Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Has Happened to the Financial System Reform Initiative?

I recall early on in the Obama administration a major provision of his "change" agenda was to dissect what was wrong with our financial system that allowed the meltdown of 2008 and to incorporate changes on Wall Street and within the existing financial system regulatory structure to assure a repeat performance could be avoided in the future. In light of all the constituent outrage and heart-wrenching accounts from millions who have lost jobs, their retirement savings due to stock market slides and now are losing their homes to foreclosure, it would appear reform was certainly politically possible and that a path was "greased" for much-needed legislation. But as we enter a new year--most importantly, a critical midterm election year--as well as amidst high level government economists' declarations that the "recession is over," it appears now that the air has gone out of the proverbial balloon for financial system reform much to the chagrin of millions of middle class Americans who continue to suffer from the effects of this Great Recession. Where did the momentum go and why the change?

Just as quickly as we realized that a gambling casino mindset of recklessness and greed that began on Wall Street and sent shock waves across the world just averting a total financial system collapse, a mindset of euphoria and the "good old days" has returned to Wall Street thanks largely to government bailout induced profits and accentuated by the recent announcement of a new round of big compensation bonuses. Both Senator Chris Dodd of the Senate Banking Committee and Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee, as chairmen of their respective committees with jurisdiction on these matters, were quickly out of the gate with major reform bills last year that both included thoughtful, proposed changes to the current system of oversight and regulation--the formation of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency with increased powers, power shifts amongst existing regulatory agencies, including the Federal Reserve Board, a reexamination of the Glass-Steagall repeal legislation that occurred during the Clinton Administration, which post Great Depression had established a then much-needed separation between the investment banking and commercial banking communities, and a much-needed revisionary focus on the "too big to fail" doctrine that has dogged this country's financial regulatory system and its regulators for decades. But as the months of contentious debate over a major health care reform bill have dragged on, not to forget the debates over Afghanistan, the economic stimulus, the deficits and a host of other issues, combined with the vigorous opposition of the big bank/Wall Street lobbyists already indebted to the American taxpayer for huge government bailouts, "true" financial system reform now seems, in the parlance of " inside the Beltway" political analysts as DOA or "dead on arrival." Also not to be overlooked is the fact that Senator Dodd, the champion of reform in the U.S. Senate, has announced his retirement. It's too soon to tell whether Senator Dodd will cave into the growing anti-reform sentiments or forge ahead with a substantive legacy reform bill in the remaining months of his Senate tenure.

With all of this as backdrop, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, constructive will come out of the public hearings of a blue-ribbon Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that are scheduled to begin this week. The supposedly bipartisan commission established early last year to investigate what happened on Wall Street and within the financial system to cause the near domestic collapse and international domino effect will hopefully through its leadership and investigative staff bring to light the abuses that contributed to the meltdown and maybe, just maybe, this could reignite the ongoing congressional reform efforts. Concerned middle class Americans everywhere should be rooting for this commission and hope it truly reveals the precarious position our Wall Street/big bank dominated financial system is in and that it can present thoughtful and meaningful recommendations that can be incorporated into reform legislation.

I want to be optimistic but considering all of the factors noted above I am skeptical. Why? Significantly, the pre-meltdown, speculative climate has returned to Wall Street. While millions of Americans continue to suffer economically in the aftermath of the horrific abuses resulting from the near collapse, according to Wall Street the recession is over and happy days are here again. The risk-taking is back as are the collateralized debt obligations (CDO's), the credit default swaps, the speculative and complex derivatives and other exotic Wall Street concoctions that got us into the huge financial mess in the first place. The rating agencies are still being paid by the firms who issue the securities and assigning artificial high grades for unsuspecting and/or uninformed marketplace investors. Finally, and most egregiously, it's big bonus season on Wall Street again with six-and seven-figure bonuses set to be doled out in the weeks ahead as if the 2008 financial collapse and near financial disaster never even occurred. Do these financial executives have any consciences at all? To me, in light of their bailouts, jacking consumer interest rates on even their best customers and other behavior this situation is unconscionable. While they feast on their hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars, there are millions of proud, hard-working Americans who have already and continue to face financial ruin, mostly due to the Wall Street and big bankers' unregulated and senseless excesses. It's indeed a sorry time for this country and one can only hope the powers to be somewhere wake up before it's too late.

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