While Wall Street will ring in the new year with huge bonuses and taxpayer-fueled profits, there is little holiday cheer for the workers whose tax dollars funded the bank bailouts. Although bank stock prices have soared for most of the year, the unemployment rate has steadily climbed and the foreclosure crisis has swelled to epic proportions.
Nomi Prins details the disconnect between Wall Street and the rest of us for AlterNet. The government’s massive giveaways to big banks did not stop with the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. In fact, earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service granted Citigroup a $38 billion tax break for, well, nothing. Like every other financial boon the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have granted banks since 2008, this special holiday gift will help boost Citigroup’s profits, but does little to boost lending to small businesses, lower credit card interest rates or help struggling borrowers stay in their homes.
And while many of us have stopped being shocked by stories of subprime mortgage malfeasance by big banks, the economic landscape for homeowners is just as bad as it was when Lehman Brothers collapsed last fall. In a video spot for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, Amanda Zamora and Lagan Sebert profile Eliseo Guadardo, who is struggling to pay off a subprime mortgage he was given by a subsidiary of Washington Mutual (WaMu).
Like dozens of other lenders, WaMu employed extremely lax lending requirements that encouraged outright fraud by loan officers and mortgage brokers. In Guadardo’s case, his broker falsified his income statement to indicate that he made over $8,700 a month, when in fact, he made less than $2,000. WaMu never checked the broker’s records and Guadardo couldn’t decipher the mortgage paperwork until it was too late. Now he can’t pay his mortgage and his bank has not offered him a permanent mortgage work-out that will allow him to stay in his home.
WaMu’s corporate practices are no accident, as former bank regulator William Black explains in a separate video for the Investigative Fund by Sebert and David Heath. Bank executives routinely devise pay practices that reward both executives and employees for fraudulent behavior. The strategy results in massive profits in the short-term, and when the bank eventually goes bust from reckless lending, no one has to give back their bonuses, from the mortgage brokers to the executives themselves.
“The wonderful thing about fraud is that it produces guaranteed record profits,” Black says.
President Barack Obama doesn’t have to handle the banks with kid gloves, as Greg Kaufmann and Ryan Carpenter explain in a video for The Nation. The Obama administration has significant legal authority and massive public support to make banks answer to the public. It could require banks to rewrite predatory mortgages into loans that borrowers can afford to repay, something community activist groups like the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America have been urging Obama to do all year.
Banks weren’t the only companies that scored bogus profits from the housing bubble. Several corporate homebuilders made billions during the boom, often by creating shady arrangements with lenders to sell more houses or even getting into the mortgage business themselves. As Lindsay Beyerstein emphasizes at Working In These Times, the nation’s largest homebuilder, Pulte Homes, profited not only from constructing houses, but from issuing mortgages to the people who would live in them. This created a massive conflict of interest that encouraged Pulte to issue predatory mortgages to sell more homes. The problem became even more severe when Pulte decided to sell its mortgages off to investors, sticking the investor with any losses if the borrower can’t pay back the loan.
As Beyerstein explains, “Pulte has an incentive to build as many houses as possible and lend money to people who might not pay it back—after all, the company gets paid twice over, whether the borrowers default or not.”
During the Great Depression, Congress passed strict laws to prevent exactly this kind of activity. If you built homes, made cars, or sold clothes, you couldn’t be a bank or own a company that engaged in banking. Several loopholes have been punched in the law since the 1980s, however, and the results have been terrible: The banking divisions of both General Motors and General Electric went to the government for massive bailouts over the past year-and-a-half. Beyerstein notes that the Laborers’ International Union of North America is attempting to raise awareness and push for better regulations, recently leading a protest at Pulte’s headquarters.
But Pulte spent a lot of money on Congressional lobbying efforts to maintain its profitable-yet-destructive business model. So far it’s worked. Congress repeatedly approved massive tax breaks to homebuilders as an element of different economic stimulus bills over the past two years. Like the bank bailouts, those tax cuts helped add billions to the price tag for the stimulus legislation, but did nothing to spur productive economic activity or create jobs.
Massive bailouts for Wall Street have helped save the nation’s largest banks from economic catastrophe. But high stock prices for banks will not benefit the rest of the economy unless the government puts the same effort into saving our communities that it put into saving our financiers.