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.

There's more...

Weekly Audit: Republicans Filibuster Our Financial Future

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Last night, Senate Republicans proved beyond any doubt that when it comes to the economy, they stand with Wall Street and against everybody else. Joined by lone Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Republicans successfully filibustered the procedural technicality of opening debate on Wall Street reform. It’s an unmistakable ploy to kill the bill and collect campaign cash from bigwig bankers. The coming weeks won’t be pretty.

Republicans are going to be battered by this filibuster. Financial reform is popular, and nobody on Capitol Hill wants to be seen as the agents of Wall Street in Washington come November. Republicans are hoping to rhetorically counter Obama’s proposals, negotiate a fatally weakened reform package, and then vote with Democrats for reform-in-name-only before the elections. But the U.S. financial system is broken and voters know it needs strong medicine.

In a speech last week before Cooper Union Hall in New York City, Obama laid out what’s at stake in the reform fight. Our biggest banks don’t fear failure because they know the government will bail them out in a crisis. As a result, they take massive risks that endanger the economy. Our current regulators ignored predatory lending in order to protect Wall Street profits. To top it off, the risky, multi-trillion-dollar market for derivatives—the financial weapons of mass destruction that brought down AIG—remains beyond the scope of regulatory authority altogether.

Without major changes, the U.S. economy is doomed to repeat the destruction of the past two years. Epic bailouts, consumer predation and heavy job losses will become the new national norm, not just the conditions of a single, terrible crisis. Last night’s Republican-plus-Nelson filibuster was an effort to preserve an unacceptable status quo.

Phony populism

As Matthew Rothschild emphasizes in a podcast for The Progressive, Wall Street Republicans have been spreading all kinds of crazy lies about Obama’s reform legislation. While the legislation that cleared the Senate Banking Committee in March isn’t perfect, it isn’t a massive bailout for Wall Street, either. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been making the rounds calling it just that, in a dishonest effort to kill the bill. This is phony populism. McConnell says he’s against bailouts, but his goal is to prevent reform from overturning the current system, which, as we saw in 2008, has bailouts baked in.

While Obama did a good job identifying what’s wrong on Wall Street, the solutions he proposed are either too weak to end abuses, or simply not included in the Wall Street reform bill in its current form. Obama’s initial proposal for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency was great, but Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) watered down in the Senate Banking Committee to appease Republicans. The same thing happened to Obama’s proposal to fix the wild market for derivatives, the financial weapons of mass destruction that brought down AIG.

How to make reform a reality

As Sarah Ludwig of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Program (NEDAP) emphasizes in an interview with GRITtv’s Laura Flanders, most of the reforms currently under consideration are a “good first step.” That is to say they are useful and productive—but not enough to fundamentally change the way Wall Street does business.

Fortunately, there are several amendments that can fix these shortcomings, most notably the SAFE Banking Act, introduced by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Ted Kaufman (D-DE). As Peter Rothberg emphasizes for The Nation, the amendment would force our largest banks to split up into institutions that could fail without jeopardizing the broader economy. It would also place a hard cap on the total amount that banks could bet in the financial markets.

Those amendments, of course, can only be added to the bill if Republicans allow debate on financial reform to begin. Progressives should be fighting hard to make sure that the break-up-the-banks measure is included in the bill that the Senate eventually votes on. And as Rothberg notes, there will be plenty of opportunities to do so this week. Protests calling for Major Wall Street reform have been organized all over the country. On Tuesday, protesters will speak out against predatory banking behemoth Wells Fargo in San Francisco. On Wednesday, they will target too-big-to-fail titan Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C. On Thursday, reformers will march straight into the lion’s den on Wall Street itself to demand change. It’s called the Showdown in America, and you can find out more here.

It’s only just begun—but how did we get here in the first place?

But whatever happens with this bill, the fight to rein in Wall Street is just beginning. As Robert Kuttner emphasizes for AlterNet, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no shortage of verve for Wall Street reform, but it still took him seven years to enact all of the New Deal banking laws. And as Simon Johnson and James Kwak detail for The American Prospect, reining in Wall Street means overturning the ideology that has dominated the halls of power in Washington, D.C. for three decades.

Since the Reagan era, politicians from both political parties have sincerely believed that what is good for Wall Street is good for America. The subprime mortgage monstrosity and Great Crash of 2008 put cracks in the foundation of that ideology. But the process of demolishing it may very well take longer than the legislative cycle that will end with the November elections.

Even if we do get a strong bill—one that breaks up the biggest banks, bans them from placing risky bets in the derivatives and securities markets and establishes a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency—other important aspects of the financial sector will need to be addressed in other legislation. Hedge funds, whose pivotal role in the crisis is only now being identified, will need to be reined in. Rating agencies, who actively fueled the subprime bubble, and whose business models are founded on conflicts of interest, must be restructured. The future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must be decided. Families across the country still need foreclosure relief.

We need a strong Wall Street reform bill. There is no excuse for any politician from either party to be standing with bigwig bankers against the rest of the country. And with two-thirds of the nation supporting reform, any political party that throws in its lot with Wall Street will pay a major price come November. No amount of Wall Street campaign cash can counter the voter outrage over bank bailouts and bonuses. There’s no way to know when Republicans will come to their senses, but whatever happens this week, there will still be much work to do this year and the next.

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: Congress to take up financial reform, but will it be strong enough?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Next week, the debate over financial reform will begin in earnest when Congress returns from its Easter break. Both political parties are gearing up for a major fight, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. An out-of-control banking sector has cost the economy over 7 million jobs since 2007, and without major reforms, Wall Street could repeat this disaster in just a few years’ time. But thanks to Wall Street’s lobbying might, all of the necessary reforms are currently in jeopardy.

Key Reforms

Writing for The Nation, Christopher Hayes offers a useful primer on financial regulation, highlighting three reforms that are crucial to any bill.

  • With no effective regulation of consumer protection issues for years, the existing banking regulators were more focused on preserving bank profitability than on going to bat for ordinary citizens. If banks could make big profits with unfair gimmicks (or even fraud), regulators usually looked the other way. The solution is a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) charged with nothing but protecting consumers from banker abuses, an agency with the broad authority to both write rules and enforce them.
  • We need to rein in the $300 trillion market for derivatives, the complex financial contracts brought down AIG. Unlike ordinary stocks and bonds, derivatives are not traded on exchanges, so nobody really knows what is going on in this tremendous market. When something goes wrong, like with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, nobody can tell who the problem will effect. Without information, markets panic, and the entire financial system can collapse within a matter of days. Fortunately, this problem has a simple solution: require all derivatives to be traded on exchanges.
  • Too-big-to-fail is too big to exist. The U.S. has never had banks as large as those that exist today, and their size gives them enormous political clout. It’s part of the reason why regulators didn’t make banks obey consumer protection laws, and why banks have been so effective in derailing reform. It’s been almost two years since the Big Crash, yet we are still wrangling over reform because giant banks deploy giant lobbying teams, and have almost unlimited resources to devote to their lobbying efforts. If we can’t scale back the banks’ power by breaking them up into smaller institutions, it’s unlikely that other reforms will be effective.

As Margaret Dorfman emphasizes for American Forum, a strong CFPA would help protect small businesses, since a huge proportion of them are financed with credit cards and home equity loans (Dorfman is CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group for women that should not be confused with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—a nasty lobbying front for a few hundred high-flying executives). As Dorfman notes, small businesses are where most new jobs come from– if a regulator can ensure that these businesses are not pushed around by abusive banks, they can help repair our jobs.

Unfortunately, all three reforms are in real jeopardy as the bill moves to the Senate floor for a vote, as Simon Johnson notes in his Baseline Scenario blog carried at AlterNet. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) hasn’t included any language on breaking up the banks, he has significantly watered down the CFPA proposal President Obama put forward, and derivatives reform was almost entirely gutted in the House.

What’s at stake

So what’s at stake? For some perspective, consider last week’s jobs report. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the U.S. economy added 160,000 jobs in March, the first significant monthly gain since the start of the recession, and the best jobs report in three years. But while it’s good to see the economy actually adding jobs, at the March rate, it would take more than three-and-a-half years to win back the 7 million jobs lost since 2007.

This jobs disaster was not caused by faceless and unpreventable forces—it was the direct result of a reckless and unregulated banking system. Without major reforms, banks will always have this economic leverage when that recklessness overpowers them: bail us out, or watch your economy collapse.

This is an issue of basic democratic fairness, as Noam Chomsky explains for In These Times. Wall Street has purchased the right to bend public policy to anything that benefits banks—the rest of society is not their concern. The bailouts of 2008 and 2009 make that clear. After wrecking the economy to enrich themselves, bank executives then looted the public coffers with the threat of still further economic havoc.

And the political clout of America’s largest banks insulates them from criticism when they profit from abuses—particularly when those activities don’t spark wider economic crises. As Andy Kroll highlights for Mother Jones, J.P. Morgan Chase is currently making a killing by financing mountaintop removal mining (MTR). MTR is an ecological nightmare—literally a bombing campaign in which entire mountains in Appalachia are destroyed to make way for cheap coal. That’s meant billions in profits for J.P. Morgan, and an environmental catastrophe for the United States.

Obama and Congress have a choice. They can play financial reform for campaign contributions, pushing a watered-down bill that will function as a set of reforms-in-name-only. Alternatively, they can do their jobs, confront a dangerous financial oligarchy head-on, and help build an economy that works for everyone.

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.

 

 

 

Diaries

Advertise Blogads