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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Obama's Meeting With the Top Bankers Shows Who's on Top Again

When he was running for US President, Barak Obama said that the financial crisis provided an opportunity for financial system reform beyond that which is in the interest of the big banks because the power of the latter is temporarily eclipsed and the US Government can take advantage of that.  His assumption is that during normal times, the banking industry essentially owns the Congress (Sen Dick Durbin’s statement just after the banking lobby defeated a foreclosure bill in the US Senate in 2009).  Sadly, the government did not use the eclipse; rather, it has been using the appearance of power and direction in the relumed post-crisis period to engage in window-dressing to assuage populist anger at the banks.

 Asserting that it “is among the strongest banks in the industry,” Citigroup announced in December, 2009 that it would soon repay $20 billion of federal bailout money. This from a bank that was in the red for most of the preceding two years, that was expected to limp through 2010 amid a torrent of loan losses, that saw its stock price close after the announcement at a measly $3.70 a share — and that, like other big banks, was still reluctant to lend. Citigroup’s planned exit from the bailout — like Bank of America’s earlier this month — would be welcome if the banks were the picture of health. But their main motive was to get out from under the bailout’s pay caps and other restraints. Perhaps the bankers were motivated to attract talent;  perhaps they were acting in their personal financial interests.  The Treasury Department’s approval was a grim reminder of the political power of the banks, even as the economy they did so much to damage continued at the time to struggle and the banks have benefited from taxpayer money.

Big bank profits, for instance, still came mostly courtesy of taxpayers. Their trading earnings were financed by more than a trillion dollars’ worth of cheap loans from the Federal Reserve, for which some of their most noxious assets were collateral. They benefitted from immense federal loan guarantees, but they were not lending much. Lending to business, notably, was very tight.  Barak Obama’s “urging” the banks to lend more to small business was not apt to be taken seriously by the big banks, given their financial power.   To exort banks to be good “corporate citizens” is only to twist “citzen” beyond its pale.

Let’s be clear. Organizations are not citizens.  For one thing, they can’t vote.  Exxon can’t mail in its ballot for president.  Nor can it be drafted to fight (rather, it can receive military contracts; its lobby knows how to procure those).  Moreover, they are designed (real citizens are not “designed”) to retain income without limit.  Extrinsic normative claims on the organizational machines do not register in the corporate calculus unless there is a financial cost.

Being called to the “woodshed” at a White House meeting is mere political theatre—something the bankers who bothered to attend in person must have known was something merely to sit through.  Some of the biggest recipients of taxpayers’ money, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, didn’t even bother making the extra effort to get there ahead of time to avoid the predictable winter weather that grounded their flights.  The acela train from NYC was running on time, yet the CEOs cited flight delays as making it impossible for them to attend in person.  Perhaps the CEOs correctly determined that Barak Obama’s meeting was mere political theatre.  The banking lobby was surely not being distracted from the financial reform legislation making its way through Congress.  That lobby has gained significant loopholes in the House’s passed bill (see my post on the House bill).  Aside from the loopholes (such as derivatives still not subject to regulation!), the apparently “strong” provisions of that bill are vulnerable to being gamed. The Senate, which is unlikely to pass its version of the deal until next year, should explore more direct measures, like banning banks beyond a certain size, measured by their liabilities. If we have learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that banks that are too big to fail pose too much of a risk to the economy. Any serious effort to reform the financial system must ensure that no such banks exist.  But can you imagine our elected officials having the guts to split up Goldman Sachs?  Can you imagine what that bank would do to avoid such a fate?  … and yet such private power is not a threat to a republic?   As voters, we are asleep at the wheel, too easily taken in by the theatrics of impotent politicians.

In general terms, it is ironic that the banks too big to fail may be even more of a risk after the financial crisis.  What profits the banks have been making have come mostly from trading. Many big banks were happy to depend on the lifeline from the Fed and hang onto their toxic assets hoping for a rebound in prices.  Crucially in terms of the systemic risk in “too big to fail,” the whole system has grown more concentrated since the crisis. Bank of America was considered too big to fail before the meltdown. Since then, it has acquired Merrill Lynch. Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. And JPMorgan Chase gobbled up Bear Stearns.  If the goal is to reduce the number of huge banks that taxpayers must rescue at any cost, the US Goverment has been moving in the wrong direction. The growth of the biggest banks ensures that the next bailout will have to be even bigger. These banks will be more likely to take on excessive risk because they have the implicit assurance of rescue.  In short, there is even more systemic risk after the financial crisis of 2008.  Creating a new consumer protection agency is a feckless attempt by the US Government to show some muscle to face entrenched (and even more powerful) financial interests on Wall St.  Even giving the government the power to deal with banks deemed too risky to the financial market itself does not guarantee that the power will be used.  Consider, for example, the lack of enforcement of anti-trust law.  For a comparison, look at the EU—not only in terms of going after big companies like Microsoft, but big banker bonuses.   In the US, we much face the fact that the big banks are on top.  If what is good for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup is not necessarily good for us, the American people, then there is a tremendous systemic risk for us in being appeased by Barak Obama’s public “scolding” of Wall Street and by the Swiss-cheeze financial reform bill making its way through Congress.  Neither branch is taking seriously the question of the existence itself of the banks too big to fail.  Moreover, the question of whether large concentrations of private power have become a threat to our republic—on account not only of the ability of a big bank to shaft its customers, but also of the relative power of the banks and their lobby over our government—has effectively been sidelined.   It as as though popular sovereignty here means charting a ship’s course without looking beyond the bow.   Some of the wealthy passenagers have told us: don’t look out there!  Don’t ask the real questions!  And we, being reduced to unconscious herd animals, happily comply and stiffle our anguish because we feel the big banks have already won.