As he attempted to do with healthcare reform last week, the president is trying to breathe new life into financial reform. He's using the anniversary of the death of Lehman Brothers and the near-death experience of the rest of the Street, culminating with a $600 billion taxpayer-financed bailout, to summon the political will for change. Yet the prospects seem dubious. As with healthcare reform, he has stood on the sidelines for months and allowed vested interests to frame the debate. Nor has he come up with a sufficiently bold or coherent set of reforms likely to change the way the Street does business, even if enacted.
Let's be clear: The Street today is up to the same tricks it was playing before its near-death experience. Derivatives, derivatives of derivatives, fancy-dance trading schemes, high-risk bets. “Our model really never changed, we’ve said very consistently that our business model remained the same,” says Goldman Sachs' chief financial officer.
The only difference now is that the Street's biggest banks know for sure they'll be bailed out by the federal government if their bets turn sour -- which means even bigger bets and bigger bucks.
Meanwhile, the banks' gigantic pile of non-performing loans is also growing bigger, as more and more jobless Americans can't pay their mortgages, credit card bills, and car loans. So forget any new lending to Main Street. Small businesses still can't get loans. Even credit-worthy borrowers are having a hard time getting new mortgages.
The mega-bailout of Wall Street accomplished little. The only big winners have been top bank executives and traders, whose pay packages are once again in the stratosphere. Banks have been so eager to lure and keep top deal makers and traders they've even revived the practice of offering ironclad, multimillion-dollar payments -- guaranteed no matter how the employee performs. Goldman Sachs is on course to hand out bonuses that could rival its record pre-meltdown paydays. In the second quarter this year it posted its fattest quarterly profit in its 140-year history, and earmarked $11.4 billion to compensate its happy campers. Which translates into about $770,000 per Goldman employee on average, just about what they earned at the height of the boom. Of course, top executives and traders will pocket much more.
Every other big bank feels it has to match Goldman's pay packages if it wants to hold on to its "talent." Citigroup, still on life support courtesy of $45 billion from American taxpayers, has told the White House it needs to pay its 25 top executives an average of $10 million each this year, and award its best trader $100 million.
A few banks like Goldman have officially repaid their TARP money but look more closely and you'll find that every one of them is still on the public dole. Goldman won't repay taxpayers the $13 billion it never would have collected from AIG had we not kept AIG alive. (In one of the most blatant conflicts of interest in all of American history, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein attended the closed-door meeting last fall where then Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who was formerly Goldman's CEO, and Tim Geithner, then at the New York Fed, made the decision to bail out AIG.) Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman's high-risk operations.
So will the president succeed on financial reform? I wish I could be optimistic. His milquetoast list of proposed reforms is inadequate to the task, even if adopted. The Street's behavior since its bailout should be proof enough that halfway measures won't do. The basic function of commercial banking in our economic system -- linking savers to borrowers -- should never have been confused with the casino-like function of investment banking. Securitization, whereby loans are turned into securities traded around the world, has made lenders unaccountable for the risks they take on. The Glass-Steagall Act should be resurrected. Pension and 401K plans, meanwhile, should never have been allowed to subject their beneficiaries to the risks that Wall Street gamblers routinely run. Put simply, the Street has been given too many opportunities to play too many games with other people's money.
But, like the healthcare industry, Wall Street has platoons of lobbyists and an almost unlimited war chest to protect its interests and prevent change. And with the Dow Jones Industrial Average trending upward again -- and the public's and the media's attention focused elsewhere, especially on healthcare -- it will be difficult to summon the same sense of urgency financial reform commanded six months ago.
Yet without substantial reform, the nation and the world will almost certainly be plunged into the same crisis or worse at some point in the not-too-distant future. Wall Street's major banks are already en route to their old, dangerous ways -- now made more dangerous by their sure knowledge that they are too big to fail.