There's Only One Solution That Might Fix Our Corrupt Financial System
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Americans want their pound of flesh, and rightfully so. We’ve seen our bankers commit every kind of financial crime imaginable. They trade on insider information. They manipulate markets. They rig bets. They fix prices. They sell securities that are designed to fail so that they can bet against them. They launder money for rogue nations. They create too-big-to-fail banks that gamble with impunity knowing that we will bail them out again and again. And they collectively crashed the economy causing 8 million workers to lose their jobs.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to see these financial felons doing the perp walk?
Sure, that might satisfy our desire for justice or even revenge, but it wouldn’t solve our banking problem. Neither would a return of Glass-Steagall, which would separate investment banking (the gambling part) from commercial banking (where our deposits are federally insured). And neither would a properly enforced Dodd-Frank legislation that was supposedly designed to prevent the next financial crash.
None of this will work because even if vigorously enforced, our too-big-to-fail banking system will still be there, ripping us off each and every day. Worse still, even if you locked up all the CEOs and replaced them with saints selected by Ralph Nader, these giant banks would still be a clear and present danger to our economic system and to each of our jobs, if we’re lucky enough to have one.
The simple truth is our giant banking system is metastasizing throughout our economy. It’s sucking away our wealth, and it’s out of control. No bank CEO can effectively manage the empires they now preside over. No regulator can keep up with the financial games that are played right under their noses. It’s just not possible. Too-big-to-fail also means too-big-to-control.
The real dangers run even deeper. Banking is supposed serve a relatively simple, yet critical function – turning our savings into investments. It’s such a simple function that most introductory economic textbooks hardly mention it at all. But this function becomes immensely complicated and dangerous when banks become casinos. Financial apologists tell us those casinos make our system run more efficiently and provide ways to disperse and reduce risk…except not on this planet.
Back in the real world, banking casinos are like any other casino. They are designed to make money from money any way they can and as fast as they can. If they can rig a bet, they do it. (That in a nutshell is what the LIBOR scandal is all about.) If they can hoodwink a client by selling damaged goods, consider it done. If they can find ways to hide bets off the books, “don’t think twice, it’s alright.” Bending and breaking the rules is what they do. And if caught, they blame it on the guy below or the other bank across the street or the regulator who wasn’t doing his job, or maybe even the poor schlep homeowner who didn’t read the fine print.
Every time a bank is caught in one of these scandals (and every big bank has been caught), they point to their immaculate ethical policies that put the consumer first. They also brag about their sophisticated and rigorous risk management systems that are designed to prevent and contain the damage. Whatever happened, they claim, was a minor breach, an accident, a rogue trader, a bumbling manager or a misunderstanding. And those at the top are always insulated by plausible deniability.
But all of this dissembling is a cover for the obvious: too-big-to-fail banks are the predators and we are the prey.
And we’re talking about very big and powerful predators – predators who are so large that they can set prices at will. (See the August 9 New York Times article, "With Low Rates Banks Increase Mortgage Profits" about how the large banks are overcharging all of us on mortgages.)
We shouldn’t be surprised.The biggest banks are simply getting bigger and bigger. In 1994 the assets of the top six U.S. banks were the equivalent of 17 percent of our economy. By 2009, after the crash and bailouts, the top six assets jumped to a whopping 63 percent of the economy. By March 2010, the top six banks (Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, CitiGroup, Well Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) held $9.2 trillion in assets. (How much is that? It's as much as the net worth of 119 million average Americans combined.)
Given their size, there is no way we can allow these banks to fail – ever. Given their size, there is no way the political establishment can resist their lobbying and campaign donations. Given their size, there is no way our judicial system can control the racketeering.
Shouldn’t we just break them up into smaller pieces?
At first blush this seems like a grand idea. Let’s smash them to smithereens so that no bank can ever again grow so large. I’m for giving it a try. But we may end up with hundreds if not thousands of banks that will still find ways to gamble our money away. Many of these banks can fail at the same time – as happened during the Great Depression, and during the savings and loan fiasco in the 1980s. Also, it would be very difficult to control the ways in which these banks might link up with each other or connect with large non-banking corporations. We’d need a boatload of regulations and regulators to police so many private banking entities. And I’ll wager we’d still face the same underlying problem: wherever there are vast sums to be made from financial casinos large or small, we’re at risk.
Turn the banks into public utilities?
When I was writing The Looting of America in 2009, I still had hope for basic reforms: prosecutions, new laws, Glass-Steagall, you name it. But even then, I worried that these reforms were doomed:
Perhaps the biggest problem with our government's timid approach to the financial crisis is that it just won’t work. We are gambling that somehow, through a hodgepodge of bailouts, regulations and controls, we can eliminate financial instability. But history provides little reassurance. Never before has so much human energy been devoted to investigating, analyzing and managing our economy. And yet, the most advanced and sophisticated economic system ever created, crashed all over our textbooks, our research papers, and our free-market theories. And if we don't change the way we do things, it will crash again.
Let's hope we won't throw away much our children’s inheritance because we did not have the courage to do the obvious: take over the failing banks, drastically trim their astronomical salaries, control their hazardous financial engineering, and run the damn things for the good of us all.
Since then we’ve learned the hard way that in a modern complex global economy, large-scale private banking doesn’t work. Rather than bust them up into smaller privately owned pieces, I think it’s time to take them over and run them as public utilities, paying decent civil service salaries and no more. Rather than one big national bank, we should consider chartering many state banks (the number depending on the size of the state). North Dakota still has one and it runs just fine. Then our public-employee bankers could concentrate on moving savings into good investments rather than moving the chips around their rigged roulette wheels.
But won’t we be subject to bungling bureaucrats?
Do you think public employees possibly could do worse than the mortgage brokers who lied and stole their way into the financial crisis? Would you really miss the shysters who sold dangerous adjustable mortgages to senior citizens who already had secure fixed mortgages? Will you pine for the days when bankers sold toxic assets to school districts and various municipalities all over the world? Are you worried that you’ll grow nostalgic for bankers who made billions on the upside and then stuck the taxpayers with the losses when things headed south?
And please don’t use Fannie and Freddie as counter-examples. Until they were nationalized after utter failure, those mortgage giants were run as private entities – complete with stockholders and highly paid executives – all backed with implicit government guarantees. They were the worst kind of public-private partnerships. We can do better.
Won’t we lose our banking talent by so drastically lowering the salaries?
Yes we would, and thank goodness. There are thousands of very bright people who are drawn into banking because of the enormous financial rewards. Collectively, they are harming our economy. We would be much better off if that enormous talent pool flowed into medicine, science and education.
Just think about what the current system is doing: We lure our best and brightest into finance because they can literally make millions of dollars per HOUR. And in order to do so, they create enormous hazards for our economy. If someone from another planet looked our way, they would surely ask: “Why do you deploy some of the best talent on Earth to destroy yourselves?”
But isn’t this outright socialism?
This is about as socialist as your local police and fire departments. Over the course of history, we have learned that some services best serve the commonwealth when run as public trusts.
Overall, the free-market works reasonably well in the non-financial economy. (Yes it needs very tough regulations to protect the environment, public health and the workforce. And having a larger labor movement would serve as a badly need check and balance to concentrated corporate power.) But our private banking sector defies the most fundamental laws of capitalism: Both banking profits and losses should go to the entrepreneurs and their investors, not the public. Furthermore, if you really care about preserving capitalism in the real economy, we can’t allow finance capital to run hog wild, creating instability and crashes in its wake. Sooner or later, we’ll be forced to nationalize the banking sector. In fact, we already did. We bailed them out. We guaranteed hundreds of billions of toxic assets. We provided trillions in virtually free loans. Under the rules of capitalism, we should own them already given that level of support. (You can be sure, Warren Buffet would own them all, if he provided that kind of financing.) We just didn’t have the guts to take them on.
Look around and you’ll see the wreckage of big private banking wherever you look. The unemployed, the empty houses, the struggling families who are underwater, the collapsing state and local budgets -- all of that was caused by our banking system run amok.
How the hell could this possibly happen in America with a banking lobby that owns Congress? Doesn’t that make this scheme a bit fantastic and unrealistic?
It sure does. But doesn’t that admonition apply also to any and all banking reforms? Right now, with the banksters in control, even the most minor reforms are challenged every inch of the way. So what’s realistic right now? Just about nothing.
But that wasn’t the case at the height of the 2008 crash when every bank was on its knees begging for help. That was the time to act. But we didn’t. Why? One reason is because progressives didn’t have a vision of what banking should look like. We defaulted to the idea that private banking was a given, and therefore our “reforms” failed to offer an alternative. The progressive goal seemed to be to put teeth into Dodd-Frank. How realistic was that?
I think it’s very realistic to begin thinking real hard about what we’ll demand the next time the system crashes…and it will. Are we going to accept, yet again, that the big banks get bailed out and then remain in private hands? Or will we have a rational plan for turning them into public utilities?
Of course just having a plan doesn’t make it so. But if we don’t know what we really want, we’ll get nothing, or even worse we’ll get more attacks on public services, public employees and environmental regulations.
There’s also hard, cold politics to consider: By demanding the end of large-scale private banking we might help to shift the debate. If the idea spreads and gains credence, then reforms like Glass-Steagall or busting up the big banks will start looking mild in comparison to the abolition of private banking as a whole.
You know it’s true. We need to end too-big-to-fail, instead of proposing reforms that are too little, too late.