Republicans gutting Dodd-Frank as Wall St. goes subprime again

With Republicans back in charge in Congress, some of the consumer protection shackles are being removed from Wall Street, Neil Macdonald reports. Investor beware.

It is not mortgages but subprime car loans that U.S. banks are repackaging now for foreign investors

House Speaker John Boehner heads back to his office last month as the new Republican-controlled House voted on its first bills: One that would alter a key section of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, and the other that would block the president's executive actions on immigration. (The Associated Press)

A forlorn Russian banker named Evgeny Buryakov is sitting in a New York prison, accused of concocting a nefarious scheme to pour algorithmic poison into the very ear of American capitalism.

Buryakov, according to the U.S. government, teamed up with a couple of other Russian agents working undercover as diplomats. Their mission: figuring out how to disrupt America's financial markets using automated trading algorithms — so-called trading robots.

The diplomat-spies claimed immunity, and lammed it back to Moscow, leaving Buryakov in the lurch.

Now, most people, me included, don't understand automatic trading algorithms.

Apparently they can make companies all sorts of money by buying and selling at incomprehensible speeds — basically, an expensive device Wall Street uses to stack the odds even further against the ordinary chump.

Who knows? Maybe the Russians could have done some damage.

But, all due respect to the Justice Department, my guess is Buryakov and his co-conspirators were kids throwing stones at the system compared to the teams of bank lobbyists rewriting laws up on Capitol Hill these days.

Little by little, these influence-buyers are gutting and filleting the Dodd-Frank Act, the package of bank regulations that was among the few big accomplishments of the Obama administration during the two years when Democrats controlled Congress.

These lobbyists represent some of the same corporate villains whose greedy, in some cases criminal, machinations just about demolished the economy in 2008, tossing millions out of their jobs and impoverishing even thrifty and financially prudent citizens.

George W. Bush's decision to rescue them with taxpayers' money (while letting thousands of smaller companies sink) was what ignited the hot outrage and sudden growth of the Tea Party.

Bothersome restrictions

That cause was arguably as just and righteous as the revolt against taxation without representation, the original American grievance from which the Tea Partiers took their name.

Pretty quickly, though, America's more right-wing conservatives seemed to forgive Wall Street. 

Banks are the manifestation of capitalism, after all. Sure, they might have gone a little too far but in Republican doctrine they are "job creators" (a rather ironic term for the people behind the 2008 meltdown).

They are also big donors to politicians.

And now, just seven years after so many people nearly lost everything, conservative lawmakers are hard at work dismantling those damned bothersome restrictions placed on banks to prevent a repeat of the great meltdown.

Late last year, Republicans refused to pass a larger spending bill unless the White House agreed to undo a section of Dodd-Frank that forced banks to move their risky derivative trades to units that don't enjoy taxpayer backing.

(Banks love taxpayer backing, as they demonstrated so spectacularly in 2008.)

Then, when Congress reconvened this year under full Republican control, the very first order of business was once again the banks.

This time, the aim is to let the big, federally insured banks increase their risk profiles. Super idea, that one.

The idea, clearly, is to get rid of all this Dodd-Frank stuff entirely, particularly the so-called Volcker rule, the law's centerpiece.

It basically forbids banks to play risky games with their own cash reserves, which the banks are required to maintain in case things go sideways again.

Car loans at 35%

Think they won't? Well, Wall Street has already dived back into the stinking ooze of subprime lending, the financial weapon of mass destruction that blew up in 2008.

Attorney General Eric Holder, left, and U.S. Attorney John Walsh from Colorado at an announcement in July that Citigroup will pay $7 billion to settle an investigation into risky subprime mortgages, the type that helped fuel the financial crisis. (Associated Press)

This time, it's car loans.

First, auto lenders, including some of the big car companies, seek out consumers with poor credit ratings who need transportation.

Then they offer them car loans with interest rates of 25 or even 35 per cent. Loan sharks call that "the vig." Banks call it "high return."

Then, up the food chain, lending institutions package up a few million of these sketchy loans, forming them into securitized debt while "slicing and dicing" them, which theoretically spreads the risk thinner, earning a good safety rating from the big ratings agencies.

They then offer this securitized debt to big investors worldwide who are hungry for high return.

Any of this sound familiar? It should.

It is exactly what the banks did with subprime mortgages back in the early part of the last decade.

The New York Times reported recently that these securitized subprime auto loans have grown some 300 per cent since 2010, to somewhere in excess of $20 billion.

Now, car loans are not mortgages, but you can see where the banks want to head again if they can finagle it. Backed up, of course, by the security of a government bailout if needed.

That has to be part of the deal. In fact, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giants, have gone back to approving down payments as low as three per cent.

The post-meltdown concept of lenders requiring borrowers to have substantial "skin in the game" is also apparently passé.

You can expect to hear a lot more about this.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, the populist Democrat who went into politics after Republicans denied her the top job at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (also a creation of Dodd-Frank), is mad as hell, and will probably run for president someday.

Taking on Wall Street is her mission in life.

Oh, incidentally, the banks and the Republicans want to get rid of that accursed consumer bureau, too.

Consumers don't need protection, you see. The market provides that already. Really. It does.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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