Wall Street’s big banks remain too big to fail and its bankers apparently too big to jail. If Wall Street is ever once more to serve Main Street rather than sabotage it, citizens will have to do the heavy lifting. Last week, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit overturned a verdict against Bank of America for falsely peddling lousy mortgage loans, showing yet again that the Justice Department and courts have offered no remedy for what the FBI once warned was an “epidemic of fraud.” At the same time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called out Wall Street lobbyists who were “swarming this place,” pressing Congress to slip bank-friendly riders into must-pass legislation.
Last week, 20 national organizations — including some of the Democratic party’s biggest traditional backers, from the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO to the Communications Workers of America — launched the Take on Wall Street initiative. Warren, joined by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, among others, helped launch the effort. The first round of financial reform made some progress, but, as Warren put it, “Let’s get real: Dodd-Frank did not end too big to fail. If you think it did, stand on your head, because you are looking at the world upside-down.”
Take on Wall Street calls for a five-step agenda for the next wave of financial reform: Break up the big banks and pass a 21st-century Glass-Steagall wall separating consumer banking from the banks’ speculative gambles; pass a financial speculation tax that would help curb high-speed speculative trading and raise funds for vital investments; close the “carried interest loophole,” which allows hedge fund traders to pay a lower tax rate on their earnings than teachers; eliminate the tax deduction for CEO “performance” bonuses to curb excessive CEO pay; and crack down on payday lenders and create “public option” banking services through the U.S. Postal Service.
The coalition includes major supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Its agenda includes items that both have endorsed (such as closing the “carried interest loophole”) as well as items that divide them (such as breaking up the banks and passing a modern Glass-Steagall bill). But as Warren made clear, Take on Wall Street is focused on what comes after the primaries. It vows to take the platform into the conventions of both parties. Its members plan both direct action and political action, forcing candidates to reveal whose side they are on. “We are going to make this an issue in congressional races. No one will be able to run from this,” said Trumka. All this will set the stage for a big push on financial reform in 2017.
Americans overwhelmingly favor stronger regulation of Wall Street. Even in New York, the home of Wall Street, exit polls showed a majority of voters (including 49 percent of Republicans) believe Wall Street hurts the economy more than it helps it. And 63 percent of Democrats — 6 in 10 — agree.
But without a major push by citizens, Wall Street’s bankers are going to skate away from blowing up the economy with remarkably little accountability. The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have failed miserably in holding bankers accountable for the frauds they peddled. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the cases brought against 10 of Wall Street’s biggest banks over the seven years after the crash. More than 8 out of 10 (81 percent) of the actions neither named nor identified an individual employee. The banks forked over billions of dollars in fines, but apparently only banks commit crimes, not bankers. Of the 47 employees charged, only one was a boardroom-level executive. Most cases settled out of court. Of the 11 cases that went to trial or a hearing to dismiss, the Justice Department and SEC succeeded against only five employees. The bankers not only have not gone to prison, they have walked away with the fortunes made from their frauds. Impunity for past crimes is an invitation for bad behavior in the future. That makes tougher regulation even more imperative.
In Congress, an unrepentant bank lobby has mobilized to try to weaken Dodd-Frank and roll back financial reform. House Republicans have drafted a financial-services appropriations bill that would weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and cripple the bureau’s recent rule on forced-arbitration contracts. It would also preemptively prohibit the SEC from requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose political donations.
Phil Angelides, chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, summarized the sad reality of bank reform on the fifth anniversary of its report:
“The nation’s biggest banks are bigger than ever, with a greater concentration of assets than before the crisis. Compensation on Wall Street has rebounded to record levels. There have been no real legal, economic, or political consequences for the senior executives of the financial firms that crashed the economy. . . . And, Wall Street and its allies in Congress continue to wage a fierce, well-funded, rear guard action against financial reform.”
Obama’s push for financial reform took the first steps. Occupy Wall Street raised the stakes. The Sanders campaign put breaking up the big banks back on the agenda. Take on Wall Street vows to take the cause forward. “Let’s face it, this will not be an easy fight,” Warren said. “But we didn’t take on this fight because it’s easy, we took on this fight because it’s right.” Ellison sounded the call to action: “We need a resurgence in democratic participation. We need a resurgence of activism.” That could include, he said, marching, arrests, conversations with neighbors and getting involved in “writing the rules.” “We are the many, and they are the money,” he said. “We are going to win this fight if we stick to it.”