Democrats scramble to save reform package

Critics: Bill would not have stopped crisis

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Despite their efforts, the only provision in the Senate bill that would have forced big banks to divest some of the riskiest derivative securities operations was narrowed considerably in conference, leading many analysts to conclude that Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs will be able to continue many of their current activities or only gradually phase them out.

“The reforms will work to clamp down some excessive risk-taking. But if history is any guide, Wall Street will over time find new ways to maximize profits by seeking out loopholes and finding ways to cleverly circumvent some of the new rules,” said Bernard Baumohl, analyst at the Economic Outlook Group.

“After all, what followed the repeal of Glass-Steagall was an ongoing cat-and-mouse game among financial firms, regulators and legislators. It may sound cynical, but we suspect that game will start anew.”

While new regulation was necessary to reduce risks, Mr. Baumohl said, the tangle of new mandates on banks and uncertainties created by the lengthy regulatory process ahead will cause banks to remain overly cautious about lending, making it harder for the economy to recover.

“The more immediate threat to the economy is that banks are still too risk-averse and are keeping their lending windows shut,” he said. “The pendulum of risk-taking by lenders has swung to the side of excessive caution.”

Banking groups have been warning that elements of the bill aimed at making credit available on fairer and clearer terms — including bans on various kinds of credit fees — are too punitive and restrictive and end up making credit less available to consumers and small businesses.

But the bill’s advocates say the costs are worth the benefits of having a fairer and safer financial system.

“It is worth giving up a modest amount of economic growth in the good years to avoid the terrible downturns like the one we just experienced,” said Douglas Elliott, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The bill will not eliminate financial crises, but it will make them less frequent and considerably milder, which is all we can realistically accomplish.”

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