Congress's Attempt at Financial Reform Is Very Weak Broth

The latest efforts to reform Wall Street don't away with too-big-to-fail banks, and that's a big problem -- here's what progressives are saying about it.

Last week, the House of Representatives finally approved a financial regulatory overhaul and President Barack Obama announced a new initiative to address the unemployment crisis. Both are a step in the right direction, but neither offer effective solutions to problems that still plague the U.S. economy.

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The House bill doesn’t do away with too-big-to-fail banks and that’s a big problem. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, “the big banks aren’t going to get sidelined—let alone broken up—anytime soon.” Instead of splitting large, risky banks into smaller firms that could fail without wreaking economic havoc, the House bill gives regulators more power, including the ability to bail out a faltering bank with billions of taxpayer dollars. When push comes to shove, regulators are not going to risk letting a major bank fail. They’ll just bail the company out. We all saw what happened when Lehman Brothers collapsed last year.

By imposing a tougher set of rules on banks, it’s conceivable that regulators could prevent some future failures. But as Mary Kane notes for The Washington Independent, Congress carved so many loopholes in the new laws that banks will have little trouble skirting them.

Obama had hoped to create a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to crack down on predatory lending, but a coalition of bank-friendly Democrats pushed through amendments that significantly weaken it. Obama wanted states to have the power to enforce stronger rules on predatory lending. Under a loophole that Rep. Melissa Bean (D-IL) pressed into the House bill, states are prevented from writing or enforcing rules that limit interest rates charged by credit card companies and payday lenders. That’s a really destructive move, Kane notes, since it was state regulators, not federal regulators, who cracked down on abusive lending over the past decade.

Obama also hoped to require that risky derivatives transactions would be conducted via exchange like ordinary stock trades. Derivatives are the type of trades that brought down AIG. But the House bill exempts a huge portion of transactions from this requirement and changes the definition of “exchange” to include private, unregulated derivatives trades, as Nick Baumann explains for Mother Jones. This is a fatal flaw in the regulatory overhaul. Derivatives are the primary technique that banks use to make themselves too-big-to-fail. Over 95% of the $290 trillion derivatives market is housed at just five banks. These derivatives tie the bank to other financial firms in a complicated web of risk that is impossible for regulators to navigate. If one of those five banks goes down, there’s no way a regulator can predict the consequences.

The only hope for meaningful reform right now rests in the Senate, which is considering a much tougher bill than what the House approved. But the Senate has yet to even conduct mark-up hearings on its legislation and the pressure from the banking lobby is going to be enormous. Progressives have to keep pushing for a better bill if we want to protect our economy from the abuses that brought on the current recession.

And while huge federal bailouts for banking giants like Citigroup and Bank of America have helped the financial sector recover, the broader economy is battling the highest unemployment levels since the early Reagan era. Things are poised to get a lot worse. As Daniela Perdomo emphasizes for AlterNet, a full 3.2 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits by the end of March 2010. Even if the unemployment rate stays where it is—and Perdomo notes that a vast majority of experts think its going to go higher—the impact on ordinary people is going to be even more severe than today’s nightmare.

In a blog post for Working In These Times, Roger Bybee highlights a piece by Harvard University Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren, who emphasizes the hardships faced by ordinary families. The statistics are grim—one-eighth of Americans are on food stamps, one-eighth cannot pay their mortgages and 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month.

We need to take serious steps to get people back to work. Mass unemployment means that consumers don’t spend money, which means that companies don’t sell as much, which makes companies lay off more workers to cut costs. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. The market can’t fix unemployment without help.

So Obama’s Dec. 8 speech announcing a new job-creation plan was a welcome event. But the concrete aspects of Obama’s plan are not effective. All the tax cuts in the world won’t necessarily put people back to work. Obama did endorse a public jobs plan which involved the government hiring people to improve the nation’s infrastructure and clean up communities ravaged by the economic crisis, but he shied away from any specific numbers.

As David Roberts explains for Grist, Obama’s willingness to sign off on a $23 billion program for environmentally friendly home renovations is a step in the right direction. The plan is being referred to as “cash-for-caulkers” and is modeled on the very successful cash-for-clunkers program. The government will pay people to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, helping people cut down on utility bills and increasing the demand for construction labor and products like new windows and doors. It’s a good idea. But if all we get are tax cuts and $23 billion for greener homes, the jobs bill is not going to assuage the unemployment crisis.

There is no reason to be concerned about the cost of a thorough jobs program. Taxpayers committed trillions of dollars to help the financial sector weather the economic storm. Anybody who is worked up about the prospect of spending money on jobs should read Amitabh Pal’s piece for The Progressive. A modest tax on speculative trades of stock and derivatives could easily raise $150 billion a year to finance a robust jobs program.

At this point in the economic downturn, the government needs to take much stronger steps to rein in Wall Street and create jobs. We know what needs to be done to protect the economy from risky banking and we can afford to fix the unemployment crisis. All we need is the political will.

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Zach Carter writes a weekly blog on the economy for The Media Consortium. His work has appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on CNBC.