This article is a follow-up to my recent piece on "America's Financial Oligarchy" which was a synopsis of Simon Johnson's "The Quiet Coup" on how the financial industry has effectively captured our government. This follow-up article is an edit and review of a lengthy 231-page report prepared in March 2009 by the Consumer Education Foundation (see wallstreetwatch.org/reports/sold_out.pdf for the full report) on how, over the years, the 'Money Industry' as they refer to the financial oligarchy, sold out America to gain such control. Like Simon's article the Consumer Education report at wallstreetwatch.org deserves much more exposure than it will receive in its original format and hence my effort to distill it into a 3-page summary, with my comments where warranted, for your quick review.
The 'Money Industry' Bought Control of America for $5.2 Billion
Harvey Rosenfield, President of the Consumer Education Foundation, contends that "Over the last decade, Wall Street (i.e. the entire financial sector consisting of commercial banks, accounting firms, insurance companies, securities firms including hedge funds and private equity firms) showered Washington with over $1.738 billion in supposed 'campaign contributions' and another $3.441 billion on 2,996 officially registered lobbyists (more than five for each Member of Congress) whose job it was to press for deregulation. In return for the investment of this $5.179 billion, the Money Industry was able to get rid of many of the reforms enacted after the Great Depression and to operate, for most of the last ten years, without any effective rules or restraints whatsoever."
The Transfer of Power Took 25 Years
• Beginning in 1983 with the Reagan Administration, the U.S. government acquiesced to accounting rules adopted by the financial industry that allowed banks and other corporations to take money-losing assets off their balance sheets in order to hide them from investors and the public.
• Between 1998 and 2000, Congress and the Clinton Administration repeatedly blocked efforts to regulate "financial derivatives" -- including the mortgage-related credit default swaps that became the basis of trillions of dollars in speculation.
• In 1999, Congress repealed the Depression-era law that barred banks from offering investment and insurance services, and vice versa, enabling these firms to engage in speculation by investing money from checking and savings accounts into financial "derivatives" and other schemes understood by only a handful of individuals.
• Taking advantage of historically low interest rates in the first few years of this decade, mortgage brokers and bankers began offering mortgages on egregious terms to purchasers who were not qualified. When these predatory lending practices were brought to the attention of federal agencies, they refused to take serious action. Worse, when states stepped into the vacuum by passing laws requiring protections against dirty loans, the Bush Administration went to court to invalidate those reforms, on the ground that the inaction of federal agencies superseded state laws.
• The financial industry's friends in Congress made sure that those who speculate in mortgages would not be legally liable for fraud or other illegalities that occurred when the mortgage was made.
• Egged on by Wall Street, two government-sponsored corporations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, started buying large numbers of subprime loans from private banks as well as packages of mortgages known as "mortgage-backed securities." (See my article entitled "Our Worst Nightmare: The Puncture of the U.S. Housing Bubble" which outlined their house of cards approach.)
• In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Commission, now operating under the radical deregulatory ideology of the Bush Administration, authorized investment banks to decide for themselves how much money they were required to set aside as rainy day reserves. Some firms then entered into $40 worth of speculative trading for every $1 they held.
• With the compensation of CEOs increasingly tied to the value of the firm's total assets, a tidal wave of mergers and acquisitions in the financial world -- 11,500 between 1980 and 2005 -- led to the predominance of just a relative handful of banks in the U.S. financial system. Successive administrations failed to enforce antitrust laws to block these mergers. The result: less competition, higher fees and charges for consumers, and a financial system vulnerable to collapse if any single one of the banks ran into trouble.
• Investors and even government authorities relied on private "credit rating" firms to review corporate balance sheets and proposed investments and report to potential investors about their quality and safety. But the credit rating companies had a grave conflict of interest: they are paid by the financial firms to issue the ratings. Not surprisingly, they gave the highest ratings to the investments issued by the firms that paid them, even as it became clear that the ratings were inflated and the companies were in precarious condition. The financial lobby made sure that regulation of the credit ratings firms would not solve these problems.
None of these milestones on the road to economic ruin were kept secret, says Rosenfield. The dangers posed by unregulated, greed-driven financial speculation were readily apparent to any astute observer of the financial system but few of those entrusted with the responsibility to police the marketplace were willing to do so and those officials in government who dared to propose stronger protections for investors and consumers consistently met with hostility and defeat. The power of the Money Industry overcame all opposition, on a bipartisan basis.
Their Weapons of Mass Destruction were Derivatives
As Franklin Roosevelt observed seventy years ago, "our enemies of today are the forces of privilege and greed within our own borders" and today, says Rosenfield, their weapons of mass destruction were derivatives: pieces of paper that were backed by other pieces of paper that were backed by packages of mortgages, student loans and credit card debt, the complexity and value of which only a few understood. In fact, says Rosenfield:
"America's economic system is where it is today because gambling became the financial sector's principal preoccupation, and the pile of chips grew so big that the Money Industry displaced real businesses that provided real goods, services and jobs."
The Purchase of America was a LBO
Rosenfield believes that the American consumers are not to blame for this debacle nor those who used credit in an attempt to have a decent quality of life, nor those who agreed to accept the amazing terms for mortgages and finding out later that they had been misled and could not afford the loan at the real interest rate buried in the fine print. Instead of assuming any responsibility for living beyond their means Rosenfield believes Americans are only to blame for "allowing Wall Street to do what it calls a leveraged buy out of our political system by spending a relatively small amount of capital in the Capitol in order to seize control of our economy".
The Privileges of the Financial Oligarchy are Being Preserved
Rosenfield contends that the moment the Money Industry realized that the casino had closed, it turned -- as it always does -- to Washington, this time for the mother of all favors: a $700 billion bailout which was quickly extended to include a feast of discount loans, loan guarantees and other taxpayer subsidies to the tune of at least $8 trillion so far. Then, panicked by Wall Street's threat to pull the plug on credit, Congress rebuffed efforts to include safeguards on how taxpayer money would be spent and accounted for. Rosenfield is of the opinion that the bankers used the bailout monies to pay bonuses, to buy back their own bank stock, or to build their empires by purchasing other banks with very little of the money being used for the purpose it was ostensibly given: to make loans. He is absolutely convinced that Washington's latest giveaway -- the Greatest Wall Street Giveaway of all time as he calls it -- has not fixed the economy but that, at this very moment of national threat, the banks, hedge funds and other parasite firms that crippled our economy are pouring money into Washington to preserve their privileges at the expense of the rest of us.
Washington Was Paid Off
That's why, according to Rosenfield, you won't hear anyone in the Washington establishment suggest that Americans be given a seat on the Board of Directors of every company that receives bailout money or that credit default swaps and other derivatives should be prohibited, or limited just like slot machines, roulette wheels and other forms of gambling. In most of the United States, he says, you can go to jail for stealing a loaf of bread but if you have paid off Washington, you can steal the life-savings, livelihoods, homes and dreams of an entire nation, and you will be allowed to live in the fancy homes you own, drive multiple cars, throw multi-million dollar birthday parties, etc. and virtually get away with it. Sure, he points out, you might not be able to get your bonus this year or, worst come to worst, if you are one of the very unlucky few unable to take advantage of the loopholes in the plan announced by the Treasury Secretary Geithner, you may end up having to live off your past riches because you can only earn a measly $500,000.
The Money Industry Remains in Charge
Rosenfield believes that since President Obama's key appointments to the Treasury, the SEC and other agencies, like their predecessors, are veterans of the Money Industry that the Money Industry remains in charge of the federal agencies and keeps our elected officials in its deep pockets and, as such, nothing will change and that:
"if America is to recover from this economic debacle that we find ourselves in, its people must return to the principles that made it great -- hard work, creativity, and innovation -- and both government and business must serve that end. Washington must serve America, not Wall Street. Things will not change so long as Americans acquiesce to business as usual in Washington. It's time for Americans to make their voices heard."
The report concludes that Wall Street is presently humbled, but not prostrate. Despite siphoning trillions of dollars from the public purse, Wall Street executives continue to warn about the perils of restricting "financial innovation" even though it was these very innovations that led to the crisis in the first place and they are scheming to use the coming Congressional focus on financial regulation to centralize authority with industry- friendly agencies.
"If we are to see the meaningful regulation we need, Congress must adopt the view that Wall Street has no legitimate seat at the table. With Wall Street having destroyed the system that enriched its high flyers, and plunged the global economy into deep recession, it's time for Congress to tell Wall Street that its political investments have also gone bad. This time, legislating must be to control Wall Street, not further Wall Street's control."
God Bless America
My recent "America's Financial Oligarchy is Still in Control" article concluded that the country is in financial crisis and instead of the financial oligarchy being broken up to permit essential reform they are continuing to use their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed immediately to pull the economy out of its nosedive. Moreover, our legislators seem unwilling to act against these powerful financiers opting instead to succumb to their power and influence and continue to give them what they deem to be in their best interest instead of that of the taxpayers'. Rosenfield goes one step further in claiming that the Money Industry has, in fact, bought control of the American political system and, in the process, betrayed America's trust in them. They are still in control and there is no end in sight.
Indeed, the long-term consequences for America are so dire I think it is incumbent upon us to evoke the words of the anthem "God Bless America" with its stirring words "stand beside her and guide her." I think you would agree, regardless of party affiliation or leanings, that America needs all the help it can get!