Like ugly on a toad, banker greed just can’t be rinsed off, no matter how much regulatory soap you use.
Last week, Congress enacted new rules to govern America’s huge banks, thus completing Washington’s response to the unbridled Wall Street greed that crashed the financial system and crushed our economy. The regulatory reforms were hailed by Democrats as possessing powerful cleansing power, while Republicans wailed that the new rules were overly caustic, imposing such a heavy-handed governmental scrub that the delicate layers of Wall Street innovation, competitiveness and profitability will be rubbed away.
Meanwhile, the big bankers were grinning from ear to ear, for the bill requires no restructuring and decentralizing of the monopolistic grip that these giants have on America’s credit system. Thus, they still retain the power to rip off consumers, gamble with depositors’ money, haul in exorbitant profits and pay themselves ungodly bonuses — all while remaining “too big to fail.”
Yes, the banking barons now have to adjust to stricter regulations, many of which are good and long overdue. But these guys are experts at slipping out of governmental leashes. Indeed, JPMorgan Chase alone has had 90 “project teams” at work for months, plotting end runs around new regulations long before they were even passed.
For example, the law restricts those infuriating overdraft fees that banks have been sneaking into our debit card accounts. A victory, right? Yes, but bankers didn’t miss a beat in finding another way to pick our pockets — they’re already imposing new “maintenance fees” for basic checking accounts.
Forget receiving a free toaster for opening an account — Bank of America, Wells Fargo and others now hit you with up to $15 a month just for the privilege of putting your money in their bank for them to use.
Jaimie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, insists that this is necessary. “If you’re a restaurant and you can’t charge for the soda, you’re going to charge more for the burger,” he lectures.
Come on, Jamie, drop the mom-and-pop pose. You’re not a little restaurant struggling to make ends meet — you head a monopolistic financial behemoth that helped ruin the economy for moms and pops, then took billions in taxpayer bailouts, used the crisis to increase its monopoly power, continues to get federally subsidized money, has just announced a 78-percent hike in profits and recently paid you a salary and bonus of $18 million.
These giants are Washington insiders who routinely rig the rules and get favorable treatment. Take Goldman Sachs. Last week, federal regulators hit it with one of the largest fraud penalties in financial history — half-a-billion bucks. Federal officials crowed that this level of punishment will get Wall Street’s attention, compelling the banks to return to an ethic of “honest treatment and fair dealing.”
But, wait — the same day the penalty was assessed, Goldman’s stock price went up by 5 percent. Once again, bankers were grinning. “It looks like a big win for Goldman,” gloated one financial analyst, adding that SEC’s $550 million assessment “seems like a paltry sum.”
It would be impossible for me to put “$550 million” and “paltry” in the same sentence, but do the Wall Street math. Goldman hauls in half-a-billion dollars in profit every 15 days. In fact, the 5 percent boost that Goldman got in its stock price the day of the SEC’s penalty added far more than $550 million to its market value — so the giant made money off the deal! Some “punishment.”
Washington’s bill is an important start on reform, but only a start. Congress and the White House might think their job is done, but public fury at Wall Street’s reckless greed will not be abated by a bill that simply doesn’t have the stuff to stop the greed. As Wall Street banker and political insider Roger Altman wrote after the bill passed, “Most in our community view it as relatively harmless.”
You’ll know that real reform has come when the bankers have the grins wiped off their faces. To help push structural reforms that really can restore “fair dealing” to America’s banking system, connect with Americans for Financial Reform: www.ourfinancialsecurity.org.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.