In a strange turn of events, Sen. Blanche Lincoln's office (D-AR) now says that the most controversial section of her derivatives bill (.pdf) would not force banks to spin off their derivatives desks. The Wall Street Journal reports that she wants to allow bank parent companies to remain in the derivatives business, but to put that function in a subsidiary separate from its consumer banking. This changes everything.
It's a little suspicious that this announcement has been only made now. For weeks, journalists, economists, bankers, and politicians have been talking about the effect on the market spinning off derivatives desks would have. Why did Lincoln wait so long to correct them? Did she decide to reinterpret her own bill due to the controversy that ultimately surrounded it? After all, even the Obama administration thought this proposal went too far.
The provision grows out of the bill forbidding any federal assistance (like depository insurance) for any bank that deals derivatives. Apparently Lincoln only intended to deny assistance for a subsidiary -- not the whole institution? What's the point?
Under the earlier interpretation of the provision, the motivation appeared to be that banks would be safer without derivatives. But if its parent still has a securities firm under its umbrella, then it could again run into trouble due to its derivatives desk if things go bad. Think about AIG. In that case, its financial products division caused most of its massive losses. Even if that was a separate subsidiary from its life insurance group, AIG would still have been in trouble on a whole.