Weekly Audit: Congress Must Get Tough On Wall Street

 

 

 

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Congress returns from its April recess this week with financial reform at the top of its to-do list. With millions of Americans still bearing the brunt of the worst recession in 80 years, Congress needs to start protecting our economy from Wall Street excess, and repair the shredded social safety net that has allowed the Great Recession to exact a devastating human cost.

Big banks are an economic parasite

In an excellent multi-part interview with Paul Jay of The Real News, former bank regulator William Black explains how the financial industry has transformed itself into an economic parasite. Black explains that banks are supposed to serve as a sort of economic catalyst—financing productive businesses and fueling economic growth. This was largely how banks operated for several decades after the Great Depression, because regulations had ensured that banks had incentives to do useful things, and barred them from taking crazy risks.

The deregulatory movement of the past thirty years destroyed those incentives, allowing banks to book big profits by essentially devouring other parts of the economy. Instead of fueling productive growth, banks were actively assaulting the broader economy for profit. None of that subprime lending served any economic purpose. Neither do the absurd credit card fees banks charge, or the deceptive overdraft fees they continue to implement.

As Matt Taibbi explains in an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!, banks didn’t just cannibalize consumers. They also went directly after local governments, bribing public officials to ink debt deals that worked wonderfully for the banks, and terribly for communities. In Jefferson County, Ala., J.P. Morgan Chase helped turn a $250 million sewer project into a $5 billion burden for taxpayers. The deal generated nothing of value for either citizens or the economy, but J.P. Morgan Chase was still able to line the pockets of its shareholders and executives. This kind of behavior was illegal, but the transactions involved were complex financial derivatives, which are not currently subject to regulation. To this day, nobody at J.P. Morgan Chase has been prosecuted for bribery or corruption.

Congress set to avoid tough regulations

There is a clear need for Congress to enact some firm restrictions against risky and predatory bank activities. But at the behest of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Congress is doing its best to avoid inserting any hard terms in legislative language, instead leaving the specifics to federal regulators to work out. As Tim Fernholz emphasizes for The American Prospect, this is an exercise in futility. Regulators already have the power to impose more stringent rules on nearly every arena of Wall Street business that matters (derivatives are a very noteworthy exception). If they wanted to fix things, they could do it without Congressional help. The trouble is, the financial sector has polluted most of the regulatory agencies, so that many regulators now act more like lobbyists for the banks they regulate, rather than law enforcers. Indeed, as I note for AlterNet, the top bank regulator in the U.S. spent over a decade lobbying for the nation’s largest banks before taking up his current job. If Congress doesn’t establish firm rules, regulators under future administrations would be free to simply undo any measures that the current agencies actually implement.

Megabanks equal mega risks

As Stacy Mitchell illustrates for Yes! Magazine, most of the problems in the financial sector are connected to the size of our banking behemoths. Big banks have enormous power—if they fail, the economy goes off a cliff. As a result, any responsible government wouldn’t allow any of our megabanks to actually fail. But knowing that the government will protect them from any true catastrophes, big banks take bigger risks—if the risk pays off, they get rich, if it backfires, taxpayers will suck it up. That puts the interests of big banks at odds with the public interest, and creates an economy where bankers don’t try to finance useful projects with a safe and steady return, but instead back crazy bets that just might pay off.

You can’t fix that problem with regulations or idle threats of taking down a big bank when it gets itself in trouble—the markets won’t believe it, and the banks will still take risks. The only solution, Mitchell notes, is to break up the banks into smaller institutions that can fail without wreaking havoc on the economy.

Economic inequality weakening the economy

All of this ties into rampant economic inequality in the United States. Since the 1970s, conservatives have waged a constant battle on the social safety net, shredding protections for ordinary people, while empowering corporate executives to take advantage of them. In an illuminating blog post for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum highlights the fact that average income has only rose from about $20 an hour in 1972 to $23 an hour today. This isn’t because workers were slacking off—productivity has increased at roughly five times that rate. In other words, nearly all of the economic gains since the Nixon era have accrued to the wealthy.

When people don’t have access to strong and improving income, they finance things with credit. But if wages never actually improve, that debt becomes a significant burden. When an entire society finds itself overly indebted, people stop buying things, and the economy tanks. The predation in the American financial sector makes this problem even worse.

But political theatrics are even trumping efforts to provide relief to those hit hardest by the recession. Sens. Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Tom Coburn (R-NE) have blocked the extension of unemployment benefits twice in the past month. As Kai Wright emphasizes for ColorLines, that recklessness puts up to 400,000 Americans at risk of losing their unemployment checks. That’s a human tragedy—hundreds of thousands of people will have no way to pay the bills. It’s also bad for business, since those people won’t have any money to buy things that businesses produce. It is, in short, short-sighted economic insanity.

The economy is supposed to work for everybody, not just the rich, not just bankers. For that to happen, politicians have to establish meaningful regulations to make sure finance works for the greater good– and safety nets to make sure that anyone who falls through the cracks doesn’t see her life prospects permanently diminished.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

A Close Call With Education Reform

Several months ago I wrote about the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a bill which aims to make college more affordable.

The bill does this through several mechanisms. Firstly, it expands federal Pell Grants, which are government grants to low-income college students. These individuals would not be able to attend college without such types of aid (although an average Pell Grant these days would cover barely more than one-tenth the cost of attending a place like Harvard). The bill also sets Pell Grants to rise year after year, in line with inflation. President Barack Obama perhaps best explains the significance of this reform:

...we are also changing the way the value of a Pell Grant is determined.  Today, that value is set by Congress on an annual basis, making it vulnerable to Washington politics.  What we are doing is pegging Pell Grants to a fixed rate above inflation so that these grants don't cover less and less as families' costs go up and up.  And this will help prevent a projected shortfall in Pell Grant funding in a few years that could rob many of our poorest students of their dream of attending college.  It will help ensure that Pell Grants are a source of funding that students can count on each and every year.

Unfortunately, if the bill does not pass, this year's Pell Grants will be cut by more than half. In a bad recession and with ever-rising college tuition prices, this would severely impact a large number of Americans. Many individuals seeking to better their lives through college would be deeply hurt. Some might be forced to drop out. Others might have to add on yet more crushing student debt, forced to take exorbitant loans from private lenders.

The good news is that the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act also reforms the system of student debt. I previously wrote that under the current system:

...the federal government encourages banks to loan money to students. These loans are guaranteed and subsidized by the government.

Unfortunately, private banks are not in the business to help students. Many private student loans can be compared to sub-prime mortgages; they charge exorbitant interest rates, add numerous fees (e.g. the origination fee), and often take advantage of vulnerable, low-information customers. Moreover, under Republican banking reforms, student debt cannot be wiped away through bankruptcy.

Federal loans are different. Because the government is not out to make a profit, government loans (e.g. Stafford loans, Ford Direct student loans) generally carry lower interest rates and no fees.

Such a change, moreover, would reduce the deficit. The federal government would no longer refund private lenders if students defaulted, saving about $87 billion.

A bill which makes college more affordable, reduces student debt, and screws over the banks - it sounds too good to be true. What mad creature in Washington wouldn't support such a reform?

There are, in fact, two such creatures. Firstly, a number of Republican oppose the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act because of philosophical concerns. The reform substantially expands the role of government in education, which goes against the tenets of conservatism.

Secondly, banks and private lenders oppose the bill, for obvious reasons. These special interest groups have mounted an intense lobbying campaign, arguing that they can give more choices to 18-year-olds. They also give Senators something rather more important than choices: money.

A number of senators responded to this incentive. At least six Democrats - Bill Nelson (Fl.), Tom Carper (Del.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Jim Webb (Va.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) - wrote a letter expressing opposition to the bill because of job losses by banks. Yesterday Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota attempted to kill the bill, arguing that it did not fit budget reconciliation requirements. As of Thursday morning education reform appeared in trouble.

By the evening, however, a determined push by more supportive Democrats ended in progress for the law. Under the tentative agreement, it will be passed along with health care reform under Senate reconciliation.

Education reform is still by no means certain. There is still much time for banking lobbyists to kill reform with nobody noticing. With the public inattentive, a failure would have very little political consequence.

Yet a failure would have dramatic real-life consequences. The costs of college would continue to rise inexorably. Government education grants would be cut in half. Private student lenders would continue to prey upon unsophisticated teenagers, burdening them with astronomic, unfair loans. Millions of Americans would be left unable to attend college - unable to reach the American Dream.

This bill would not end these problems - it would not address the fundamental catalysts behind ever-rising college tuition. But perhaps, if it survives the assault by the banking community and becomes law, it will represent a beginning.

P.S. If you as the reader support the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, please call your senator, briefly voice your support for this reform, and go on with your day. Senators listen to the calls of their constituents. It is high time college became less expensive and more affordable, and a tiny step like this may yield urgent reform. Their numbers can be found at this useful site (although its purpose is somewhat different from education reform).

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

 

Big Banks Scam Students Out of Opportunity

The American Dream is perhaps our most powerful and enduring story. Through booms and busts, we insist (oftentimes in the face of overwhelmingly contrary evidence) that anyone who is willing to work hard can succeed. To the extent that the American Dream is a reality, it is due in large part to our secondary education system and the patchwork of loans, scholarships, and grants available for students. As sky-rocketing rates of student debt show us, though, these tools for expanding access to secondary education need retuning. There is talk of reform in Washington but, in a story that has become all too familiar, large financial institutions are standing in the way, protecting their profits at the expense of young people’s hopes and dreams.

There's more...

Small Banks, Big Impact

President Obama faced a remarkable political challenge in his recent State of the Union.  Beset on all sides—by populists on the left and right who are highly suspicious of him and all of institutional Washington, by an economy that can produce GDP growth but not jobs, by an increasing consensus that he has failed to connect his legislative priorities to core values since the election—he succeeded in, if nothing else, reminding us of the energy and passion that helped him build a network of committed volunteers, grassroots campaign staff, and small dollar donors.  In the speech he offered a litany of new financial policy prescriptions, including one—rolling $30 billion of TARP funds that big banks have already repaid into smaller, local banks—that has not garnered many headlines, but which represents an affirmation of the critical role that our communities play in our economic vibrancy.  

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Weekly Audit: Just Who is Obama fighting for?

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Progressives have waited a year for President Barack Obama to roll up his sleeves and fight for serious financial reform. Last week, he finally jumped in the ring, telling weak-kneed Senators to stand up to Wall Street and endorsing a critical ban on risky securities trading.

But while it was good to see Obama start throwing financial punches against the banks, this week he also started throwing them at workers. His recent rhetoric on implementing a spending freeze to reduce the deficit is an economic catastrophe in the making. It indicates that Obama is willing to sacrifice jobs to try and win over Republicans.

A spending freeze would kill jobs

A three-year spending freeze is crazy talk. It’s a right-wing ideologue’s dream that accomplishes nothing and drives millions of people out of work. John McCain campaigned on it during his 2008 presidential run. Our long-term deficit problems are tied to the rising cost of health care. If you want to fix the deficit, fix health care. In the short-term, there is no deficit problem. In fact, the U.S. fiscal position looks very good compared to many European nations.

As Matthew Rothschild notes for The Progressive, a spending freeze would kill any legislation to create jobs. With unemployment at 10%, the economy desperately needs another round of government spending to put people back to work. While the abrupt policy reversal is clearly a political ploy, voters care much more about results than they care about ideology. If Obama actively sabotages the job market to win over conservative deficit-hawks, he’ll be putting his political future in serious jeopardy.

And yet, as Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama’s recent, ramped-up rhetoric against banks still marks a significant change in tone. For most of the year, Obama hasn’t been involved in the financial reform debate at all, letting Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner capitulate to Wall Street and the politicians it owns. Benen highlights the end of Obama’s speech announcing his new banking rules on Jan. 21. Obama says:

So if these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have. And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can’t lend more to small business, they can’t keep credit card rates low, they can’t pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout without passing on the cost to shareholders or customers — that’s the claims they’re making. It’s exactly this kind of irresponsibility that makes clear reform is necessary.

Saving the CFPA

Katrina vanden Huevel lays out Obama’s new financial reform agenda in a column for The Nation, praising a new $117 billion tax on the nation’s largest banks, a plan to cap overall bank size, and a proposal to ban high-risk trading by economically essential commercial banks (more on that later).

But vanden Huevel also rightfully denounces recent indications that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) may cave to lobbyist pressure and drop the measure to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) from the Senate’s financial reform bill.

The death of the CFPA would be a devastating blow to reform. Existing bank regulatory agencies see their primary job as protecting bank profits, meaning that any time the interests of the U.S. consumer conflict with those of bank balance sheets, the regulators have shafted consumers. Current federal banking regulators not only failed to enforce consumer protection laws, they went so far as to join the bank lobby in suing state regulators who were trying to protect households from predatory lending.

Fortunately, Obama isn’t taking Dodd’s bank lobby-induced cowardice sitting down. At Talking Points Memo, Rachel Slajda highlights a New York Times report that claims Obama met with Dodd and told him that the CFPA is a “non-negotiable.”

Commercial banks are important

There’s a lot to like in Obama’s plan to bar commercial banks from participating in risky securities trading. As I emphasize in a piece for AlterNet, commercial banks form the backbone of the U.S. economy. They’re the institutions that accept your paychecks as deposits and keep businesses moving with loans. They also form the core of the economy’s payments system. Without commercial banks, nobody can pay anybody else for goods and services—the economy literally shuts down.

Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, regulators and lawmakers tore down the walls between commercial banking and riskier, complex securities trading, allowing these critical economic utilities to gamble in the capital markets like high-flying hedge funds. That kind of behavior puts the entire economy in jeopardy, and Obama’s proposal to end such behavior is very urgently needed.

But, as vanden Huevel and I both note, Obama’s cap on bank size is a little too timid. Obama indicated that he wants to prevent big banks from getting bigger going forward. That misses the point.

Bustin’ up “too big to fail”

Financial giants like Citigroup and Bank of America are already much too big and pose an economic threat. That’s why we refer to them as “too big to fail,” and why the government had to devote over $17 trillion to saving them. Obama must cap bank size and break up our behemoth banks into companies that are small enough to fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. A good rule of thumb: 1% of gross domestic product.

Shouting down the bank lobbyists

In Mother Jones, David Corn emphasizes that Obama’s credentials as a serious reformer depend more on his policy maneuvering than on his rhetoric. While it has been extremely promising see Obama finally demanding something serious from the financial giants that taxpayers saved, he’ll have to shout down the bank lobbyists to secure meaningful economic—or political—gains. Corn writes:

If Obama aims to be widely regarded as a warrior for the middle class, he will have to take some mighty swings that cut through the clutter. Proclaiming ‘I am a fighter’ will not be enough. He will have to name his foes (financial institutions, insurance companies, Republicans, and perhaps recalcitrant Democrats) and truly exchange blows.

Obama’s stance on the CFPA alone should be enough to get the lobbyists into a lather, but he’ll have to keep up the fight on multiple fronts if he wants to protect our economy from the Wall Street recklessness that spurred millions of foreclosures and sent the unemployment rate soaring into double digits.

Last week, Obama finally told us he was willing to fight for economic change. Now it looks like he’s going to attack anyone who is looking for a job. Let’s hope he turns it around before it’s too late.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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