Recent stories about Wall Street contain a recurring theme: deceit.
For example, this week the CEO of the late Lehman Brothers, Richard S. Fuld Jr., with a completely straight face swore to Congress that he'd been utterly out to lunch on the issue of "Repo 105," a sleight-of-hand accounting procedure auditors found Lehman used to conceal its debts.
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil lawsuit charging Goldman Sachs with securities fraud and describing a scheme in which Goldman defrauded clients by selling them a mortgage investment to bet on after secretly permitting selection of its component securities by a hedge fund manager who Goldman knew planned to bet against it.
Also last week, the Senate conducted hearings on failed Washington Mutual following a report by a Senate subcommittee that found the bank's lending operations rife with fraud, including fabricated loan documents.
This deceit illustrates that America's largest financial institutions can't be trusted to refrain from crashing the world economy again. In fact, when the big banks announced their first quarter earnings recently -- Citigroup $4.4 billion; Bank of America, $4.2 billion; Goldman Sachs $3.46 billion, and JPMorgan $3.3 billion; Morgan Stanley $1.8 billion - it turned out that much of that money was made by their trading divisions - the very ones that dragged them - and the U.S. economy - down during the crisis in 2008. These are the same risky trading practices that cost taxpayers a $700 billion bank bailout, their savings, their jobs, their businesses.
Clearly, these bankers can't control themselves. And the "free market" has failed to moderate their behavior. Strict regulation is essential, including re-instituting the Glass-Steagall Act and other rules that will prevent financial firms from growing too big to fail; forcing the banks themselves to pay for liquidation of big financial institutions; placing on open markets trades of those secretive derivatives that brought down AIG and that the SEC says Goldman used fraudulently; and creating an independent consumer financial protection agency to stop practices like predatory lending, usurious interest rates and hidden fees.
Congress lifted bank regulations over the past three decades, including the Glass-Steagall Act passed after the 1929 stock market crash to reduce speculation and conflicts of interest and to prevent "too-big-to-fail" financial institutions by forbidding the combination of investment and commercial banks. Like gullible investors in subprime mortgage bonds, the politicians who reversed those rules bought the argument that the free market would regulate itself. This is the same argument 1,500 Wall Street lobbyists are using, along with millions of dollars, right now in attempts to persuade lawmakers to stop worrying their little heads about seriously regulating Wall Street.
Main Street, where foreclosures continue at a record pace and unemployment remains painfully near 10 percent, desperately needs its own 1,500 lobbyists and millions in influence dollars. It will have the power of thousands of voices at a "Make Wall Street Pay" rally April 29 in the heart of New York City's financial district, one of several protests across the country organized by the AFL-CIO.
On Main Street the need to forcefully re-regulate to prevent another Great Recession is clear; it's not in Washington, D.C. In fact, weakening the already-too-soft financial regulation bill proposed by Sen. Chris Dodd is a crusade for Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, whose campaign coffers have received more money from security and investment firms than from any other category -- $1.3 million. Like a Wall Street banker, McConnell is using deception. For example, he harped all last week that an "orderly liquidation fund" in the Dodd bill was a "bailout fund."
It's not. It would be created with fees on banks - not taxpayers. And it's not for bailouts that preserve banks. It is for bank liquidation. It would pay for the orderly closing of too-big-to-fail banks. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post ridiculed McConnell's claims, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, described McConnell's attacks on the bill as fraudulent.
All of the sudden on Monday, McConnell changed his mind about Dodd's bill. Coincidentally, that was three days after the SEC filed the fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, making railing against financial reform appear not quite so politically wise to Republicans anymore. It's all about the politics in Washington, D.C.
McConnell said he had new optimism that Wall Street reform would pass because Democrats had resumed bipartisan talks and, he said:
"I'm convinced now there is a new element of seriousness attached to this, rather than just trying to score political points."
Listening to McConnell is like hearing Lehman's Fuld, who got a $22 million bonus six months before his financial firm filed for bankruptcy, swear to Congress he knew nothing about the "Repo" accounting procedure Lehman used to conceal $50 billion in debts. Following his testimony, Anton R. Valukas, the examiner in the Lehman bankruptcy, told Congress that his investigators found a person who had discussed Repo with then-CEO Fuld and e-mails to Fuld describing it.
The problem with McConnell and his new-found eagerness to pass "bipartisan" legislation is that the Dodd bill needs to be strengthened, not weakened with compromises thrown to Senate Republicans, all 41 of whom signed a letter last week saying they'd vote against it.
Before compromises remove from this bill the power to effectively regulate, Congress needs to review what Goldman is accused of doing. Ezra Klein of the Post described it best:
"Goldman Sachs let hedge-fund manager John Paulson select the subprime-mortgage bonds that he thought likeliest to explode and put them into a package called Abacus 2007-AC1. Paulson, who guessed early that the market was heading for a crash, wanted to bet against these bonds. But he needed someone on the other side of the bet. So Goldman went out and found him some suckers, or, as Goldman called them, "counterparties." . . .But here's the rub: Goldman didn't tell the counterparties that Paulson had picked the bonds. 'Goldman wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio, while telling other investors that the securities were selected by an independent, objective third party,' said Robert Khuzami, the director of the SEC's division of enforcement."
Khuzami's description makes Goldman's behavior sound a lot like lying.
The real economy in this country - the one that manufactures, builds and produces tangible products - can't afford a Wild West financial economy. The real economy depends on banks to finance business expansion and everyday transactions. All of that froze in the Fall of 2008 because of Wall Street's reckless, inadequately-regulated gambling.
In a speech in New York City on Thursday, President Obama reinforced that some bankers "forgot that behind every dollar traded or leveraged, there is family looking to buy a house, and pay for an education, open a business, save for retirement."
Obama also referenced the issue of dishonesty when he said this in New York:
"A free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it."
If McConnell-style deceit about the financial reform bill continues in the Senate, serious regulatory reform won't happen. Half measures won't work. Only robust financial reform will end Wall Street's freedom to deceive.