Weekly Audit: Why Elizabeth Warren Should Head New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Bumped from the diaries with timestamp updated and fold added.

This piece makes good arguments for putting Warren in charge of the CFPB, against Tim Geithner's wishes. I would encourage you to sign this petition from Bold Progressives after signing. Usually petitions don't amount to much (a handful of signatures on a well-known or popular issue? Please), but in this case, they've already got 160k names for an obscure topic. Now that's democracy in action. - Nathan

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

With the Wall Street reform bill finally cleared through Congress, activists and intellectuals are pushing hard to make sure that this bill isn’t the last word Congress utters about Big Finance. We need deeper and more robust reforms, but it’s also critical to ensure that the new bill is implemented as effectively as possible. Part of that means appointing officials with a proven record as robust reformers—people like Elizabeth Warren.

Too-big-to-fail lives on

What more do we need to keep Big Finance from ravaging the middle class? As Stacy Mitchell notes for Yes! Magazine, the bill Congress just signed off on doesn’t really address the core problems posed by our out-of-control banking system. Too-big-to-fail is alive and well, and lawmakers must push to break up the megabanks during the next legislative cycle or risk another economic calamity. Mitchell writes:

“Since the collapse, giant banks have only grown bigger and more powerful, and less responsive to the needs of the real economy. While the financial reform bill includes several worthwhile measures, it will not set the industry right or entail a fundamental alteration of its scale and structure.”

There are still some great reforms in the current round of legislation, among them the creation of a strong new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to write and enforce rules on mortgages, credit cards, overdraft fees and more. The first person to head this new regulatory body will be tremendously important to its future. They will set the tone for the bureau’s operations and establish a culture that will define it for years to come.

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Weekly Audit: Wall Street Goes to the Movies

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan that would have broken up the nation’s six largest banks firms into firms that could fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. Even though the defeat reinforces Wall Street’s political dominance, there is still room for a handful of other useful reforms, like banning banks from gambling with taxpayer money and protecting consumers from banker abuses. After looting our houses, banks are now pushing for the ability to bet on movie box-office receipts, and will keep trying to financialize anything they can unless Congress acts.

Wall Street calls the shots

Writing for The Nation, John Nichols details last week’s Capitol Hill damage. Today’s financial oligarchy, in which a handful of bigwig bankers and their lobbyists are able to write regulations and evade rules they don’t like, will still be in place after the Wall Street reform bill is passed. The lesson is clear, as Nichols notes:

Whatever the final form of federal financial services reform legislation, one thing is now certain: The biggest of the big banks will still be calling the shots.

Still worth fighting for

As I emphasize for AlterNet, Congress has made a terrible mistake here, but there is still room for reform. It took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal banking laws. It took even longer to reshape public opinion of monopolies when President Theodore Roosevelt took on Corporate America in the early 1900s.

What’s still worth fighting for? We have to curb the derivatives market—the multi-trillion-dollar casino that destroyed AIG. We have to impose a strong version of the Volcker Rule, which would ban banks from engaging in speculative trading for their own accounts. We have to change the way the Federal Reserve does business and force the government’s most secretive bailout engine to operate in the open. And we have to establish a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to ensure that the horrific subprime mortgage abuses are not repeated.

As Nomi Prins details for The American Prospect, the current reform bill will not effectively deal with the dangers posed by hedge funds and private equity firms—companies that partnered with banks to blow up the economy through investments in subprime mortgages. That means that whatever happens with the current bill, Congress must again take action next year to rein in other financial sector excesses.

The derivatives casino at the movies

As Nick Baumann demonstrates for Mother Jones, banks are doing everything they can to gobble up other productive elements of the economy. The economy crashed in 2008 in large part because banks had used the derivatives market to place trillions of dollars in speculative bets on the housing market. This wasn’t lending, it was pure gambling: Instead of using poker chips, bankers placed their bets with derivatives. But, as Baumann emphasizes, banks are now looking to expand the sort of thing they can make derivatives gambles with. The latest proposal is to allow banks to bet on the box office success of movies. That’s right, banks would be gambling on movies.

Hollywood may be shallow, but it isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want to see the banking industry repeat its destructive looting of the housing industry on the movie business, and is pushing hard to ban banks from betting on movies. But we can’t count on every industry having a powerful lobby group to counter every assault from the banking system.

Taking stock in schools

Consider the unsettling report by Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!. Gonzales details how big banks gamed the charter school system to score huge profits while simultaneously saddling taxpayers with massive debts that make teaching kids supremely difficult. By exploiting multiple federal tax credits, banks that invest in charter schools have been able to double their money in seven years—no small feat in the investing world—while schools have seen their rents skyrocket. One school in Albany, N.Y. saw its rent jump from $170,000 to $500,000 in a single year.

About that unemployment rate…

It’s not like public schools are flush with cash right now. The $330,000 increase in rent could pay the salaries of more than a few teachers. As the recession sparked by big bank excess grinds on, even the good news is pretty hard to swallow. As David Moberg emphasizes for Working In These Times, the economy added 290,000 jobs in April, but the unemployment rate actually climbed from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent in March. That’s because the unemployment rate only counts workers who are actively seeking a job—if you want a job but haven’t found one for so long that you give up, you’re not technically “unemployed.” All of those “new” workers are driving the official figures up.

In other words, it’s still rough out there. And likely to stay rough as state governments try to deal with the lost tax revenue from plunging home values and mass layoffs. Nearly half of all unemployed people in the U.S. have been out of a job for six months or more. And while we’d be much worse off without Obama’s economic stimulus package, that percentage is likely to grow this year, Moberg notes.

This is what unrestrained banking behemoths do. They book big profits and bonuses for themselves, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the economy. Congress absolutely must impose serious financial reform this year. After the November election, breaking up the banks must once again be on the agenda when Congress considers the future fate of hedge funds, private equity firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If we don’t rein in Wall Street, banks will continue to wreak havoc on our homes, our jobs and even our schools. Congress must act.

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: How Deregulation Fueled Goldman Sachs’ Scam

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed fraud charges against Goldman Sachs and underscored what most Americans have believed for some time: Wall Street has rigged the economy in its own favor, and will stop at nothing—not even outright theft—to boost its profits. What’s worse, Goldman’s scam could have been completely prevented by better regulations and law enforcement.

Goldman’s heist

Let’s be clear. “Financial fraud” means “theft.” Goldman Sachs sold investors securities that were stocked with subprime mortgages and had been cherry-picked by a hedge fund manager named John Paulson. Paulson believed these mortgages were about to go bust, so he helped Goldman Sachs concoct the securities so that he could bet against them himself.

Goldman Sachs, like Paulson, also bet against the securities. But when Goldman sold the securities to investors, it didn’t tell them that Paulson had devised the securities, or that he was betting on their failure. By withholding crucial information from investors, Goldman directly profited from the scam at the expense of its own clients. If ordinary citizens did what the SEC’s alleges Goldman did, we’d call it stealing.

As Nick Baumann emphasizes for Mother Jones, the SEC’s suit against Goldman is just the tip of the iceberg. During the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, literally thousands of bankers were jailed for financial fraud. Today’s crisis was much larger in scope, yet the Goldman allegations are among the first serious charges of legal wrongdoing to emerge (other complaints have been filed against Regions Bank and former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo). If the SEC or the FBI are doing their jobs, we should see many more of these cases.

Bust ‘em up.

How do banks get away with these kinds of shenanigans and still secure epic taxpayer bailouts? It’s all about their political clout, as Robert Reich notes for The American Prospect. So long as banks are so enormous that they can ruin the economy with their collapse, the institutions will always carry tremendous political clout.

Even in the case of Goldman Sachs, which is too-big-to-fail by any reasonable standard, the SEC’s fraud case is being filed three years after the company’s alleged offense. That’s well after the company rode to safety on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the AIG bailout and billions more in other indirect assistance—and only after multiple journalists made Goldman’s offensive transactions general public knowledge.

If we don’t break up the big banks, politically connected Wall Street titans will make sure they get bailed out when the next crisis hits, regardless of whatever laws we have on the books.

Fix the derivatives casino

If Congress doesn’t soon pass a bill to break up behemoth banks, it will be neglecting the gravest problem in our financial system today. But several other reforms are needed if Wall Street is ever going to serve a useful economic function again.

As Nomi Prins emphasizes for AlterNet, much of the Wall Street profit machine has been divorced from the economy that the rest of us live in. These days, banks make most of their money from securities trades and derivatives deals. Their actual lending business is taking a beating. That means big banks have very little incentive to promote economic well-being for every day citizens. We need to create these incentives by banning economically essential banks from engaging in securities trades, and make sure all derivatives transactions are conducted on open, transparent exchanges, just like ordinary stocks and bonds.

Better derivatives regulations could help protect against fraud. If Goldman Sachs’ sketchy subprime deal had been subject to market scrutiny on an exchange, it’s very unlikely that any investor would have bought into it. Goldman Sachs almost got away with it because the deal was secretive and beyond the scope of most regulatory oversight.

Protect whistleblowers

The Goldman case also raises significant questions about the government’s enforcement of existing financial fraud laws. Bradley Birkenfeld, a banker for Swiss financial giant UBS, helped the Department of Justice bring the largest tax fraud case in history against his company, which was helping rich Americans hide money from the IRS in offshore bank accounts.

For his cooperation, Birkenfeld was rewarded with a four-year prison sentence, even though nobody else at UBS—nobody—has been sentenced to prison over the scam. As Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman emphasize for Democracy Now!, Birkenfeld’s imprisonment could have something to with who exactly is hiding money with UBS.

Gonzalez discusses an interview with Birkenfeld, in which the former banker notes that the bank had a special office to handle the accounts of “politically exposed persons”— American politicians. Moreover, the top brass at UBS includes key advisors to top politicians in both parties. This is exactly the kind of influence smuggling that breaking up the banks would help fix. UBS is a multi-trillion-dollar institution with no less than 27 U.S. subsidiaries.

But protecting Birkenfeld would accomplish still more—by jailing him, the Justice Department is actively discouraging others from coming forward, and making it more difficult for regulators to enforce the law.

Greenspan’s failure

It’s abundantly clear that almost every major regulatory agency charged with curtailing financial excess failed to prevent the Crash of 2008. But that failure doesn’t mean that effective regulation is impossible—it only shows that the regulators in power failed. The top bank regulator in the U.S., John Dugan, was a former bank lobbyist.

As Christopher Hayes demonstrates for The Nation, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has never had any interest in regulation whatsoever. After the crash, Greenspan insisted that nobody could have seen it coming. But as Hayes notes, many people did—Greenspan simply didn’t listen to them. These days, Greenspan is revising his story, claiming that he did in fact see the crisis coming, but that nobody could have prevented it. That is simply not credible.

Hayes draws a useful parallel Hurricane Katrina, a problem sparked by a natural event that became a catastrophe when regulators failed to take the necessary precautions. The lesson from both Katrina and the financial crash is not that government always screws up—we have plenty of examples of government preventing floods and economic calamity. The lesson we should learn is that people who don’t believe in government will never do a good job governing. As Hayes notes:

If Greenspan couldn’t figure things out, that doesn’t mean others can’t. In fact, developing systems for doing just that is called—quite simply—progress, and Alan Greenspan continues to be one of its enemies.

That is exactly the task that now presents itself before Congress: Developing a system to prevent and constrain economic destruction wielded by Wall Street. The U.S. had a system that did exactly this for more than fifty years. For the last thrity years, it has been systematically dismantled. How well Congress lives up to that challenge will define much of our economic future for decades to come.

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: How Superhero Hilda Solis is Winning the Fight for Workers’ Rights

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

While the poor judgment of top-level officials at Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget frequently makes the news, there is another, unrecognized economic crew doing terrific work: Officials at the Department of Labor are restoring workers’ rights after nearly a decade of neglect.

To top it all off, President Barack Obama appears ready to make another set of strong, though less high-profile, economic appointments that will help rein in Wall Street excess.

DoL All-Stars

As Esther Kaplan documents in a masterful piece for The Nation, the Department of Labor  (DoL) has been transformed from an agency that enabled corporate excess to one that holds companies accountable.  In less than a year, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and her team of deputies significantly leveled the playing field between ordinary workers and high-flying executives.

For decades, when conservatives have attempted to confront social problems, they’ve relied on the mantra of enforcement. If we had more cops, we’d fix everything. But as Kaplan documents, under President George W. Bush and his Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the DoL simply stopped enforcing worker protection laws. From wage theft to mine safety, the Department essentially allowed corrupt employers to do anything they wanted.

That neglect has already ended. Armed with a budget of just $1.5 billion—that’s roughly 0.2% of the Troubled Asset Relief Program—Solis and company have cultivated a list of economic accomplishments that seemed impossible when they took office. As Kaplan details:

“Facing badly depleted enforcement ranks, Solis hired 710 additional enforcement staff, including 130 at OSHA and 250 for the crucial wage-and-hour division, upping inspectors by more than a third. Another hundred will come on next year to staff a crackdown on the misclassification of millions of employees as “independent contractors”–a dodge to avoid paying taxes and benefits–a move that has set off enormous buzz on business blogs. Her team took a plunger to the stagnant regulatory pipeline, moving forward new rules on coal mine dust, silica, and cranes and derricks. She restored prevailing wages for agricultural guest workers and is poised to restore reporting rules on ergonomic injuries.”

Fixing the Fed

Obama also appears ready to make another slate of strong economic appointments at the Federal Reserve, an agency stuffed with free-marketers who helped engineer both an economic catastrophe and resulting bailouts. Obama’s rumored picks—economists Janet Yellen and Peter Diamond and bank regulator Sarah Bloom Raskin—are aggressive about making the economy work for everyday citizens, as I emphasize for AlterNet.

If Congress passes financial reforms similar to what Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) has proposed, the Fed’s regulatory responsibilities will actually expand, despite its failures over the past decade. The Fed has never effectively regulated anything and it’s not very concerned with unemployment as an economic problem.

That makes Obama’s pending slate of officials who prioritize bank regulation and broader employment very important. Raskin, in particular, stands out with her strong record as a state banking regulator. If Obama ultimately nominates her, she’ll be the first pure regulator ever appointed to the Fed. The potential picks don’t make up for Obama’s reappointment of bailouteer Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman, but they do show that the President is capable of sound judgment.

Strengthening the Dodd bill

But the strength of Obama’s potential Fed nominees doesn’t justify the weakness of Dodd’s financial regulation bill. As Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! reveal in interviews with economist Robert Johnson and ColorLines Editorial Director Kai Wright , the bill leaves plenty to be desired. Dodd is currently making the rounds and declaring that his bill will end the abuses giant banks deployed against the broader economy, but the truth is, the bill has largely been gutted by bank lobbyists. Here’s Johnson:

“We’re engaged in a Kabuki theater right now, hoping the material is too complex for the American people to understand, declaring victory, and yet basically encoding into law current practices of the banks. Every one of your listeners should ask the question, given this legislation, if the President, House and Senate pass it, will we be in a place where AIG couldn’t have happened, Lehman Brothers couldn’t have happened, Bear Stearns couldn’t have happened, and, more importantly, nine, ten percent unemployment caused by the banking crisis couldn’t have happened? I argue this bill does very little.”

The importance of trust-busting

So Dodd’s bill needs to be substantially strengthened as it moves through the Senate. But there’s plenty of other economic work to be done outside of Wall Street. As Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman explain for The Washington Monthly, the steady expansion of corporate monopolies has resulted in a fundamentally unstable economy.

The U.S. simply does not create jobs at the rate it once did, and companies aren’t held accountable to market forces like competition. Many of our monopolies are hidden, as Lynn and Longman note. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s seem like competitors, but they’re owned by the same holding company. The same dynamic holds true in auto manufacturing, banking, pet food, health care and IT. Consumers think they’re choosing between competing goods and services, when in fact they’re shopping in different divisions of the same corporate Goliath.

All hope is not lost. As Laura Flanders emphasizes for GRITtv, the passage of health care reform proves that the Obama administration and Congress can make substantive progressive changes when they put their minds to it. The question is whether Obama is willing to limit his economic accomplishments to lower-level issues, or go big and take on the deep-pocketed corporate campaign contributors.

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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