Revenge of the Stadium Banks

Once again, Democrats are teaming up with Republicans for a stealth attack on Wall Street reform

By David Dayden and cross-posted from The Intercept

In mid-January, Citigroup executives held a conference call with reporters about the bank’s fourth-quarter 2017 earnings. The discussion turned to an obscure congressional bill, S.2155, pitched by its bipartisan supporters mainly as a vehicle to deliver regulatory relief to community banks and, 10 years after the financial crisis, to make needed technical fixes to the landmark Wall Street reform law, Dodd-Frank.

But Citi’s Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach told the trade reporters he thought that some bigger banks — like, say, Citigroup — should get taken care of in the bill as well. He wanted Congress to loosen rules around how the bank could go about lending and investing. The specific mechanism to do that was to fiddle with what’s known as the supplementary leverage ratio, or SLR, a key capital requirement for the nation’s largest banks. This simple ratio sets how much equity banks must carry compared to total assets like loans.

S.2155 did, at the time, weaken the leverage ratio, but only for so-called custodial banks, which do not primarily make loans but instead safeguard assets for rich individuals and companies like mutual funds. As written, the measure would have assisted just two U.S. banks, State Street and Bank of New York Mellon. This offended Gerspach. “We obviously don’t think that is fair, so we would like to see that be altered,” he told reporters.

Republicans and Democrats who pushed S.2155 through the Senate Banking Committee must have heard Citi’s call. (They changed the definition of a custodial bank in a subsequent version of the bill. It used to stipulate that only a bank with a high level of custodial assets would qualify, but now it defines a custodial bank as “any depository institution or holding company predominantly engaged in custody, safekeeping, and asset servicing activities.”) The change could allow virtually any big bank to take advantage of the new rule.

Multiple bank lobbyists told The Intercept that Citi has been pressing lawmakers to loosen the language even further, ensuring that they can take advantage of reduced leverage and ramp up risk. “Citi is making a very aggressive effort,” said one bank lobbyist who asked not to be named because he’s working on the bill. “It’s a game changer and that’s why they’re pushing hard.” A Citigroup spokesperson declined to comment.

A bill that began as a well-intentioned effort to satisfy some perhaps legitimate community bank grievances has instead mushroomed, sparking fears that Washington is paving the way for the next financial meltdown. Congress is unlikely to pass much significant legislation in 2018, so lobbyists have rushed to stuff the trunk of the vehicle full. “There are many different interests in financial services that are looking at this and saying, ‘Oh my God, there’s finally going to be reform to Dodd-Frank that may move, let me throw in this issue and this issue,’” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., in an interview. “There are a dozen different players who decided this is the last bus out of town.”

And Coons is a co-sponsor of the bill.

A hopeful nation — and the president himself — expected that the Senate would begin debate on major gun policy reform next week, but instead a confounding scenario has emerged: In the typically gridlocked Congress, with the Trump legislative agenda mostly stalled, members of both parties will come together to roll back financial rules, during the 10th anniversary of the biggest banking crisis in nearly a century. And it’s happening with virtually no media attention whatsoever

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