Archive for the ‘Financial Reform’ Category

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Last week, we hosted an online conversation with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, and Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Robert and Lisa discussed the progress we’ve made together so far — and the next steps we need to take — on some of the most pressing issues facing the country.

Miss the webinar? Catch up by watching the video below:

(Note: Unfortunately because of network issues beyond our control, you can’t see Robert or Lisa for most of the presentation. But the audio is there, and the analysis and insights they provide are inspiring and thought-provoking).

Some of our highest priorities include ending corporate money’s domination of our elections, fighting for universal health care, reining in Big Bank recklessness and stopping congressional attacks on consumer protection.

Members of Congress — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — must hear from We the People that these issues matter to us.

We’re going on the offensive this summer, and we need your help.

To make sure you’re invited to our live online discussion in July, sign up today.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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Most people only think about bank runs around the winter holidays when “It’s a Wonderful Life” plays incessantly on television and the protagonist is trying to save his small community bank from going under. Bank runs are an old-fashioned idea, the stuff of black and white movies and not the sort of issue we tend to think of as a problem for this century.

Since the advent of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1933, our deposits are protected and we don’t need to worry about banks running out of money.

Or do we?

When banks are allowed to take bets on toxic debt or enter into complex derivatives transactions – essentially gambling with our taxpayer-insured deposits — we may be setting up our economy for another meltdown. Banks can and do lose huge sums of money on failed bets, as happened with several leading banks in the run up to the 2008 crash. These bad bets were part of what caused many financial institutions to fail; the failures set off the chain reaction of the economic crash. Instead of paying back depositors and simply allowing the banks to go under, the government chose to bail out some of them, leading to trillions in payouts under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and other bank supports.

They say hindsight is 20-20, but our country’s leaders should have known better then to allow this gambling. For most of the last century, we had strong, clear protections against just that type of bank activity. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress included a ban on riskier investment banking (read gambling) by FDIC-insured facilities when the system of federally-insured deposits went into effect in 1933. This ban between commercial and investment banking was called the Glass-Steagall Act, and it was rolled in with the Banking Act of 1933, which also created the FDIC.

This safety glass was in place for over 50 years and served the country well as we experienced overall stability in the financial industry. But banks desiring to engage in high-risk, high-profit transactions pressured Congress to break down the wall. The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 through President Clinton’s signing of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

After Glass-Steagall’s repeal, commercial banks backed by FDIC guarantees borrowed cheap money and jumped full force into packaging debt, underwriting mortgages and growing their investment strategies. They took bigger risks than ever before, leading us straight to the crisis. Over-leveraged and under-capitalized, the banks’ gambling strategies blew up.

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What’s most depressing about Jennifer Taub’s new book “Other People’s Houses” is her authoritative argument that the recent financial crisis did not result from isolated policy decisions and fraudulent business practices of the few years leading to 2008. Instead, our recent Wall Street crash played out already proven policy failures from the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s.

Even moral hazard, the surrender of discipline for banks “too big to fail” that epitomized the bailouts of 2008, Taub reminds, originated in 1984 with the bailouts of Continental Illinois National Bank and successive taxpayer rescues of American Savings and Loan, the largest S&L in the nation.

Professor Taub, a colleague and friend, teaches at Vermont Law School and previously served as associate general counsel at Fidelity Investments. With unique credentials, she can both explain the intentional complexity of Wall Street products and Washington regulation without glossing over contradiction and nuance.

Unlike the majority of crash pathologies that focus on Washington players such Timothy Geithner’s “Stress Test,”  Sheila Bair’s “Bull by the Horns,” or Andrew Ross  Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail,” Taub’s book spends quality time outside the beltway. Her narrative follows real individuals, from rogues who pillage the banks along with their lieutenants, to regulatory chiefs often aligned with industry interests along with a few heroes who actually understand and fulfill their responsibility to protect taxpayers, and finally, victims of this morass.  And we meet the Nobelman family.

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A joint op-ed by Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert with libertarian Cato Institute’s Mark Calabria was published recently in USA Today.

The unlikely pair – considering Public Citizen’s progressive perspective and Cato’s libertarian stance – call Attorney General Eric Holder to task for the Department of Justice’s timid treatment of criminal banks.

Acknowledging the Credit-Suisse guilty plea that Justice recently obtained, Gilbert and Calabria write, “we certainly applaud the DOJ’s action, a criminal guilty plea from a foreign bank doesn’t erase the many non-prosecutions and deferred prosecutions of the too-big-to-fail banks at the heart of the financial crisis.”

Advocates and activists on the left and right demand action. What can Justice do to start restoring faith in a system that imprisons low-income lawbreakers but allows Wall Street’s worst to walk free?

Gilbert and Calabria offer a next step:

Crimes require the action of individuals. The DOJ has yet to articulate why proceeding with criminal prosecution against individuals would undermine the safety of the institutions at which they work or the broader economy.

We are not advocating criminalizing irresponsible behavior after the fact or abandoning due process protections. We are advocating a justice system that treats all equally, regardless of size or importance to the broader economy.

[…]

Holder wants to be “very, very, very, very clear,” that no bank that commits crimes is too big to jail. To ensure that clarity, we should enhance transparency on the process.

Read the full USA Today op-ed here.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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A photograph of Robert Weissman and Elizabeth Warren

Public Citizen’s president, Robert Weissman, with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at Public Citizen’s 2014 gala

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Note: Public Citizen honored Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) with the “Golden Boot” award on May 14 at Public Citizen’s 2014 gala.

“In every fight to build opportunity in this country, in every fight to level the playing field, in every fight for working families, the path has been steep.

“Throughout our history, powerful interests have tried to capture Washington and rig the system in their favor. From tax policy to retirement security, the voices of hardworking people get drowned out by powerful industries and well-financed front groups, those who have the power to fight to make sure that every rule tilts in their favor and everyone else gets left behind.

“Just look at the Big Banks. They cheated American families, crashed the economy, got bailed out, and now the five largest financial institutions in America are 38 percent bigger than they were in 2008, at the time of the crash. They still swagger through Washington, blocking reforms and pushing around agencies.

“Let’s be clear: a kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot goes to jail, but a big bank breaks the law on laundering drug money, and no one even gets arrested.

“The game is rigged, and it isn’t just the banks.

“The rich and powerful have lobbyists, lawyers, and plenty of friends in Congress. Everyone else, not so much.

“So we can whine about it. We can whimper about it. Or we can fight back.

“Me, I’m fighting back.”

Add your name to Public Citizen’s petition supporting Sen. Warren’s bipartisan 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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