Reining in Wall Street: Round 1

A year and a half after the financial meltdown, Congress is about to
conclude Round One of the fight over reining in Wall Street. Let's hope
they're not planning to hang up their gloves.

The House and Senate are still working out the differences in their
respective versions of the financial reform bills. It's not too early,
however, to say that while the legislation will make some positive
differences in the lives of ordinary people and small businesses, it
will not be enough.

If we're to restore the financial sector to its original purpose of
serving the real economy, there will need to be more battles to come.

First, though, here are some of the highlights:

  • Consumer protection: A new Consumer Financial
    Protection Bureau will crack down on predatory lenders and fraudsters
    and make sure credit card and mortgage documents are written in plain
  • Mortgage reform: The Senate version
    bans kickbacks to loan officers who steer clients to higher-risk,
    higher-cost products. According to Bob Kuttner of the American
    Prospect, "had this been in force in 2006, there would have been no
    sub-prime crisis."
  • Derivatives reform:
    Although corporate lobbyists won some big loopholes, most derivatives
    trading will be brought out of the shadows and onto open exchanges. The
    hope is regulators will be able to better track and respond to the kind
    of out-of-control gambling that inflated the last financial market
    bubble. A Senate provision also forces the big banks to spin off some
    types of derivatives trading, but that's expected to die in the
    House-Senate conference committee.
  • Shareholder rights:
    Shareholders will get a "say on pay" on executive compensation.
    Although it's a nonbinding vote, the embarrassment factor might
    discourage boards from approving particularly obscene pay packages. The
    bills also make it easier for investors to nominate candidates for
    corporate boards, giving them more power to hold directors accountable.

These are small, positive steps in the right direction, but they do
not alter Wall Street's basic business model. They will shine a
brighter light on the financial sector and make some dangerous behavior
less profitable. But big-time gamblers will still have too much power
to run our economy like a casino.

That's why we need to start planning for Round Two. Here are two key pieces of unfinished business:

  • Breaking up the banks: The pending bills give
    government the power to seize and close down large failing firms that
    threaten the financial system, but they do nothing to limit bank size
    in the first place. As long as we have banks that are "too big too
    fail," taxpayers will always be on the hook for future bailouts.
  • Taxing the speculators: There is growing momentum around the world behind proposals to place a tiny tax (not more than 0.25%) on trades of derivatives,
    stocks, and currencies, as a way to curb excessive short-term
    speculation and raise hundreds of billions of dollars that could go to
    green jobs, health care, and climate finance.

On May 17, more than a thousand people rallied in Washington, DC,
calling for such a "financial speculation tax" as part of a broader
financial reform agenda. Under a steady cold rain, protestors expressed
the high level of anger over Wall Street's continued excesses at a time
when ordinary working families are still suffering from the crisis.

This Institute for Policy Studies video captures diverse
perspectives on why financial speculation taxes are one piece of the

The Washington rally was part of an international week of action to
"Make Finance Pay," with events in at least seven countries. Many chose
a Robin Hood theme, to make the point that a financial speculation tax
could generate massive revenues to fight poverty and other urgent needs.

In London, for example, campaigners dressed as Robin Hood delivered
giant mosaics of pictures of supporters to new members of Parliament.
In Berlin, activists performed a stunt in front of the Brandenburg
Gate, attacking a bankers' carriage with big bags of money and
redistributing it in smaller packets for the poor and the planet. In
Ottawa, the Canadian campaign staged a tug-of-war in front of the
Parliament building that pitted bankers against "the people" (plus one
polar bear).

As we roll up our sleeves for the next battle, it's important to
remember that it took 1930s reformers seven years to enact the six
landmark bills that helped stabilize the financial industry for many
decades. Less than two years into this crisis, it's time to join our
allies around the world and build a long-term, creative campaign to
transform the Wall Street economy.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.