Wall Street shenanigans fuel public distrust

Robert Reich, © 2011 Robert Reich

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wall Street is its own worst enemy. It should have welcomed new financial regulation as a means of restoring public trust. Instead, it’s busily shredding new regulations and making the public more distrustful than ever.

The Street’s biggest lobbying groups have just filed a lawsuit against the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, seeking to overturn its new rule limiting speculative trading in food, oil and other commodities.


The Street makes bundles from these bets, but they have raised costs for consumers. In other words, a small portion of what you and I pay for food and energy has been going into the pockets of Wall Street. Just another redistribution from the middle class and the poor to the top.

The Street argues that the commission’s cost-benefit analysis wasn’t adequate. At first blush, it’s a clever ploy. There’s no clear legal standard for an “adequate” weighing of costs and benefits of financial regulations, since both are so difficult to measure. And putting the question into the laps of federal judges gives the Street a huge tactical advantage because the Street has almost an infinite amount of money to hire so-called “experts” who will say benefits have been exaggerated and costs underestimated.

The Street used the same ploy last year, when the Securities and Exchange Commission tried to make it easier for shareholders to nominate company directors. Wall Street argued that the commission’s cost-benefit analysis was inadequate. Last July, a federal appeals court – inundated by Wall Street lawyers and hired-gun “experts” – agreed with the Street. So much for shareholder rights.

Obviously, government should weigh the costs against the benefits of anything it does.

But when it comes to regulating Wall Street, one big cost doesn’t make it into any individual weighing: the public’s mounting distrust of the entire economic system, generated by the Street’s repeated abuse of the public’s trust.

Wall Street’s shenanigans have convinced a large portion of America that the economic game is rigged.

Yet capitalism depends on trust. Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks. They also begin trading in gray markets and black markets. They think that if the big guys cheat in big ways, they might as well begin cheating in small ways. And when they think the game is rigged, they’re easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas.

Tally up these costs, and it’s a whopper.

Wall Street has blanketed America in a miasma of cynicism. Most Americans assume the reason the Street got its taxpayer-funded bailout without strings in the first place was because of its political clout.

That must be why the banks didn’t have to renegotiate the mortgages of Americans – many of whom, because of the economic collapse brought on by the Street’s excesses, are still under water. Some are drowning.

And why taxpayers didn’t get equity in the banks we bailed out – as Warren Buffett got when he bailed out Goldman Sachs. So when the banks became profitable again, we didn’t get any of the upside gains. We just padded the downside losses.

And why most top Wall Street executives who were bailed out by taxpayers still have their jobs, have still avoided prosecution and are still making vast fortunes.

And why the Dodd-Frank financial reform act is filled with loopholes big enough for Wall Street executives and traders to drive their Ferraris through.

The cost of such cynicism has leached deep into America, finding expression in Tea Partiers and Occupiers and millions of others who think the people at the top have sold us out.

Every week, it seems, we learn something new about how Wall Street has screwed us.

Bloomberg News recently reported on huge, secret loans to Wall Street from the Fed during the crisis. In early 2009, after Citigroup tapped the Fed for almost $100 billion, the bank’s CEO called Citi’s first quarter the “best since 2007.” Is there another word for fraud?

In coming months and years, the American public will weigh the social costs and social benefits of Wall Street itself. And it wouldn’t surprise me if we decide the costs of the Street as it is far outweigh the benefits.

The biggest Wall Street banks are now bigger than they were before the financial crisis of 2008. Congress is now considering a bill to break them up and cap the size and leverage of all banks. Support for the Safe Banking Act, as it’s called, is growing.

The Street has only itself to blame.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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