Over the past year, Wall Street’s excess has helped push the unemployment rate to epic levels and created millions of foreclosures. Yet the rules of the financial road remain unchanged. As 2009 draws to a close, it’s astonishing that so little progress towards financial reform has been made.
President Obama, Congress and federal regulators have not been tough enough on the nation’s financial elite. As Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery emphasize for Mother Jones, the government has committed about $14 trillion in bailout funds to save the banking system without demanding much of anything in return. Goldman Sachs and other big banks are now planning to pay giant bonuses that come straight from taxpayer giveaways rather than invest that money in socially constructive banking.
“Bankers aren’t being rewarded for pulling the economy out of the doldrums,” Bauerlein and Jeffery write. “Nope, they’re simply skimming from the trillions we’ve shoveled at them.”
The major banks are even spending our bailout money to lobby against reform. When President Obama called a meeting for leaders of the nation’s largest banks to scold them for their lobbying, the heads of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup didn’t even bother to show up, as Matthew Rothschild describes in a podcast for The Progressive.
It’s easy to see why the bank execs are so indifferent, Rothschild argues, even to the president. Now that almost all of these banks have repaid the loans they received under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Obama has no negotiating leverage and the bankers know it. Even though it represents just a tiny fraction of the $14 trillion bailout, TARP was the only program that attached any strings to that money. Prior to those TARP repayments, Obama could have demanded that banks do more lending to help the economy, work harder to keep troubled borrowers in their homes—or face executive compensation restrictions or other penalties.
And many of the same regulators who helped bring about today’s economic disaster are still in power. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) explains for Brave New Films (video below), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke blew just about every major policy decision he faced in the years leading up to the crisis. Bernanke, who was recently named person of the year by Time magazine, failed to rein in reckless mortgage speculation, predatory lending or excessive compensation packages. Nevertheless, President Obama has appointed him to another term.
“This recession was precipitated by the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street,” Sanders says. “One of the key responsibilities of the Fed is to maintain the safety and soundness of our financial institutions … The Fed was asleep at the wheel, Bernanke did not do the job.”
Sanders notes that even Bernanke’s financial clean-up operations have been deeply flawed. Bernanke has helped make today’s too-big-to-fail banks even bigger. If we want to stop the lobbying and policy deference that politicians grant to Wall Street, we have to break up the biggest banks into smaller firms that do not endanger the economy if they fail.
Bernanke is not the only holdover from the Bush administration that wields significant economic power under Obama. As I note in a piece for The Nation, John Dugan, the top bank regulator appointed by President George W. Bush, remains in office today, despite failing to ensure the financial health of our largest banks and actively working to undermine consumer protection.
Campaign contributions from the bank lobby will not be enough to counter the voter outrage that President Obama and members of Congress are facing, nor should they. If our leaders want a serious shot at re-election, they need to recognize the need for significant change on Wall Street. That means breaking up the big banks and setting economic policy that helps all of our citizens, not just financiers.