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Which Bank Is the Worst for America? 5 Behemoths That Hold Our Political System Hostage

We've ranked the banks based on how shamelessly they game the political process through lobbying, revolving door politics and campaign donations.

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Goldman Sachs, the famed “vampire squid” in Matt Taibbi’s formulation, is the only investment bank on our list. However, no look at the corrupting influence of Big Finance would be complete without it. It's “only” at 54 on Fortune’s list, but still higher than, among others, Intel, Chrysler and Sears, with $911.3 billion in assets and $46 billion in revenues, and profits of $8.35 billion in 2010. For many, Goldman Sachs is the face of all that’s wrong with Wall Street, stoking massive anger when CEO Lloyd Blankfein told a reporter that he was “doing God’s work.”

Meet Their Bailouts

The big banks weathered the economic crash thanks to large injections of taxpayer dollars. The original bailout plan, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was signed into law by George W. Bush and gave direct handouts to the banks to keep them from collapsing.

Economist Dean Baker told AlterNet that Big Finance “never wanted to see the removal of the government from the market. They wanted the government to come in and bail them out.”

They were also happy to accept “government deposit insurance or the back-up lines of credit provided by the Fed through the discount window,” he said. “What the financial industry wants is to have these incredibly valuable government safeguards without restrictions on the banks' behavior.”

Among our big five, Citigroup was the largest beneficiary of these funds, with $45 billion, but even Goldman Sachs got $10 billion. Wachovia/Wells Fargo and JPMorgan got $25 billion each, while Bank of America got $30 billion. According to ProPublica’s calculations, the big five have all paid back their TARP funds.

 

But TARP was only one way in which the federal government subsidized the big banks. The Federal Reserve also handed out trillions in unsupervised loans during the so-called crisis period.

Dean Baker noted in his book False Profits that the Fed loans were actually more significant than the bailouts. “The vote on the TARP was a way to get Congress’s fingerprints on the policy of subsidizing the banks,” he wrote, “just as the war authorization bill approved in October 2002 implicated Congress in President Bush’s subsequent decision to wage war on Iraq under false pretenses.”

 

And if those numbers weren't big enough, just this August Bloomberg reported even more secret Fed loans to the big banks: “The $1.2 trillion peak on Dec. 5, 2008 -- the combined outstanding balance under the seven programs tallied by Bloomberg -- was almost three times the size of the U.S. federal budget deficit that year and more than the total earnings of all federally insured banks in the U.S. for the decade through 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.”

These staggering numbers in direct bailouts and loans don’t even take into account the other ways in which these banks benefited from federal handouts: loans to other banks that were used to pay back debts to the big five; government support for consolidation, making the too-big-to-fail banks even bigger. For instance, in addition to its own bailout funds, Goldman Sachs got $12.9 billion from the funds the government used to bail out insurance giant/seller of derivatives AIG.

“Without question, direct government support was critical in stabilizing the financial system, and we benefitted from it,” Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein said.

Campaign Donations

The big banks are some of the biggest donors to political campaigns in the country. Yet, when you compare what they spend on candidates to what they got in bailouts, it’s pennies on the dollar. In other words, it’s a worthwhile investment to spend money on candidates.