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.

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.

Weekly Audit: Power to the People's Republic

by Sara Luckow, TMC MediaWire Blogger

In the past few years, the economic relationship between the United States and China has changed dramatically. As Tim Fernholz writes in the American Prospect: "Chastened U.S. officials who once lectured their counterparts in [China] on financial liberalization are now humbled in front of their largest creditor, reduced to offering promises of fiscal responsibility." It's a strange state of affairs. Fernholz rightly argues that:

"The common interest of the peoples, rather than the economic elite, ought to be the driving motivation behind the two countries' interactions. There is no doubt that economic openness has brought wealth to both countries, and the Obama administration is happy to laud the Chinese for bringing millions out of poverty. But in a relationship between "capitalism with American characteristics" and "socialism with Chinese characteristics," sometimes the people--whether they be workers losing jobs in the United States or the millions of Chinese living without political freedom or prosperity--have interests other than the elites. Today, we're in an economic crisis, and pragmatism overrides all else. But as recovery continues, the U.S. will require more thought on the strategic track, and perhaps in a few years our discussions with China, as they should be with all our friends, will be more frank."

But our current economic relationship with China pre-dates President Obama's "talk first" style of diplomacy. As Robert Scheer of The Nation writes: "Don't blame any of this on peacenik liberals. The new conciliatory--nay, deferential--tone toward China precedes the Obama administration, having begun in bilateral talks during the last years of the Bush administration as the U.S. economy began its ignominious downfall. It was George W. Bush's treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, who set the course when the former Goldman Sachs chairman realized how dependent were his Wall Street buddies on Chinese goodwill."

Strange relations with China aside, things aren't going so well at home. Rick Wolff, an economist from the New School, says the stimulus package has big problems in a discussion with The Real News. Wolff also notes that we shouldn't take Wall Street chatter about an economic upswing too seriously. "I think the first thing to remember is the people who are celebrating where we are now are the same people who could not imagine, did not imagine, did not foresee the problem we had last year," Wolff says.

But what's going on with our favorite bailout recipients? Talking Points Memo takes on the case of former Federal Pension Guarantor Charles Millard, who exploited his personal ties with employees at BlackRock Capital and Goldman Sachs while choosing firms to manage the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. At this point, both firms "may have run afoul of federal contracting rules in how they courted Millard."

Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are also on the lookout for the next big economic bubble. Salon reveals that both firms are diversifying their portfolios to include agriculture, in addition to government contracts. "Food is becoming the new oil," especially since the world's population is expected to crest nine billion by 2050. And a lot of land is necessary to grow enough food for nine billion people. Phillipe Heilberg, founder of American investment firm Jarch Capital, is hedging his bets on farmland in distressed countries. "Instead of buying stocks, the former banker is now speculating on the political future of South Sudan, which he insists will be an independent country in 10 years, at which point land will be far more expensive than it is today."

It's abundantly clear that we can't rely on the economic elite to represent the people's interests. Tomorrow's economic structure must be drastically different if the United States is going to thrive. Put simply, we're going to have to seriously reevaluate our economic priorities and decide who calls the shots. Here's hoping that everyday people have a say.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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