Happy Birthday to you,
You've lost all your muscle,
And your teeth are gone, too.
One full year after the financial reform bill spearheaded through Congress by Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank was signed into law, Wall Street looks and acts much the way it did before. That's because the Street has effectively neutered the law, which is the best argument I know for applying the nation's antitrust laws to the biggest banks and limiting their size.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says the financial system is "on more
solid ground" than prior to the 2008 crisis, but I don't know what
ground he's looking at.
Much of Dodd-Frank is still on the drawing boards, courtesy of the Street. The law as written included loopholes big enough to drive bankers' Lamborghini's through -- which they're now doing.
What kind of derivatives must be traded on open exchanges? What are
the capital requirements for financial companies that insure borrowers
against default, such as AIG? How should credit rating agencies be
funded? What about the much-vaunted Volcker Rule requiring that banks
trade their own money if they're going to gamble in the stock market --
how should their own money be defined? What "stress tests" must the big
banks pass to maintain their privileged status with the Fed?
The short answer: whatever it takes to maintain the Street's profits and perquisites.
The law included a one-year delay, ostensibly to give regulators time to iron out these sorts of details. But the real purpose of the delay, it's now obvious, was to give the Street time to expand the loopholes and fill the details with pablum -- when the public stopped looking.
Since Dodd Frank was enacted a year ago, Wall Street has spent as much -- if not more -- on lobbyists and political payoffs designed to stop the law's implementation than it did trying to kill off the law in the first place. The six largest banks spent $29.4 million on lobbying last year, according to firm disclosures -- record spending for the group. This year they're on track to break last year's record.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the Street and other
financial institutions engaged about 3,000 lobbyists to fight Dodd-Frank
-- more than five lobbyists for every member of Congress. They've hired
almost the same number to delay, weaken, or otherwise prevent its
Meanwhile, the portion of the law that's now supposed to be in effect is barely being enforced. That's because the agencies charged with enforcing it, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, don't have enough money or staff to do the job. Congress hasn't seen fit to appropriate these necessities.
Several of these agencies are still lacking directors or
commissioners. Senate Republicans have refused to confirm anyone. They
wouldn't even consider Elizabeth Warren to run the new consumer bureau.
Many of same business leaders who blame the sluggish economy on regulatory uncertainty are complicit in all this. A senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce told the New York Times that "uncertainty among companies about the rules of the road is keeping a lot of capital on the sidelines." The Chamber has been among the groups responsible for keeping Dodd Frank at bay.
But it's the biggest Wall Street banks -- the ones that got us into this mess in the first place, and got bailed out by the public -- that have taken the lead in killing off Dodd-Frank. They can afford the hit job.
At the same time, their executives -- enjoying pay and bonuses as
large as in the boom days of the housing bubble -- are busily bankrolling
both political parties, although Republicans are favored in this
election cycle. A significant portion of Mitt Romney's sizable war chest
has come from the Street. President Obama is no slouch when it comes to
pulling at the Street's purse strings.
Bankers try to justify their shameful murder of Dodd-Frank by saying tightened regulatory standards will put them at a disadvantage relative to their overseas competitors. JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon had the nerve to publicly accost Ben Bernanke recently, complaining that the law's implementation would harm the Street's competitiveness.
The argument is pure claptrap. In the wake of global finance's near meltdown, Europe has been more aggressive than the United States in clamping down on banks headquartered there. Britain is requiring its banks to have higher capital reserves than are so far contemplated in the United States. In fact, senior Wall Street executives have warned European leaders their tighter bank regulations will cause Wall Street to move more of its business out of Europe.
Wall Street is global because capital is global. JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley are doing business in every corner of the world. Goldman even advised Greece on how to hide its growing indebtedness, before the rest of the world got wind, through a derivatives deal that circumvented Europe's deficit rules.
The real reason Wall Street has spent the last year bludgeoning Dodd-Frank into meaninglessness is the vast sums of money it can make if Dodd-Frank is out of the way. If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you'd have left is pavement.
Wall Street is the richest and most powerful industry in America with the closest ties to the federal government -- routinely supplying Treasury secretaries and economic advisors who share its world view and its financial interests, and routinely bankrolling congressional kingpins.
As a result of consolidations brought on by the bailout, the biggest banks are bigger and have more clout than ever. They and their clients know with certainty they will be bailed out if they get into trouble, which gives them a financial advantage over smaller competitors whose capital doesn't come with such a guarantee. So they're becoming even more powerful.
Face it: The only answer is to break up the giant banks. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was designed not only to improve economic efficiency by reducing the market power of economic giants like the railroads and oil companies but also to prevent companies from becoming so large that their political power would undermine democracy.
The sad lesson of Dodd-Frank is Wall Street is too powerful to allow effective regulation of it. We should have learned that lesson in 2008 as the Street brought the rest of the economy -- and much of the world -- to its knees. Now we're still on our knees but the Street is back on top. Its leviathans do not generate benefits to society proportional to their size and influence. To the contrary, they represent a clear and present danger to our economy and our democracy.
They should be broken up, and their size must be capped. Congress won't do it, obviously. So we'll need to rely on the nation's two antitrust agencies -- the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. The trust-busters are now investigating Google. They should be turning their sights onto JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and Goldman Sachs instead.