How the End of GE Capital Also Kills the Core Conservative Talking Point About Dodd-Frank

Apr 10, 2015Mike Konczal

News is breaking that GE Capital will be spinning off most of its financing arm, GE Capital, over the next two years. Details are still unfolding, but, according to the initial coverage, “GE expects that by 2018 more than 90 percent of its earnings will be generated by its high-return industrial businesses, up from 58% in 2014.”

It’s good that our industrial businesses will be focusing more on innovating and services rather than financial shenanigans, but this also tells us two important things about Dodd-Frank: it confirms one of the stories about the Act and disproves the core conservative talking point about what the Act does.

Regulatory Arbitrage

A very influential theory of the financial crisis is that there were financial firms acting just like banks but without the normal safeguards that traditionally went with banks. There was no public source of liquidity or backstops through the FDIC or the Federal Reserve, a public good capable of ending self-fulfilling panics. There was no mechanism to wind down the firms and impose losses outside of the bankruptcy code. There weren’t the normal capital requirements or consumer protections that went with the traditional commercial banking sector.

Though we now call this regulatory arbitrage, at the time it was seen as innovation. GE Capital was explicitly brought up as a poster child for deregulation. You can see it in Bob Litan  and Jonathan Rauch’s 1998 American Finance for the 21st Century, which lamented the “twentieth-century model of financial policy” that, using transportation as an analogy, “set a slow speed limit, specified a few basic models for cars, separated different kinds of cars into different lanes, and demanded that no one leave home without a full tank of gas and a tune-up.” GE Capital was explicitly an example of a firm that could thrive with a regulatory regime that “focuses less on preventing mishaps and more on ensuring that an accident at any one intersection will not paralyze traffic everywhere else.”

This was very apparent in the regulatory space. The fact that GE owned a Utah savings and loan allowed it to be regulated under the leniency of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), so it was able to work in the banking space without the normal rules in place. It was also able to use its high-level industrial credit rating to gamble weaker positions in the financial markets, arbitraging the private-sector regulation of the credit ratings agencies in the process.

How did that work out? First off, there was massive fraud. As Michael Hudson found in a blockbuster report, one executive declared that “fraud pays” and that “it didn’t make sense to slow the gush of loans going through the company’s pipeline, because losses due to fraud were small compared to the money the lender was making from selling huge volumes of loans.” Then there were the bailouts. The government backstopped $139 billion worth of GE Capital’s debts as it was collapsing and essentially had to manipulate the regulatory space to allow it to qualify for traditional banking protections. So much for not paralyzing traffic, and so much for the old rules not being important.

Dodd-Frank looked to normalize these regulations across both the shadow and regular banking sectors. It eliminated the OTS and declared GE Capital a systemically risky firm that has to follow higher capital requirements and prepare for bankruptcy with living wills just like we expect a bank to do, regardless of what kind of legal hijinks it is using to call itself something else. And GE Capital, faced with the prospect of having to play in the same field as everyone else, decided it should go back to trying to bring better things to life rather than making financial weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty good news, and a process that should be encouraged and continued.

The Collapse of the Conservative Argument

But there’s one ask GE has as it spins off GE Capital, one that actually disproves the core conservative argument on Dodd-Frank. In the coverage, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt states directly, “GE will work closely with [the regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council] to take the actions necessary to de-designate GE Capital as a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI).”

Dodd-Frank designates certain financial institutions, mostly over $50 billion in size, as systemically important. Or as the lingo goes, they get designated SIFI status. Those firms have stronger capital requirements and stronger requirements to be able to declare themselves ready for bankruptcy or FDIC resolution if they fail.

Conservatives, from the beginning, have made this the centerpiece of their story about Dodd-Frank. They argue that SIFI status is a de facto permanent bailout and claim that firms will demand to be designated as SIFIs because it means they will have a favored status. This status gives them easy crony relationships with regulators and allow them to borrow cheaply in the credit markets.

This has become doctrine on the right; I can’t think of a single movement conservative who has said the opposite. Examples of the mantra range from Peter Wallison of AEI writing “[t]he designation of SIFIs is a statement by the government that the designated firms are too big to fail” to Reason’s Nick Gillespie repeating that “everyone agrees [Dodd-Frank] has simply reinscribed too big to fail as explicit law.” (I love an “everyone agrees” without any sourcing.)

It’s also the basis of proposed policy. The Ryan budget cancels out the FDIC’s ability to regulate SIFIs, stating that Dodd-Frank “actually intensifies the problem of too-big-to-fail by giving large, interconnected financial institutions advantages that small firms will not enjoy.”

If that’s the case, GE should be desperate to maintain its SIFI status even though it is spinning off its GE Capital line. After all, being a SIFI means it gets all kinds of favored protections, access, and credit relative to other firms.

But, instead GE is desperate to lose it. This is genuine; ask any financial press reporter or analyst, and they’ll tell you that GE is very sincere when it says it doesn’t want to be designated as risky anymore, and is willing to take appropriate measures to remove the designation.

If that’s the case, what’s left of the GOP argument?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

News is breaking that GE Capital will be spinning off most of its financing arm, GE Capital, over the next two years. Details are still unfolding, but, according to the initial coverage, “GE expects that by 2018 more than 90 percent of its earnings will be generated by its high-return industrial businesses, up from 58% in 2014.”

It’s good that our industrial businesses will be focusing more on innovating and services rather than financial shenanigans, but this also tells us two important things about Dodd-Frank: it confirms one of the stories about the Act and disproves the core conservative talking point about what the Act does.

Regulatory Arbitrage

A very influential theory of the financial crisis is that there were financial firms acting just like banks but without the normal safeguards that traditionally went with banks. There was no public source of liquidity or backstops through the FDIC or the Federal Reserve, a public good capable of ending self-fulfilling panics. There was no mechanism to wind down the firms and impose losses outside of the bankruptcy code. There weren’t the normal capital requirements or consumer protections that went with the traditional commercial banking sector.

Though we now call this regulatory arbitrage, at the time it was seen as innovation. GE Capital was explicitly brought up as a poster child for deregulation. You can see it in Bob Litan  and Jonathan Rauch’s 1998 American Finance for the 21st Century, which lamented the “twentieth-century model of financial policy” that, using transportation as an analogy, “set a slow speed limit, specified a few basic models for cars, separated different kinds of cars into different lanes, and demanded that no one leave home without a full tank of gas and a tune-up.” GE Capital was explicitly an example of a firm that could thrive with a regulatory regime that “focuses less on preventing mishaps and more on ensuring that an accident at any one intersection will not paralyze traffic everywhere else.”

This was very apparent in the regulatory space. The fact that GE owned a Utah savings and loan allowed it to be regulated under the leniency of the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), so it was able to work in the banking space without the normal rules in place. It was also able to use its high-level industrial credit rating to gamble weaker positions in the financial markets, arbitraging the private-sector regulation of the credit ratings agencies in the process.

How did that work out? First off, there was massive fraud. As Michael Hudson found in a blockbuster report, one executive declared that “fraud pays” and that “it didn’t make sense to slow the gush of loans going through the company’s pipeline, because losses due to fraud were small compared to the money the lender was making from selling huge volumes of loans.” Then there were the bailouts. The government backstopped $139 billion worth of GE Capital’s debts as it was collapsing and essentially had to manipulate the regulatory space to allow it to qualify for traditional banking protections. So much for not paralyzing traffic, and so much for the old rules not being important.

Dodd-Frank looked to normalize these regulations across both the shadow and regular banking sectors. It eliminated the OTS and declared GE Capital a systemically risky firm that has to follow higher capital requirements and prepare for bankruptcy with living wills just like we expect a bank to do, regardless of what kind of legal hijinks it is using to call itself something else. And GE Capital, faced with the prospect of having to play in the same field as everyone else, decided it should go back to trying to bring better things to life rather than making financial weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty good news, and a process that should be encouraged and continued.

The Collapse of the Conservative Argument

But there’s one ask GE has as it spins off GE Capital, one that actually disproves the core conservative argument on Dodd-Frank. In the coverage, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt states directly, “GE will work closely with [the regulators at the Financial Stability Oversight Council] to take the actions necessary to de-designate GE Capital as a Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI).”

Dodd-Frank designates certain financial institutions, mostly over $50 billion in size, as systemically important. Or as the lingo goes, they get designated SIFI status. Those firms have stronger capital requirements and stronger requirements to be able to declare themselves ready for bankruptcy or FDIC resolution if they fail.

Conservatives, from the beginning, have made this the centerpiece of their story about Dodd-Frank. They argue that SIFI status is a de facto permanent bailout and claim that firms will demand to be designated as SIFIs because it means they will have a favored status. This status gives them easy crony relationships with regulators and allow them to borrow cheaply in the credit markets.

This has become doctrine on the right; I can’t think of a single movement conservative who has said the opposite. Examples of the mantra range from Peter Wallison of AEI writing “[t]he designation of SIFIs is a statement by the government that the designated firms are too big to fail” to Reason’s Nick Gillespie repeating that “everyone agrees [Dodd-Frank] has simply reinscribed too big to fail as explicit law.” (I love an “everyone agrees” without any sourcing.)

It’s also the basis of proposed policy. The Ryan budget cancels out the FDIC’s ability to regulate SIFIs, stating that Dodd-Frank “actually intensifies the problem of too-big-to-fail by giving large, interconnected financial institutions advantages that small firms will not enjoy.”

If that’s the case, GE should be desperate to maintain its SIFI status even though it is spinning off its GE Capital line. After all, being a SIFI means it gets all kinds of favored protections, access, and credit relative to other firms.

But, instead GE is desperate to lose it. This is genuine; ask any financial press reporter or analyst, and they’ll tell you that GE is very sincere when it says it doesn’t want to be designated as risky anymore, and is willing to take appropriate measures to remove the designation.

If that’s the case, what’s left of the GOP argument?

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
 
  

 

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Daily Digest - February 19: Can Housing Reform Turn Back the Clock?

Feb 19, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Set the Wayback Machine for Housing Finance Reform, But to When? (CLS Blue Sky Blog)

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Set the Wayback Machine for Housing Finance Reform, But to When? (CLS Blue Sky Blog)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Brad Miller lays out the history of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to argue for a stronger government role in creating a safe and affordable mortgage market.

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Bernie Sanders, Mulling Presidential Run, Adopts Novel Stance on Deficit (AJAM)

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Why Do Americans Feel Entitled to Tell Poor People What to Eat? (The Nation)

Unlike other government programs that people benefit from, like student loans and mortgage deductions, EBT cards are highly visible, creating opportunities for judgment, writes Bryce Covert.

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Daily Digest - February 12: Populism Won The Day

Feb 12, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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How Democratic Progressives Survived a Landslide (TAP)

Bob Moser says that populist, localized campaign messages, not the party's own turnout strategy, saved a few key Democratic races in the 2014 midterm elections.

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How Democratic Progressives Survived a Landslide (TAP)

Bob Moser says that populist, localized campaign messages, not the party's own turnout strategy, saved a few key Democratic races in the 2014 midterm elections.

  • Roosevelt Take: Moser references Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch's post-election analysis on winning populist messaging.

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Robert Litan explains that Senator Paul's proposal calls on Government Accountability Office economists to go outside their expertise to report on the Fed's activity and minimize its independence.

Payday Loans Are Bleeding American Workers Dry. Finally, the Obama Administration Is Cracking Down. (TNR)

Danny Vinik breaks down how payday loans harm consumers: the initial loan might not be so bad, but the repeated roll-overs have a high cost. Limiting those roll-overs is one potential regulation.

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Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch argues that voters are responding not to envy, but to the knowledge that everyone needs to take a fair share of responsibility for shared prosperity.

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Daily Digest - February 11: How Can Small Donors Gain Big Influence?

Feb 11, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Our partners at As You Sow are hosting a webinar on excessive executive compensation tomorrow at 2pm EST. Register here.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Our partners at As You Sow are hosting a webinar on excessive executive compensation tomorrow at 2pm EST. Register here.

Big Money Can’t Buy Elections – Influence is Something Else (Reuters)

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Soros suggests stronger small-donor matching funds and reforms to the Federal Election Commission to work around Citizens United.

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New on Next New Deal

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What Happens if Europe Cuts Off the Greek Banks?

Roosevelt Institute Fellow J.W. Mason argues Greek banks won't collapse without the European Central Bank's support, since Greece's own central bank can maintain internal payments.

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Daily Digest - January 29: Without Food Stamps, How Many Kids Would Go Hungry?

Jan 29, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Census Says 16m U.S. Children are Living on Food Stamps, Double the Number in 2007 (The Guardian)

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Census Says 16m U.S. Children are Living on Food Stamps, Double the Number in 2007 (The Guardian)

One in five American children would go hungry without food stamps, writes Jana Kasperkevic, which makes continued Republican efforts to cut the program especially worrying.

The Tax Loophole (Almost) Everyone Should Want to Close (Medium)

James Kwak breaks down the step-up in basis for capital gains loophole and why he thinks it ought to be eliminated: because it's strange that our system rewards dying with unsold assets.

  • Roosevelt Take: In his white paper on tax reform, Roosevelt Institute Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz also argues against this loophole.

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Binyamin Appelbaum reports on the Federal Reserve's latest statement and what it will mean for raising interest rates. At this point, rates won't be raised until at least June.

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Obama Is Finally Getting Credit for the Recovery (TNR)

Danny Vinik says that the Republican arguments claiming the recovery happened in spite of the president's policies are falling apart, leaving no other option but to give him credit.

'Housing First' Policy for Addressing Homelessness Hamstrung By Funding Issues (TAP)

Rachel M. Cohen says that "housing first" policies are pretty clearly a more effective way to fight homelessness, but without sufficient funding and housing stock, can't be fully put into action.

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Daily Digest - January 28: Raising Rates is a Rising Challenge

Jan 28, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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Hard Choices on Easy Money Lie Ahead for Fed Chief (WSJ)

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Hard Choices on Easy Money Lie Ahead for Fed Chief (WSJ)

Janet Yellen's second year as Federal Reserve Chair begins with the difficult task of creating consensus on raising interest rates, write Jon Hilsenrath and Pedro da Costa.

U.S. Companies Cut More Than 1m Jobs a Month. When Did Workers Stop Mattering? (The Guardian)

Suzanne McGee points at large-scale layoffs at big name companies that seek to raise their stock prices as a sign that the U.S. economy no longer sees workers as a worthwhile investment.

You're Probably Richer Than You Think You Are: How Inequality Screws With Our Perspective (The Week)

Jeff Spross says that arguments over proposed changes to college savings accounts demonstrate just how easily some Americans lose sight of how high they sit within the economy.

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Answering President Obama’s Call, House Introduces Paid Sick Leave Bill for Workers (In These Times)

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Daily Digest - January 7: Dynamic Scoring Comes to Washington

Jan 7, 2015Rachel Goldfarb

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U.S. House Votes to Adopt Contentious Changes to Cost Estimates (Reuters)

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U.S. House Votes to Adopt Contentious Changes to Cost Estimates (Reuters)

Under new rules passed by the House, cost estimates on fiscal legislation will be measured using dynamic scoring, which could mask the impact of tax cuts, reports David Lawder.

Where Working Women Are Most Common (NYT)

Gregor Aisch, Josh Katz, and David Leonhardt examine data on women's employment rates throughout the country, considering the differing circumstances that lead women to work or not work.

Obama to Pick Former Bank of Hawaii CEO to Be Fed Governor (Bloomberg News)

Cheyenne Hopkins and Jesse Hamilton report that the President will soon announce the nomination of Allan Landon, who has worked at a firm that invests in community banks since 2010.

The Next Big Fight Among Democrats? (WaPo)

Greg Sargent says the next economic fight between populist Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration will be about how much to raise the salary threshold for overtime pay.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch says these fights between populists and the administration are about the soul of the Democratic party.

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Let the Fed Lend Directly to Cities and States to Save Taxpayers Billions

Jan 5, 2015Saqib Bhatti

(Updated: 1/5/15) Note: If you like this idea, be sure to vote for it in the Progressive Change Institute's Big Ideas Project. The top 20 ideas will be presented to members of Congress. Voting ends on Sunday, January 11. Click here to vote!

Using our central bank's resources to save cash-strapped local governments from bankruptcy would prevent economic devastation and bring other benefits.

(Updated: 1/5/15) Note: If you like this idea, be sure to vote for it in the Progressive Change Institute's Big Ideas Project. The top 20 ideas will be presented to members of Congress. Voting ends on Sunday, January 11. Click here to vote!

Using our central bank's resources to save cash-strapped local governments from bankruptcy would prevent economic devastation and bring other benefits.

The Federal Reserve should be allowed to make long-term loans directly to cities, states, school districts, and other public agencies so taxpayers can get low interest rates and avoid predatory Wall Street fees. Currently, banks borrow money at near-zero interest rates from the Fed while public entities are forced to pay billions in fees and interest each year. Cities and states should have access to the same low interest rates that banks enjoy so that taxpayer money earmarked for infrastructure improvement and other public goods will no longer be spent subsidizing corporate profits. If the Fed lent directly to cities and states at low interest, it would free up public dollars for services like education and mass transit. Direct loans from the Fed could also help alleviate fiscal crises and become a tool for promoting stronger environmental and labor protections.

Fiscal crises and municipal bankruptcies are typically caused by revenue shortfalls. The definition of "municipal insolvency" is the inability to pay debts as they come due. A city is insolvent and can file for bankruptcy if it is not bringing in enough revenue to be able to pay its bills on time. For example, although there were many political and economic causes for Detroit’s bankruptcy, the technical reason that Detroit went bankrupt was that the city had a $198 million revenue shortfall and could not pay all of its bills. A $198 million loan could have allowed Detroit to avoid bankruptcy. In the future, we can prevent untold devastation if the Fed can provide affordable loans to municipal borrowers.

Detractors will argue that it would be imprudent to use federal taxpayer dollars to make loans to distressed cities and states that might be unable to pay them back. However, the reality is that municipal borrowers in the United States have extremely low rates of default because their debt is ultimately backed by tax revenues. According to Moody’s, one of the three major credit rating agencies in the country, the default rate for municipal issuers that it rates was 0.012 percent between 1970 and 2012. Even though there has been a slight uptick following the financial crisis, the likelihood of municipal default is still virtually nonexistent.

If a municipality defaults on a loan, it is because elected officials made a political decision to default rather than raise taxes. In the case of Detroit, state elected officials in Michigan made that decision by cutting revenue-sharing with the city and prohibiting it from raising additional taxes. The Fed could take proactive steps to address this political problem. For example, it could attach a provision requiring elected officials to raise taxes on large corporations and high-income earners to avoid defaulting on loans from the Fed.

Direct loans from the Fed could also be used to promote fair and sustainable development. Either Congress or the Fed could establish minimum labor and environmental standards that cities and states must abide by to qualify for a loan from the Fed. For example, cities that borrow from the Fed could be required to pay all workers a living wage. Any state that borrows from the Fed for highway repairs could be required to establish stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars. The Fed could also prioritize loans for green infrastructure improvements. This would ensure that direct loans from the Fed support long-term national interests.

Currently, the Fed already has the power to purchase municipal debt securities that mature within six months. In other words, the Fed effectively has the power to lend to cities and states for up to six months, with some caveats. But if Congress were to pass a law allowing the Federal Reserve to make long-term loans directly to cities and states, we could start using our central bank to support the long-term financial, economic, and environmental health of our cities and states. It would allow us to cut Wall Street out of the middle and ensure that our taxpayer dollars are going toward improving our communities instead of padding banker bonuses.

Saqib Bhatti is a Roosevelt Institute Fellow and Director of the ReFund America Project.

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Daily Digest - December 22: Yellen Speaks and the Markets Answer

Dec 22, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Markets Bounce After Yellen Announcement (Melissa Harris-Perry)

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Markets Bounce After Yellen Announcement (Melissa Harris-Perry)

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Daily Digest - December 19: It's a Whole New Economic Policy-Making World

Dec 18, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

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Uncharted Interest Rate Territory (U.S. News & World Report)

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Uncharted Interest Rate Territory (U.S. News & World Report)

Jason Gold points out that since interest rates have been declining for 33 years, none of today's lawmakers know quite what they're in for when the Fed begins to raise rates in 2015.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal says that raising interest rates is not the way to fight "financial instability."

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A Big Safety Net and Strong Job Market Can Coexist. Just Ask Scandinavia. (NYT)

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Pro-Warren Protesters Take Their Fight to Wall Street (MSNBC)

Zachary Roth reports on yesterday's protest at Citigroup's New York City headquarters, where protesters denounced the Citigroup-crafted measure weakening Dodd-Frank in the spending bill.

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Paul Kiel and Chris Arnold profile the Missouri hospital that sues the most patients in the state. Nonprofit hospitals are required to offer low-cost charity care, but that isn't particularly regulated.

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