Not that kind of Protection

The European Union appears to be serious about stopping the hedge fund casino where you get to bet on the failure of countries to meet their sovereign debt obligations with other folks’ money. It also wants to increase regulation that provides more transparency which should–theoretically–lead to increased protection from moral hazard and insiders with inside information acting against the best interests of other investors. Would you consider this action to be protectionist? (i.e. against free trade agreements?) Once again, I’m turning to the UK’s Financial Times for more information.

Evidently, Timothy Geithner our Secretary of Treasury Goldman’s Sachs Financial Interests is arguing just that.

Tim Geithner, US Treasury secretary, has delivered a blunt warning to the European Commission that its plans to regulate the hedge fund and private equity industries could cause a transatlantic rift by discriminating against US groups.

A letter sent by Mr Geithner this month to Michel Barnier, Europe’s internal market commissioner, makes it clear that the European Union is heading for a clash with Washington if it pushes ahead with what the US – and Britain – fear could be a protectionist law.

As we see the continual watering-down of financial regulation met to rein in the worst of credit abuses in the country, we now see our government arguing against reining-in the casino-style side bets of the hedge funds. The UK is raging against the reform machine too.

The draft EU directive would impose tighter restrictions on hedge funds, private equity and other alternative investment funds. It has caused alarm in the City of London, where some in the industry say it is a thinly veiled attempt by France and Germany to undermine the UK’s dominance of financial services.

Okay, so this is my question. How is this going to undermine the dominance of the UK and US investment houses? How does this stop them from competing for business? The answer is in one clause that may or may not be the real issue here.

Mr Geithner warns that US hedge funds, private equity groups and banks could be discriminated against if proposals to restrict the access of EU investors to funds based outside the 27-country bloc are included in the final law.

So-called “third country” elements of the directive would force non-EU funds to comply with the new rules if they wish to market themselves at all within the EU. The directive could also force EU-based private equity and hedge funds to use only locally based banks as custodians and depositaries.

Contentious areas also include rules on remuneration, limits on borrowing, the disclosure of sensitive information and the regime for depositaries.

Paul Myners, UK financial services minister, told a meeting of private equity executives on Wednesday that he would fight “line by line and minute by minute” to defend the free movement of capital. But he also warned that “nobody in this room is going to get the directive they want”.

One senior private equity executive said the UK needed to take a stand before others would rally behind it.

I can see how portions could restrict the movement of capital from one country to another if investors are forced to use local banks. However, asking the UK and US hedge funds to comply with the EU rules doesn’t seem any different than asking FORD or GM to comply with the tougher MPG or emissions standards by the EU or for that matter asking US food companies to restrict certain ingredients either. Most other U.S. industries comply with EU rules daily. One major example is the use of the metric system. So, why can’t Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan just shut up and comply?

Here’s what is more likely at the heart of the argument.

One regulation they do not want is one that bans speculative trading on naked CDS.

The momentum for a ban on naked CDS is getting stronger. Germany and France on Wednesday called on the European Union to consider banning speculative trading in credit default swaps and set up a compulsory register of derivatives trading, the FT reports. Angela Merkel and Francois Fillon sent a letter to Jose Barroso yesterday, asking for an immediate investigation of the role and effect of speculative trading in CDSs in the sovereign bonds of European Union member states. Fillon assured after talks in Berlin, that both governments are “very much in agreement in tackling extreme speculation”.

Earlier this week, Mario Draghi indicated that tighter regulation of CDS could become a G20 issue when he confirmed that the subject will be on the agenda of the Financial Stability Board (FSB), Reuters reports.

Four EU member states have called for an investigation into the role of these things in Greece’s problems.

An inquiry must be opened into the role and impact of speculation linked to credit default swaps trading in EU government bonds as soon as possible to determine any market abuse, the heads of four countries said.

The move stops short of repeating recent calls for an immediate ban on selling CDS contracts to ‘naked’ buyers who have no interest in the underlying asset — thereby making it easier to find broad backing from the bloc’s finance ministers who will discuss CDS markets next Tuesday.

In a joint letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, dated March 10, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Greece also called for more transparency on derivative markets.

The moves would be aimed at preventing undue speculation, enhancing transparency and improving the safety of derivative transactions, according to the letter, which was released by the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday.

So is Geithner complaining about the provision to restrict business in certain countries to local banks or the restrictions on some of the more exotic and toxic financial innovations? That would include the ones that have troubled both Greece and Iceland.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Senator Future Lobbyist of America member Chris Dodd is about ready to unveil his version of Financial Reform. This reflects his compromise with Republican committee member Bob Corker. Have I mentioned recently that nothing particularly good ever comes from compromising with a right wing nut? Oh, yes, that would be yesterday’s post where we talked about Corker’s goal of exempting payday lenders from regulation meant to stop lending abuse. Still, let’s go to Bloomberg for the latest controversy in OUR financial industry reform.

The new Dodd bill will include some elements negotiated with Corker. For example, it won’t propose the stand-alone agency, which Corker opposed, and will probably put the consumer unit in the Federal Reserve with an independent budget, a director appointed by the president and some enforcement powers, according to a person with direct knowledge of the plan.

“It has always been my goal to produce a consensus package,” Dodd said in the statement. “And we have reached a point where bringing the bill to the full committee is the best course of action to achieve that end.”

Notice the difference in the content between the EU talks and the US version. The EU is talking about serious regulation and the US is creating another level of bureaucracy within the FED with “some enforcement powers”. This is like trying to protect some one from AIDS by handing them a virginity pledge to sign when they ain’t no virgin.

It has to be the power of the FIRE lobby. All you have to do is read any of the academic literature on the financial industry to know that standardization of process and translucency, along with making investors have skin in their game creates stronger and deeper financial markets. While we are shuffling decks on the Titanic, the Europeans are looking at the engines. I just wish I had more control over my pension plan (which unfortunately has to be a selection of professionally ‘managed’ screwed up funds rather than letting me have my own money to invest as I see fit.

Who is going to stop Wall Street before they kill again?