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Elizabeth Warren: Big Banks Must Stop Trying to Stall Reforms to the Financial System

An interview with finance watchdog Warren, who attacks the pernicious influence of bank lobbies, and worries about the debt-fueled threat to America’s middle class.
 
 
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Senate Dems are making the final push on financial reform this week, but will big banks really change the way they do business? Or will we still be pawns in a game rigged in their favor?  I caught up with Elizabeth Warren to talk about the need to reform Wall Street culture, the pernicious influence of bank lobbies, and the debt-fueled threat to America’s middle class. Warren will discuss these issues and more at this weekend’s Hamptons Institute symposium, sponsored by Guild Hall in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute (details below).

Lynn Parramore: Has the financial crisis changed the culture of Wall Street?

Elizabeth Warren: I would have expected the financial crisis to sweep through Wall Street like a hundred-year flood — wiping out old business practices and changing the ecology profoundly. So far, the financial services industry has seemed to treat the crisis like a little rainfall — inconvenient, but no significant changes needed. The real question moving forward is how the industry will respond to Wall Street reform and growing public anger. Will it react to all the new cops on the beat just by hiring more lobbyists? Will it continue to spend $1.4 million a day to beat back anything that could mean more accountability and oversight? Or will the financial services industry finally begin to rethink its business models, lobbying approach, and attitude toward the public?

Parramore: Have unregulated financial products slowed our economic recovery?

Warren: Let me put it differently: meaningful rules in the consumer credit market can accelerate economic recovery, I really believe that. Rules would increase consumer confidence and, more importantly, weed out all the tricks and traps that sap families of billions of dollars annually. Today, the big banks churn out page after page of incomprehensible fine print to obscure the cost and risks of checking accounts, credit cards, mortgages and other financial products. The result is that consumers can’t make direct product comparisons, markets aren’t competitive, and costs are higher. If the playing field is leveled and the broken market fixed, a lot more money will stay in the pockets of millions of hard-working families. That’s real stimulus — money to families, without increasing our national debt.

Parramore: Why is marketplace safety so much harder for people to accept than safety in other realms?

Warren: Think about it: cars, toys, aspirin, meat, toasters, water — nearly every product sold today has passed basic safety regulations well in advance of being marketed and sold. But consumer credit is a kind of buyer-beware, wild west. That is partly the result of history. Usury laws that existed since Biblical times, through the colonial period and into the 1980s, provided basic consumer protection. Once those laws were quietly undercut, the industry moved to a tricks-and-traps business model. The big banks would promise something for free, like credit cards or checking accounts, or for very low cost, like teaser-rate mortgages, then make their money on the back-end with fees and interest rate escalation. Most people don’t know they have been fooled until it is too late. Last year, for example, families paid a total of $24 billion on overdraft — mostly on “free” checking accounts. People can see exploding toasters, and the newspapers run plenty of headlines about lead in children’s toys. But smaller hits, day after day hitting millions of people, don’t catch the same kind of attention — even though fixing those hits will help make people much more secure over time.

Parramore:What are the consequences of distrust in the marketplace? How does it affect our social fabric?

 
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