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Change Wall Street Can Believe In

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Message Holly Sklar
Wall Street is doing to America what private equity firms did to Simmons Bedding and many other productive companies. Taking control with borrowed money, stripping assets, slashing jobs and cashing out.

Taxpayer bailouts saved Wall Street from choking on its own greed. Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports, "Major U.S. banks and securities firms are on pace to pay their employees about $140 billion this year -- a record high."

$140 billion is more than the combined budgets of the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Typical workers, meanwhile, make less today adjusting for inflation than they did in the 1970s. Wall Street rewarded CEOs who cut employee wages and benefits and offshored manufacturing, services, and research and development; feasted on Bush's tax cuts; turned mortgages into loan sharking; and vacuumed up home equity, college funds, retirement funds and other private and public investments into their rigged casino.

Goldman Sachs, for example, "peddled billions of dollars in shaky securities tied to subprime mortgages on unsuspecting pension funds, insurance companies and other investors when it concluded that the housing bubble would burst," McClatchy reports in a new investigative series.

The Great Depression gave way to the New Deal. The Great Recession has become the Great Ripoff.

The TARP inspector general's latest report to Congress says, "The firms that were 'too big to fail' " are in many cases bigger still, many as a result of Government-supported and -sponsored mergers and acquisitions; the inherently conflicted rating agencies that failed to warn of the risks leading up to the financial crisis are still just as conflicted; and the recent rebound in big bank stock prices risks removing the urgency of dealing with the system's fundamental problems."

Enabled by the Bush and Obama administrations, the megabanks are lending less and gambling more -- using taxpayer money to pay bonuses, float a new stock market bubble and make even riskier bets.

The U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve have become Wall Street's ATMs, while unemployment, foreclosures and homelessness rise, states slash public services, and small businesses are starved of credit.

Outside the TARP, trillions of dollars are flowing to the banksters in the form of near-zero interest loans, bond guarantees and extreme leverage for toxic assets. You can follow the money at Nomi Prins, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, is author of "It Takes a Pillage."

The megabanks are not too big to fail. They're too big and irresponsible to exist.

Just months after taking office in 1933, President Roosevelt signed into law the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated the commercial banking of savings, checking and loans from investment banks doing underwriting and speculative trading. The former got depositor insurance, not the latter.

Glass-Steagall lasted until Citigroup and other power players killed it in 1999 through the Financial Services Modernization Act, taking us back to the pre-New Deal casino economy on steroids. Now former Citigroup CEO John Reed has joined the growing call to split commercial banking and investment.

In 2000, Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, ignoring the warnings of Commodity Futures Trading Commission head Brooksley Born who said that unregulated trading in derivatives could "threaten our regulated markets or, indeed, our economy."

By 2002, the four largest bank holding companies -- Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup -- had 27 percent of FDIC-insured bank assets. Now, reports the Economic Policy Institute, they have nearly half. They overlap with the biggest derivatives dealers -- JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

The government heavily subsidizes the megabanks, but it's the small banks that provide higher savings interest, lower fees, lower loan and credit card rates, and do much of the lending to small business, who in turn create most new jobs.

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Holly Sklar is a widely published op-ed columnist whose books include "Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All of Us" and "Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood," the widely taught story of how the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is rebuilding a long impoverished Boston community.
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