FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Hubris of the Wall Street Gang

Many highly respected Washington types have been running around for the last three years yelling that because of its large budget deficits, the United States is Greece. We learned last week that the immediate danger is the United States being Cyprus.

As we now know, Cyprus is a small island country with a financial sector that has run amok, following in the footsteps of Ireland and Iceland. The assets of its banks were eight times the size of the country’s economy.

This meant that when the banks’ big bets went bad, there was no way Cyprus’ government could afford the price of the bailout. As a result, Cyprus was forced to go hat in hand to the European Central Bank and accept whatever offer was put on the table. However the Cyprus crisis is finally resolved, it is not likely to be a pretty picture for the citizens of Cyprus.

As the Cyprus crisis was unfolding last week we also got to see the report of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations on JP Morgan’s losses at its “London Whale” trading division. The report chronicles a series of bad bets on derivatives that were compounded by traders doubling down their stakes. They concealed the size of their losses both to bank officers and regulators. The end result was a $6 billion loss.

JP Morgan is a huge bank and can swallow $6 billion in losses, but the incident showed as clearly as possible that the Dodd-Frank reforms are not working. The London Whale’s losing trades were all done in the Dodd-Frank era. The bill’s provisions did not prevent JP Morgan from making massive bets and misleading regulators about their nature and the risks involved.

If the regulators were not able to catch the London Whale’s huge gambles before they went bad, why would we think that they will catch the next crap shoot from the Wall Street gang? It’s time that we looked at this seriously; the regulators lack either the will or competence to rein in the big banks. The big banks are going to get away with everything they want, regardless of the provisions of Dodd-Frank.

If the big banks are too big to regulate and, according to Attorney General Holder, too big to prosecute, then the only sensible course is to break them up. There have been some promising developments in this area.

At the top of the list is Elizabeth Warren’s election to the Senate. Senator Warren has already made it clear that she will use her seat on the Banking Committee to try to hold the banks and bank regulators accountable. The other important development is that Warren seems to have an ally in Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

At first glance this might seem an unlikely alliance. Warren is clearly on the left side of the Democratic Party, and Vitter is to the right of center of a very conservative Republican Party. But Vitter apparently takes his belief in the market seriously enough to realize that there is no place for too-big-to-fail banks in a free market. The point is straightforward, if a bank’s creditors know that the government will cover its losses, the bank is gambling with the taxpayers’ money, not its own.

If there is ever going to be enough political force to break up the big banks it will have to come from this sort of left-right coalition that moves in toward the center. As it stands, the leadership of both parties is too closely tied to the financial sector to take any steps that fundamentally threaten their interests. This has nothing to do with political philosophy; the leadership of both parties is owned by the financial industry. However if the outsiders in both parties can build up enough popular outrage over Wall Street’s shenanigans, the party leadership will follow.

There is precedent for this sort of left-right coalition. In 2009 Representative Alan Grayson, one of the most progressive members of the House, joined with Ron Paul, one of the most conservative Republicans, to co-sponsor a bill calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve Board by the Government Accountability Office.

Over the next year, the bill gradually got more co-sponsors until eventually an overwhelming majority of members had signed on. It was difficult to see why the operations of such an important government agency should be exempted from normal oversight. As a result of this pressure an amendment was slipped onto the Dodd-Frank bill that required the Fed to release the details of the $16 trillion in loans that were made through its special lending facilities.

It will take the same sort of dynamic to create the political space where the big banks can be broken up. Of course this effort will be much harder. It means pulling the big banks away from the public trough, not just releasing some embarrassing information.

We can also expect the elite media to provide the same sort of condescension and misinformation in the battle to break up the banks as they did in the battle over the Fed audit. Proponents of downsizing the banks will be ridiculed, regardless of their expertise in finance. The big banks will be given every opportunity to push their line, in spite of its absurdity and the lack of supporting evidence.

It will be a tough fight. On its face it seems that the Wall Street crew is invincible. But the London Whale episode and the silly efforts at cover-up should provide some grounds for confidence. These people can be pretty brazen in their contempt for the law and the general public. This arrogance on the part of the Wall Street gang is exactly what we need to give democracy a chance.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian.

More articles by:

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail