“A regulatory structure set up for banks in the 1930s needed to change because the nature of business had changed,” the Illinois senator running for president said in a New York economic speech. “But by the time [it] was repealed in 1999, the $300 million lobbying effort that drove deregulation was more about facilitating mergers than creating an efficient regulatory framework.”
Gramm’s role in the swift and dramatic recent restructuring of the nation’s investment houses and practices didn’t stop there.
A year after the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the old regulations, Swiss Bank UBS gobbled up brokerage house Paine Weber. Two years later, Gramm settled in as a vice chairman of UBS’s new investment banking arm.
Later, he became a major player in its government affairs operation. According to federal lobbying disclosure records, Gramm lobbied Congress, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department about banking and mortgage issues in 2005 and 2006.
During those years, the mortgage industry pressed Congress to roll back strong state rules that sought to stem the rise of predatory tactics used by lenders and brokers to place homeowners in high-cost mortgages.
For his work, Gramm and two other lobbyists collected $750,000 in fees from UBS’s American subsidiary. In the past year, UBS has written down more then $18 billion in exposure to subprime loans and other risky securities and is considering cutting as many as 8,000 jobs.
Gramm did not respond to an e-mail, and was unavailable for comment, according to a UBS spokesman. The bank has no official position on the subprime crisis, the spokesman said, but is a member of the Financial Services Roundtable and other industry groups that are actively lobbying Congress on the issue.
Now, some housing experts and economists see Gramm’s thinking in the recent housing proposal from McCain, the Republican Party’s presumed presidential nominee. Gramm is often a surrogate for the Arizona senator, particularly in meetings focused on the economy. And McCain has hinted he’d consider the former Texas senator for Treasury secretary in a McCain administration.
McCain delievered an economic speech Tuesday that had Gramm's input, but it was written by domestic policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin.
“Sen. Gramm was one of dozens of folks who Sen. McCain has consulted on the housing issue, including Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman from eBay," said McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers. "They've been friends for years and he values Sen. Gramm's advice."
In the speech, McCain rejected the type of aggressive government intervention in the economic meltdown that has been embraced by his Democratic opponents — and even some Bush advisers.
“I have always been committed to the principle that it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers,” McCain said. “Government assistance to the banking system should be based solely on preventing systemic risk that would endanger the entire financial system and the economy.”
McCain’s campaign later clarified that he would support programs for “deserving” homeowners and reforms that would improve transparency and accountability in capital markets.
Andrew Jakabovics, a housing expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said McCain’s interpretation of the crisis puts little blame on investment banks for their role in packaging the subprime loans into dangerously complex and ultimately hard to value financial instruments.
“I’d characterized this as the deux ex machine theory of financial products,” Jakabovics said. “He views this as a market problem that manifests at the local level as housing, meaning he’s more likely to argue in favor these guys when they argue for deregulation.”
Wall Street firms are increasingly under scrutiny for contributing to the economic downturn by packaging and selling risky mortgage securities. When the home loans tied to the mortgages defaulted, investors and the banks lost billions, contributing to a widespread credit crunch.
“I think [McCain’s] attitude is the market can basically handle this and government doesn’t need to be heavily involved,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poor’s.
McCain and Gramm have a long political history. The two became close when they worked together as senators to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 1993 health care plan, holding meetings at hospitals and clinics across the country.
In 1996, McCain was national chairman of Gramm's unsuccessful presidential bid.
In 2000, the duo had a rare parting when Gramm backed his home-state governor, George W. Bush, for president instead of McCain. But they’ve reunited in this presidential race.
Gramm stood by his former Senate colleague in his worst days last summer when his campaign went broke and his candidacy was all but written off by political observers.
Gramm, who had joined the campaign in March as a domestic policy adviser, was among those who helped cut staff and shrink the budgets. He traveled with McCain in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and stumped for him in Georgia.
Staff writer Victoria McGrane contributed to this story.