Wall Street blames regulation for the stock market's drop

05/21/2010 11:24 am EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Pardon me, but I’ve got a little trouble with this explanation of the stock market’s tumble.

The problem, Wall Street is telling us, is that investors are afraid of a regulatory crackdown on Wall Street.

Here’s a representative explanation from this morning’s Financial Times: “The lack of clarity from the politicians has shattered confidence,” David Owen, chief European financial economist at Jefferies, told the paper.

If that’s really the case, of course, we should see a huge rally today on the heels of the U.S. Senate’s passage of its version of financial reform. If clarity is what Wall Street wants, it just got a dose yesterday. (The legislation now goes to conference with the House of Representatives, which passed its own version of financial reform months ago.)

But I don’t think clarity is what Wall Street really wants from politicians.

What it wants is a minimum of disruptive new rules that might cut into profits. Wall Street doesn’t want limits on trading for its own accounts—along with or against clients. It doesn’t want to regulations that would require derivatives to trade on exchanges. It doesn’t want limits on what it can charge on credit cards.

The list of the clarity that Wall Street doesn’t want goes on and on.

If you believe in conspiracies (and now that Fringe is done for the season, I for one would love an entertaining real life conspiracy to watch) by this point it’s probably occurred to you that Wall Street could easily buttress it’s arguments against tougher regulation by engineering a stock market drop. I personally think that’s unlikely simply because Wall Street is too competitive to execute something as complicated as that. Too many companies, knowing of the plan, would try to make money on the other side of the trade.

But Wall Street is certainly capable of using a correction based on a very real debt crisis in the Euro Zone and very real worries about a slowdown in China to argue that regulation is the problem. And it certainly helps that case that some politicians have indeed spooked the market by charging off on their own without consulting other countries. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ban on naked short selling of German financial stocks, sovereign debt and credit default swaps comes to mind immediately.

There’s a lot to legitimately not like about the financial reform package that the Senate just passed. In my opinion it accepts too much of the current regulatory framework as a foundation for reform (instead of tearing it down) and then tries to tinker with it giving the final the feel of an animal designed by committee. (The traditional “A camel is a horse designed by a committee” has always struck me as insulting to camels, by the way.)

On credit default swaps, for example, the Senate should have finally decided that since these are insurance, they should be regulated like insurance. You aren’t allowed to take out insurance against your neighbor’s house burning down—too much temptation when you don’t have a house of your own actually at risk—and regulating swaps as insurance would prevent speculators from taking out insurance against default when they don’t own any bonds or shares that would be damaged by a default.

But hoping that the still pending legislation will actually do the job that we need to have done is very different from pointing to regulation and saying, See that’s why the stock market is falling.

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