The Bet That Blew Up Wall Street

Steve Kroft On Credit Default Swaps And Their Central Role In The Unfolding Economic Crisis

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In the early part of the 20th century, the streets of New York and other large cities were lined with gaming establishments called "bucket shops," where people could place wagers on whether the price of stocks would go up or down without actually buying them. This unfettered speculation contributed to the panic and stock market crash of 1907, and state laws all over the country were enacted to ban them.

"Big headlines, huge type. This is the front page of the New York Times," Dinallo explains, holding up a headline that reads "No bucket shops for new law to hit."

"So they'd already closed up 'cause the law was coming. Here's a picture of one of them. And they were like parlors. See," Dinallo says. "Betting parlors. It was a felony. Well, it was a felony when a law came into effect because it had brought down the market in 1907. And they said, 'We're not gonna let this happen again.' And then 100 years later in 2000, we rolled them all back."

The vehicle for doing this was an obscure but critical piece of federal legislation called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. And the bill was a big favorite of the financial industry it would eventually help destroy.

It not only removed derivatives and credit default swaps from the purview of federal oversight, on page 262 of the legislation, Congress pre-empted the states from enforcing existing gambling and bucket shop laws against Wall Street.

"It makes it sound like they knew it was illegal," Kroft remarks.

"I would agree," Dinallo says. "They did know it was illegal. Or at least prosecutable."

In retrospect, giving Wall Street immunity from state gambling laws and legalizing activity that had been banned for most of the 20th century should have given lawmakers pause, but on the last day and the last vote of the lame duck 106th Congress, Wall Street got what it wanted when the Senate passed the bill unanimously.

"There was an awful lot of, 'Trust us. Leave it alone. We can do it better than government,' without any realistic understanding of the dangers involved," says Harvey Goldschmid, a Columbia University law professor and a former commissioner and general counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

He says the bill was passed at the height of Wall Street and Washington's love affair with deregulation, an infatuation that was endorsed by President Clinton at the White House and encouraged by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

"That was the wildest and silliest period in many ways. Now, again, that's with hindsight because the argument at the time was these are grownups. They're institutions with a great deal of money. Government will only get in the way. Fears it will be taken overseas. Leave it alone. But it was a wrong-headed argument. And turned out to be, of course, extraordinarily unwise," Goldschmid says.