Posts tagged with 'wall street'

Weekly Audit: Wall Street Goes to the Movies

Posted May 11, 2010 @ 9:25 am by
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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: Congress Must Get Tough On Wall Street

Posted Apr 13, 2010 @ 9:49 am by
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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.

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

Posted Apr 6, 2010 @ 9:27 am by
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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.

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

Posted Mar 30, 2010 @ 8:09 am by
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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.

Weekly Audit: Will Weak Reforms Bring on Another Crisis?

Posted Mar 16, 2010 @ 9:51 am by
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By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user Laughing Squid, via Creative Commons LicenseSenate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) unveiled his latest financial reform proposal on Monday, and the stakes for the new legislation couldn’t be higher. After consumer groups raised a major ruckus, Dodd has dropped one of his most egregious concessions to the bank lobby—cutting enforcement authority from the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). That’s good news: Without a major regulatory overhaul, the U.S. economy’s destructive boom and bust cycle will start all over again.

We’ve been down this road before. The Enron fiasco should have served as a wake-up call for policymakers, but instead, the weak federal response to Enron’s major fraud helped pave the way for the current economic slump. (more…)

Weekly Audit: Doomsday for the CFPA?

Posted Mar 9, 2010 @ 12:01 pm by
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By Alison Hamm, Media Consortium Blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr user SEIU International via Creative Commons License

Just when the Democrats need to be tougher than ever on financial reform, Senate Banking Committee Chair Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), seems to have given up completely and put the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) at risk.

Last fall, Dodd called the Federal Reserve’s regulatory efforts an “abysmal failure.” And yet, on March 1, he proposed housing a consumer protection agency within the Fed instead of establishing the CFPA as its own independent entity. This drastic change in strategy has left many Democrats shaking their heads. WTF, Senator Dodd?

A change in focus

As Andy Kroll reports for Mother Jones:

“Dodd appears to have switched his focus from out-reforming the White House to out-compromising just about everyone. As the Senate banking committee prepares to release a draft of a comprehensive reform bill as early as this week, Dodd has repeatedly conceded to his Republican counterparts on key issues, almost guaranteeing that the Senate’s measure will be far more lenient on the banking industry than the legislation the House passed in December… Dodd’s willingness to appease Republicans like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the main GOP negotiating partner, and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the banking committee’s ranking member, has disappointed Dodd’s fellow Democrats and reform advocates who urge a tougher crackdown.” (more…)

Weekly Audit: The Global Economic Crisis

Posted Feb 23, 2010 @ 8:19 am by
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By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Over the past thirty years, Wall Street has waged a steady war against governments around the globe, convincing policymakers of various ideological stripes that whatever raises profits for bankers and traders will be good for the rest of society. It’s a very simple and appealing portrait of how the world works. Unfortunately, it’s completely wrong.

Profiting from hunger

In an interview with AlterNet’s Terrence McNally, economic luminary Raj Patel explains the connection between widespread global poverty and wild Wall Street profits. Markets are defined by a set of rules—if those rules completely disregard social welfare, then the participants in those markets will ignore them as well. When traders can make a quick buck speculating on the price of rice, they will, even if that speculation drives up the price of a basic necessity and makes people go hungry.

We’ve known this for a long time, but as Patel illustrates, governments have allowed financial bigwigs to rewrite the basic rules of the road so that Wall Street can extract profits from anything—even hunger. That process created several crises in the developing world over the past few decades, and has now ravaged the economies of the United States and Europe. As Patel notes:

By basically gaming the system with regulations — that they authored — which encouraged a certain kind of playing fast and loose with the numbers, it was possible through some creative accounting for huge amounts of systematic risk to be kicked off into the future and ignored. And of course when the catastrophic risk was realized, everyone ran for the hills and started demanding public support.

Financial turmoil in Greece

This political sleight-of-hand is demonstrated by the looming fiscal crisis in Greece. As Richard Parker explains for The Nation, Goldman Sachs colluded with prior Greek administrations to hide the nation’s fiscal situation from both its own citizens and investors (Parker is an adviser to current Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou). Goldman was not interested in fair play—it was interested in making money off of the Greek government in any way it could. If that meant actively sabotaging the market by hiding important information, well, Goldman didn’t care.

First Greece, then …

Now that this budget façade has been stripped away, Goldman and other investors are now profiting from making things very difficult for Greece.  As Matthew Yglesias explains for The American Prospect, the rational, profit-maximizing choices of investors are now actively helping to drive Greece into a default that hurts everyone:

When Greece starts looking shaky, the interest rate it needs to pay on its deficit goes up, which makes the country look even shakier. This cycle can push a vulnerable country into a default situation.

Various Greek administrations clearly bear significant responsibility for the situation. Nobody forced them to get in bed with Goldman Sachs, just as nobody forced U.S. administrations to gut our financial regulatory system. But the problem in Greece is not just a problem for a single Mediterranean nation—there is very real risk that the investor “unease” could spread to Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and by extension the European Union and the global economy. The bonuses at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase this year were not a sign of renewed strength in the global economy.

Community Security Clubs to the rescue

So if Wall Street can’t save us, what can? Our communities could play a significant role, as Andrée Collier Zaleska explains for Yes! Magazine. Zaleska profiles Common Security Clubs in Portland, Boston and Fort Lauderdale to show how people hit hard by the economic downturn are banding together to make ends meet, and organizing for political action.

“[Jared] Gardner, a busy organizer in Portland, launched four CSCs in his church, two of which were comprised almost entirely of unemployed people. By the time his own group had met five times, they were planning tours of local co-housing projects, organizing to fight locally for progressive taxation, and wondering how to bring the rest of their church into the time bank they had created.”

Markets are supposed to serve human needs, not the other way around. But Wall Street isn’t going to give up its stranglehold on the U.S. political process for nothing. While community-driven efforts are a good start, we need much larger actions and reform to restore balance to the global economy.

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: Just Who is Obama fighting for?

Posted Jan 26, 2010 @ 11:50 am by
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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. (more…)

Weekly Audit: Stop Wall Street’s Economic Rampage

Posted Dec 22, 2009 @ 8:41 am by
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By Zach Carter, TMC Blogger

Over the past year, Wall Street’s excess has helped push the unemployment rate to epic levels and created millions of foreclosures. Yet the rules of the financial road remain unchanged. As 2009 draws to a close, it’s astonishing that so little progress towards financial reform has been made.

President Obama, Congress and federal regulators have not been tough enough on the nation’s financial elite. As Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery emphasize for Mother Jones, the government has committed about $14 trillion in bailout funds to save the banking system without demanding much of anything in return. Goldman Sachs and other big banks are now planning to pay giant bonuses that come straight from taxpayer giveaways rather than invest that money in socially constructive banking.

“Bankers aren’t being rewarded for pulling the economy out of the doldrums,” Bauerlein and Jeffery write. “Nope, they’re simply skimming from the trillions we’ve shoveled at them.”

The major banks are even spending our bailout money to lobby against reform. When President Obama called a meeting for leaders of the nation’s largest banks to scold them for their lobbying, the heads of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup didn’t even bother to show up, as Matthew Rothschild describes in a podcast for The Progressive.

It’s easy to see why the bank execs are so indifferent, Rothschild argues, even to the president. Now that almost all of these banks have repaid the loans they received under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), Obama has no negotiating leverage and the bankers know it. Even though it represents just a tiny fraction of the $14 trillion bailout, TARP was the only program that attached any strings to that money. Prior to those TARP repayments, Obama could have demanded that banks do more lending to help the economy, work harder to keep troubled borrowers in their homes—or face executive compensation restrictions or other penalties.

And many of the same regulators who helped bring about today’s economic disaster are still in power. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) explains for Brave New Films (video below), Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke blew just about every major policy decision he faced in the years leading up to the crisis. Bernanke, who was recently named person of the year by Time magazine, failed to rein in reckless mortgage speculation, predatory lending or excessive compensation packages. Nevertheless, President Obama has appointed him to another term.

“This recession was precipitated by the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street,” Sanders says. “One of the key responsibilities of the Fed is to maintain the safety and soundness of our financial institutions … The Fed was asleep at the wheel, Bernanke did not do the job.”

Sanders notes that even Bernanke’s financial clean-up operations have been deeply flawed. Bernanke has helped make today’s too-big-to-fail banks even bigger. If we want to stop the lobbying and policy deference that politicians grant to Wall Street, we have to break up the biggest banks into smaller firms that do not endanger the economy if they fail.

Bernanke is not the only holdover from the Bush administration that wields significant economic power under Obama. As I note in a piece for The Nation, John Dugan, the top bank regulator appointed by President George W. Bush, remains in office today, despite failing to ensure the financial health of our largest banks and actively working to undermine consumer protection.

Campaign contributions from the bank lobby will not be enough to counter the voter outrage that President Obama and members of Congress are facing, nor should they. If our leaders want a serious shot at re-election, they need to recognize the need for significant change on Wall Street. That means breaking up the big banks and setting economic policy that helps all of our citizens, not just financiers.

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: House Bank Bill Fatally Flawed

Posted Dec 15, 2009 @ 8:44 am by
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By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Last week, the House of Representatives finally approved a financial regulatory overhaul and President Barack Obama announced a new initiative to address the unemployment crisis. Both are a step in the right direction, but neither offer effective solutions to problems that still plague the U.S. economy.

The House bill doesn’t do away with too-big-to-fail banks and that’s a big problem. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, “the big banks aren’t going to get sidelined—let alone broken up—anytime soon.” Instead of splitting large, risky banks into smaller firms that could fail without wreaking economic havoc, the House bill gives regulators more power, including the ability to bail out a faltering bank with billions of taxpayer dollars. When push comes to shove, regulators are not going to risk letting a major bank fail. They’ll just bail the company out. We all saw what happened when Lehman Brothers collapsed last year.

By imposing a tougher set of rules on banks, it’s conceivable that regulators could prevent some future failures. But as Mary Kane notes for The Washington Independent, Congress carved so many loopholes in the new laws that banks will have little trouble skirting them.

Obama had hoped to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to crack down on predatory lending, but a coalition of bank-friendly Democrats pushed through amendments that significantly weaken it. Obama wanted states to have the power to enforce stronger rules on predatory lending. Under a loophole that Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL) pressed into the House bill, states are prevented from writing or enforcing rules that limit interest rates charged by credit card companies and payday lenders. That’s a really destructive move, Kane notes, since it was state regulators, not federal regulators, who cracked down on abusive lending over the past decade.

Obama also hoped to require that risky derivatives transactions would be conducted via exchange like ordinary stock trades. Derivatives are the type of trades that brought down AIG. But the House bill exempts a huge portion of transactions from this requirement and changes the definition of “exchange” to include private, unregulated derivatives trades, as Nick Baumann explains for Mother Jones. This is a fatal flaw in the regulatory overhaul. Derivatives are the primary technique that banks use to make themselves too-big-to-fail. Over 95% of the $290 trillion derivatives market is housed at just five banks. These derivatives tie the bank to other financial firms in a complicated web of risk that is impossible for regulators to navigate. If one of those five banks goes down, there’s no way a regulator can predict the consequences.

The only hope for meaningful reform right now rests in the Senate, which is considering a much tougher bill than what the House approved. But the Senate has yet to even conduct mark-up hearings on its legislation and the pressure from the banking lobby is going to be enormous. Progressives have to keep pushing for a better bill if we want to protect our economy from the abuses that brought on the current recession.

And while huge federal bailouts for banking giants like Citigroup and Bank of America have helped the financial sector recover, the broader economy is battling the highest unemployment levels since the early Reagan era. Things are poised to get a lot worse. As Daniela Perdomo emphasizes for AlterNet, a full 3.2 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits by the end of March 2010. Even if the unemployment rate stays where it is—and Perdomo notes that a vast majority of experts think its going to go higher—the impact on ordinary people is going to be even more severe than today’s nightmare.

In a blog post for Working In These Times, Roger Bybee highlights a piece by Harvard University Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren, who emphasizes the hardships faced by ordinary families. The statistics are grim—one-eighth of Americans are on food stamps, one-eighth cannot pay their mortgages and 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month.

We need to take serious steps to get people back to work. Mass unemployment means that consumers don’t spend money, which means that companies don’t sell as much, which makes companies lay off more workers to cut costs. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. The market can’t fix unemployment without help.

So Obama’s Dec. 8 speech announcing a new job-creation plan was a welcome event. But the concrete aspects of Obama’s plan are not effective. All the tax cuts in the world won’t necessarily put people back to work. Obama did endorse a public jobs plan which involved the government hiring people to improve the nation’s infrastructure and clean up communities ravaged by the economic crisis, but he shied away from any specific numbers.

As David Roberts explains for Grist, Obama’s willingness to sign off on a $23 billion program for environmentally friendly home renovations is a step in the right direction. The plan is being referred to as “cash-for-caulkers” and is modeled on the very successful cash-for-clunkers program. The government will pay people to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, helping people cut down on utility bills and increasing the demand for construction labor and products like new windows and doors. It’s a good idea. But if all we get are tax cuts and $23 billion for greener homes, the jobs bill is not going to assuage the unemployment crisis.

There is no reason to be concerned about the cost of a thorough jobs program. Taxpayers committed trillions of dollars to help the financial sector weather the economic storm. Anybody who is worked up about the prospect of spending money on jobs should read Amitabh Pal‘s piece for The Progressive. A modest tax on speculative trades of stock and derivatives could easily raise $150 billion a year to finance a robust jobs program.

At this point in the economic downturn, the government needs to take much stronger steps to rein in Wall Street and create jobs. We know what needs to be done to protect the economy from risky banking and we can afford to fix the unemployment crisis. All we need is the political will.

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.