Government

The $400 Billion Scribble

Democrats say they want to put the final touches on the finance reform bill this week. But there are still some key unanswered questions that will have a big effect on what the nation's financial system looks like.

Take, for example, that scribble up there. It was added last night to a proposal from House Dems, and it could put banks on the hook for the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Politico reports. That's likely to cost about $400 billion, and until now everbody has assumed that the government would bear that cost.

Two other big, still-unanswered questions:

Can banks make bets with their own money?

Lawmaker are still hashing out the details of the Volcker Rule, which would limit banks' ability to make speculative bets with their own money — typically by trading stocks and bonds, and by investing in hedge funds and private equity funds.

The practice is unlikely to be banned entirely; instead, CNBC reports, there will likely be a cap placed on how much money a bank can use for speculative investment — somewhere between 2 percent and 5 percent of capital.

(For more on banks making speculative bets, listen to our podcast from a few weeks back.)

Will banks have to spin off their derivatives units?

A provision in the Senate bill would require banks to create new, separate units to sell derivatives, financial instruments that allow companies to make bets and to hedge risks.

Creating separate units would require banks to set aside more money, as a cushion against losses. This would reduce the risk in the system, but also eat into banks' profits. It could also push the derivatives business overseas, and reduce the supply of credit, according to opponents.

Liberal Dems want to keep the provision, but moderates want to make it weaker, to give banks more leeway. The Washington Post has the latest on the debate over this amendment.

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