translates into a $40,000 margin for every $10 million in debt insured for five years. Greater price transparency could narrow that gap, lowering costs for buyers and sellers but reducing fees for banks.

How would greater price transparency work? The Journal offers a real-world example:

One price-reporting model being considered for the market is a system akin to Trace, a system for corporate bonds. After Trace was implemented in 2002, the gap between bid and offer prices halved, cutting trading profits for banks.

That cost them a billion dollars a year.

So will the government buckle? It doesn’t sound like it:

So far, some regulators and politicians are holding a hard line, insisting that radical changes are needed to avoid a repeat of last year’s market panic when large financial firms neared collapse and no one knew how linked they were to others through derivatives. The reforms also mean that “the days of conducting standardized derivative trades over the phone will soon be over,” said one senior administration official.

Nice reporting by the Journal.

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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.