On Sept. 15, 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapse became the 9/11 of the financial world, sending the global economy into panic. Stocks plunged, credit dried up and working people were forced out of their homes. Jobs and pensions were wiped out in the ugliest financial episode since the Great Depression—mostly because the financial sector had gotten out of control..
Five years later, the big banks continue the most expansive crime spree in the history of capitalism, getting bigger, richer and bolder every day. Like undead creatures from a horror film, financial predators have spread themselves into every corner of society, preying and feeding and making us weaker. In an epic fail on the part of federal prosecutors and the SEC, no one at Lehman was ever prosecuted for financial shenanigans that included shady accounting practices former CEO Dick Fuld claims he didn't know about. As the five-year anniversary approaches and the statute of limitations runs out, we can be sure that no one will ever pay for Lehmans' crimes—except for us.
You could wallpaper your house with the list of dirty deals that have gone down since the financial crisis. JPMorgan sent $6 billion up in smoke in a bad bet, then lied about it to regulators. HSBC laundered money for drug cartels. Big banks manipulated the world’s benchmark interest rates. Every day, bankers defraud municipal and state finances with rigged deals that enrich them as schools crumble and children go without healthcare. There’s insider trading, racketeering, tax evasion, usury, and creative financial products set to explode in your face. Everything you can think of, and, alas, much that you can’t.
Oh, well, say the regulators. Stuff happens.
It’s perfectly obvious that if ginormous Wall Street banks don’t fear prosecution— and Attorney General Eric Holder told us flat-out they needn’t—then the cheating, lying, casino games, and law-breaking will continue. Jim Chanos, an early detector of the Enron fraud, warns that today’s Wall Street executives have even embraced the perverse logic that they have a fiduciary duty to cheat — if everybody else is doing it, says the executive, then I have an obligation to get in on the action.
Nothing but massive reform and no-holds-barred prosecutorial assault will drive a stake into the heart of this monster.
Yet on Tuesday, the smart financial reformer Eliot Spitzer lost his bid for NYC comptroller, a role in which he could keep public money out of the hands of financial predators, whose scams he understands. It can't escape notice that NYC is the home of several of the most powerful banking institutions on Earth: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Or that newspapers, presumably on different sides of the political spectrum, melted into one giant anti-Spitzer bullhorn; ignoring positive polls, running biased stories and denouncing him on their editorial pages.
Economist and former regulator Bill Black noted in an email that “Wall Street was obsessed with defeating Eliot Spitzer in the Democratic primary election for Comptroller" and pointed out that his anti-financial fraud prosecution was extremely effective when he served as New York's attorney general: "An economic study found that victims of financial frauds received a substantially greater recovery of their losses when Spitzer's office was involved in cases compared to securities fraud cases where only the SEC brought an action." Clearly Wall Street doesn't like that kind of outcome.
It's not easy to find potent weapons against Wall Street predators, and in the meantime, we’re still waiting for reform. We wanted it so badly that we pitched tents in city parks during the Occupy movement to send the message, but the politicians wouldn’t hear us, because their ears were stuffed with Wall Street money. Thanks to an army of lobbyists unleashed in Washington, we can’t even seem to get the relatively timid Dodd-Frank rules designed to stop bankers from playing casino games with our savings.
The Federal Reserve could rein in the banks by splitting them up through antitrust laws, as economist Robert Reich has suggested. But we’d need someone at the Fed who is actually willing to take on this project. Unfortunately, over at the White House, we have Obama pushing crony capitalist poster boy Larry Summers for Fed chair—a man who played a key role in deregulating the financial sector, who has gleefully gorged himself on Wall Street money, and who, while in the White House, opposed even the weak Volcker Rule to curb risky trading contained in Dodd-Frank.
The banks continue to bigfoot their way around our legal and political systems, buying up whatever support they require to keep the show going.
If you think things have gotten pretty ugly, just stick around. Another financial crisis is likely. Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson just told a group of bankers and economists in Manhattan to expect it, and he has a unique perspective on the topic, having helped bring on the last one.
Paulson knows something else: This time the Democrats will likely be held responsible.
Enjoy this piece?
… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.
It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.
Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.