Bernie Sanders has declared war on the biggest players in Wall Street’s financial sector. He says they are overrun with “greed, fraud, dishonesty and arrogance,” and criticizes his top rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as being naïve about what needs to happen to create a financial system that “works for all Americans.”
On Tuesday, he upped the ante. “To those on Wall Street who may be listening today, let me be very clear,” Sanders said in a midtown Manhattan speech. “Greed is not good. In fact, the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the fabric of our nation. And here is a New Year’s resolution that I will keep if elected president: If you do not end your greed, we will end it for you.”
Sanders laid out a 10-point program to deeply change the nature of the financial sector, while occasionally digressing to emphasize how much more sweeping his proposals are compared to Clinton's. As always, he started by recounting how the “20 richest people own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans”—and said the finance industry has spent “billions” to get Congress and federal agencies to deregulate almost all areas of the financial industry while weakening consumer protection laws.
“They spent this money in order to get the government off their backs and to show the American people what they could do with that new-won freedom,” he said. “They sure showed the American people. In 2008, the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street nearly destroyed the U.S. and global economy. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, their homes and their life savings.” Sanders continued, “While Wall Street received the largest taxpayer bailout in the history of the world with no strings attached, the American middle class continues to disappear, poverty is increasing and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider and wider.”
Here are the 10 major components to Sanders’ Wall Street reforms.
1. End too-big-to-fail. The underlying logic of this federal policy is that the biggest banks cannot fail and shut down, even if they make terrible investments or wreak great harm to the economy, because the U.S. economy and millions of ordinary people would become financially destitute. Sanders said this “scheme...is nothing more than a free insurance policy for Wall Street.” Compared to before the crash of 2008, the biggest banks in the country are larger than ever, he said, adding, “if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”
“In 2008, the taxpayers of this country bailed out Wall Street because we were told they were ‘too big to fail,’” Sanders said. “Yet, today, three out of the four largest financial institutions [JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo] are nearly 80 percent bigger than before we bailed them out. Incredibly, the six largest banks in this country issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards and more than 35 percent of all mortgages. They control more than 95 percent of all financial derivatives and hold more than 40 percent of all bank deposits. Their assets are equivalent to nearly 60 percent of our GDP. Enough is enough!”
Sanders concluded, “A handful of huge financial institutions simply have too much economic and political power over this country. If Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican trust-buster, were alive today, he would say, break ‘em up. And he would be right.”
2. Break up the biggest banks. If elected, Sanders said he would direct the Treasury Department to compile a list of the institutions “whose failure would pose a catastrophic risk to the United States economy without a taxpayer bailout.” Using the power of executive authority, he would break up these institutions. “Within one year, my administration will break these institutions up so that they no longer pose a grave threat to the economy as authorized under Section 121 of the Dodd-Frank Act.”
3. Pass a 21st-century Glass-Steagall Act. This Depression-era law, which was repealed by Congress under President Bill Clinton, prevented commercial banks from investing in risky and arcane financial instruments, such as bundled home loans during the housing market bubble that predated the 2008 financial market collapse.
“Secretary Clinton says that Glass-Steagall would not have prevented the financial crisis because shadow banks like AIG and Lehman Brothers, not big commercial banks, were the real culprits,” Sanders said. “Secretary Clinton is wrong. Shadow banks did gamble recklessly, but where did that money come from? It came from the federally insured bank deposits of big commercial banks—something that would have been banned under the Glass-Steagall Act.”
Moreover, Sanders said his work as a senator revealed that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department “provided more than $16 trillion in short-term, low-interest loans to every major financial institution in the country” to stop the global economy from imploding after the 2008 crash. “Secretary Clinton says we just need to impose a few more fees and regulations on the financial industry. I disagree.”
4. End too-big-to-jail. Sanders said that the government needs to run Wall Street, not the other way around, which he said is the reality today. He said that “equal justice under the law” means that banking and finance executives whose reckless gambles damaged people’s lives must face real criminal penalties including prison.
“The average American sees kids being arrested and sometimes even jailed for possessing marijuana or other minor crimes,” Sanders said. “But when it comes to Wall Street executives, some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country, whose illegal behavior caused pain and suffering for millions—somehow, nothing happens to them. No police record. No jail time. No justice.”
He noted that “not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy," and that "will change under my administration.”
5. Criminalize Wall Street’s business model. One of Sanders' most incisive comments concerned Wall Street’s ways of doing business, which he said are based on intentionally ripping off average Americans and engaging in all kinds of unethical and illegal behaviors. He said the government must do more to penalize companies that routinely rip off the public and richly reward the executives overseeing that process.
“The reality is that fraud is the business model on Wall Street,” Sanders said. “It is not the exception to the rule. It is the rule. And in a weak regulatory climate the likelihood is that Wall Street gets away with a lot more illegal behavior than we know of. How many times have we heard the myth that what Wall Street did may have been wrong but it wasn’t illegal? Let me help shatter that myth today.”
Sanders read from a dozen business page headlines to underscore that the banks most Americans use have been fined $204 billion since 2009 for malfeasance. “And that takes place in a weak regulatory climate,” he said. “And, when I say that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, that is not just Bernie Sanders talking. That is what financial executives told the University of Notre Dame in a studyon the ethics of the financial services industry last year.”
He continued, “According to this study, 51 percent of Wall Street executives making more than $500,000 a year found it likely that their competitors have engaged in unethical or illegal activity in order to gain an edge in the market. More than one-third of financial executives have either witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace. Nearly one in five financial service professionals believe they must engage in illegal or unethical activity to be successful.”
Sanders said he would appoint regulators who are not afraid to tackle this caldron of corruption. “I will nominate and appoint people with a track record of standing up to power, rather than those who have made millions defending Wall Street CEOs. Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street banks will not be represented in my administration.”
6. Tax the casino culture. Sanders said one of the keys of reforming Wall Street was ending its culture of financial speculation. He said he would do that by imposing a transaction tax aimed at high-speed, high-volume traders who are not investing “in the job-creating economy.” Those funds would then be used for cutting the cost of higher education.
“We will use the revenue from this tax to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. During the financial crisis, the middle class of this country bailed out Wall Street. Now, it’s Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class.”
7. Reform the financial rating agencies. This is the industry that not only rates people on their personal financial credit but also rates investments—and before the 2008 crash falsely labeled as credible many of the risky investments that failed. These firms are like foxes guarding the hen house, Sanders said, and cannot base their profits on getting paid by the companies whose products they are rating. “We will turn for-profit credit rating agencies into non-profit institutions, independent from Wall Street. No longer will Wall Street be able to pick and choose which credit agency will rate their products.”
8. Cap credit card interest and ATM fees. Banks and credit card companies must be stopped “from ripping off the American people by charging sky-high interest rates and outrageous fees,” Sanders said. “It is unacceptable that Americans are paying a $4 or $5 fee each time they go to the ATM. It is unacceptable that millions of Americans are paying credit card interest rates of 20 or 30 percent.”
“The Bible has a term for this practice. It’s called usury,” Sanders said. “And inThe Divine Comedy, Dante reserved a special place in the Seventh Circle of Hell for those who charged people usurious interest rates. Today, we don’t need the hellfire and the pitch forks, we don’t need the rivers of boiling blood, but we do need a national usury law.”
Interest rates should be capped at no more than 15 percent for borrowed money, he said, pointing to a now-repealed 1980 law with that threshold. He also said ATM fees should be capped at $2. “People should not have to pay a 10 percent fee for withdrawing $40 of their own money out of an ATM. Big banks need to stop acting like loan sharks and start acting like responsible lenders.”
9. Let the USPS offer banking. The post office’s money order service could be greatly expanded “to give Americans affordable banking options,” Sanders said. “The reality is that, unbelievably, millions of low-income Americans live in communities where there are no normal banking services.”
“Today, if you live in a low-income community and you need to cash a check or get a loan to pay for a car repair or a medical emergency, where do you go?” he asked. “You go to a payday lender who could charge an interest rate of over 300 percent and trap you into a vicious cycle of debt. That is unacceptable.”
10. Reform the Federal Reserve. Sanders said this arcame institution that regulates the flow of the U.S. currency and interest rates charges to banks must be reformed so that its primary purpose is serving the public, not private bankers. “When Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the Federal Reserve acted with a fierce sense of urgency to save the financial system,” he said. “We need the Fed to act with the same boldness to combat unemployment and low wages.”
“it is unacceptable that the Federal Reserve has been hijacked by the very bankers it is in charge of regulating,” Sanders said. “I think the American people would be shocked to learn that Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, served on the board of the New York Fed at the same time that his bank received a $391 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve. That is a clear conflict of interest that I would ban as president. When I am elected, the foxes will no longer be guarding the henhouse at the Fed.”
Just the Beginning
As striking as Sanders’ reforms sound, he said they were unlikely to be sufficient to ensure that American capitalist excesses do not harm the country again.
“No president, not Bernie Sanders or anyone else, can effectively address the economic crises facing the working families of this country alone,” he said. “The truth is that Wall Street, corporate America, the corporate media and wealthy campaign donors are just too powerful.”
But Sanders said that new rules of the financial game could be written and that government could force Wall Street to follow them.
“Yes, we can make our economy work for all Americans,” he said. “And so my message to you today is straightforward: If elected president, I will rein in Wall Street so they can’t crash our economy again. Will they like me? No. Will they begin to play by the rules if I’m president? You better believe it.”