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On December 13, President Obama declared that he was not elected to help the “fat cats." But the cats got another version of that memo. A day later, 10 of them were supposed to partake in some White House face-time to talk about their responsibilities to the rest of the country, but only seven could make it. No-shows for the "very serious discussion" -- due to inclement New York weather or being too busy with internal bonus discussions to bother with the President -- were Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons.
Yes, Obama inherited a big financial mess from the Bush administration – which inherited its set-up from the Clinton administration (financial recklessness, it turns out, is non-partisan) -- but he and his appointees have spent the year talking about fighting risk and excess on Wall Street, while both have grown.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner patted himself on the back for making the "difficult and necessary” decisions of fronting Wall Street boatloads of money to cover its losses and capital crunch last fall. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (a Bush-Obama favorite) was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for saving the free world as we know it. And Congress is talking "sweeping reform" about a bill that leaves the banking landscape intact, save for some minor alterations. For starters, it doesn’t resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separated risk-taking (once non-government-backed) investment banks from consumer oriented (government-supported) commercial banks.
Meanwhile, Wall Street is restructuring (the financial equivalent of re-gifting) old toxic assets into new ones, finding fresh ways to profit from credit derivatives trading, and paying itself record bonuses -- on our dime. Despite recent TARP payback enthusiasm, the industry still floats on trillions of dollars of non-TARP subsidies and certain players wouldn’t even exist today without our help.
Wall Street’s return to robustness and Main Street’s continued deterioration are the main takeaways for 2009 that stemmed from the 2008 choices to flush the financial system with capital and leave the real economy to fend for itself. Lies that exacerbate this divide only perpetuate its growth. With that, here is my top 10 list of lies. Please consider adding your own, and let’s all hope for a more honest New Year.
1) The economy has improved.
Earlier this month, Bernanke declared, “Having faced the most serious financial crisis and the worst recession since the Great Depression, our economy has made important progress during the past year. Although the economic stress faced by many families and businesses remains intense, with job openings scarce and credit still hard to come by, the financial system and the economy have moved back from the brink of collapse."
Sure, the economy is better -- if you work at Goldman Sachs or had an affair with Tiger Woods. But while Bernanke, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Geithner turned the Federal Reserve into a national hedge fund (cheap money backing toxic assets in secrecy), and the Treasury Department into a bank insurance policy, the rest of the real economy took hit after hit -- starting with jobs.
The national unemployment rate remains at double digits. Despite Washington’s bizarre euphoria about unemployment rates last month being better (they edged down in November to 10 percent from 10.2 percent in October), the number of Americans filing for initial unemployment insurance rose during the second week of December. After all the temporary holiday hires, that number will probably increase again. Plus, unemployment rates in 372 metropolitan areas are higher than they were last year.
2) If you give banks capital, they will lend it out.
On Jan. 13, 2009 Bernanke concluded that "More capital injections and guarantees may become necessary to ensure stability and the normalization of credit markets.” He said that "Our economic system is critically dependent on the free flow of credit." He was referring to the big banks. Not the little people.
Ten months later, though, he admitted that, "Access to credit remains strained for borrowers who are particularly dependent on banks, such as households and small businesses” and that “bank lending has contracted sharply this year."
In other words, big banks don’t share their good fortunes. Shocking. And as a result, bankruptcies are rapidly rising for businesses and individuals – a direct result of lack of credit coupled with other economic hardships like job losses.
Total bankruptcy filings for the first nine months of 2009 were up 35 percent to 1,100,035 vs. the same period in 2008. The number of business bankruptcies during the first three quarters of 2009 eclipsed all of 2008. Individual consumer filings totaled 373,308 during the third quarter of 2009 and were up 33 percent vs. the same period of 2008. Tell those people about the free flow of credit, Ben.
Nomi Prins is a senior fellow at the public policy center Demos and author of It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.