Brown-Nosing Wall Street Reform

Brown-Nosing Wall Street Reform

The House and Senate have finally ironed out their differences on Wall Street reform. What will the bill fix—and what does it leave broken?


This story first appeared at The Media Consortium.

More than two years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the House and Senate finally ironed out their differences on Wall Street reform in the wee, small hours of Friday morning. The bill now goes back to both the House and Senate for final approval, but it’s fate in the Senate is uncertain following the defection of Tea Partier Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

The resulting bill has several things going for it, but largely misses the critical structural lessons of the Great Financial Crash of 2008. As Wall Street continues to score epic profits and grotesque bonuses over the coming months, progressives must be committed to continuing the fight for a fair economy.

Megabanks intact

As Andy Kroll explains for Mother Jones, the bill essentially lets too-big-to-fail banks off the hook. Megabanks like J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup will not be broken up into smaller institutions that could fail safely, nor will they be required to exit many of their most reckless business ventures. One of the most promising reforms still on the table as Congress moved on the bill was a plan to ban banks from gambling with taxpayer money—and Congressional leaders sabotaged it at the last minute.

As Tim Ferhnolz notes for The American Prospect, instead of strengthening the bill by negotiating with committed reformists like Democratic senators Maria Cantwell, and Russ Feingold, Senate leadership chose to cut a deal with Tea Party favorite Scott Brown. Brown’s price? Allowing banks to gamble by running their own proprietary hedge funds. After Senate negotiators gave Brown what he wanted, he suddenly reversed his support for the bill on Saturday morning.

Derailed by infighting

Essentially, petty interpersonal spats overwhelmed the push for real reform. Cantwell and Feingold’s objections to the legislation were correct so far as policy substance were concerned, and Cantwell always made clear that her vote could be won by simply closing a huge loophole in the bill. But after the two Democrats voted against the bill for being unnecessarily weak on the Senate floor, Senator Chris Dodd simply shut them both out of the negotiation process. This would be funny, if it weren’t true.

Brown had already proved his ability to go back on his word with Senate negotiators just a few weeks prior. He was a committed "yes” vote when the bill went to the Senate floor, but unexpectedly reversed his position at the last minute, causing the legislation to fail the first time it came up for a vote. But instead of trying to cut a deal with progressives, Dodd decided to roll the dice again with Brown, and the legislation now finds itself in limbo, with Senate approval uncertain.

A slight improvement

But despite its unnecessary shortcomings, the Wall Street reform bill is still an improvement over the status quo, as I emphasize on AlterNet. We get a stronger set of consumer protections, along with a thorough audit of the Federal Reserve. The Fed served as the government’s principal bailout engine throughout the crisis, pumping $4 trillion into the nation’s financial system with almost no accountability or oversight. Bringing these massive bailout operations into the light should build momentum for broader reforms, but it’s up to engaged citizens to make that a reality.

There are plenty of major policy battles brewing that directly involve the financial industry. As Dean Baker notes at Truthout, the current economic policy agenda is a Wall Street executive’s dream. Lawmakers are seriously considering slashing Social Security while ignoring an unemployment catastrophe and leaving troubled homeowners out in the lurch. These are all catastrophic economic errors in the making.

Foreclosed again

As Annie Lowrey reports for The Washington Independent, Fannie Mae unveiled a new policy last week to punish borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their home is worth. As home prices have plunged in value over the past three years, huge swaths of borrowers owe their bank hundreds of thousands more than their home is worth. Now many borrowers, realizing that they are pissing away huge amounts of their monthly income to a ruthless bank, are making the perfectly rational decision to walk away from their mortgage.

In cases where borrowers can, in fact, afford to continue making payments, but simply do not want to waste their money, walking away is called a "strategic default," and there is nothing wrong with it. Both parties knew the terms of the mortgage agreement when it was signed, and a well-paid, professional banker signed off on it. Borrowers are not violating a contract by failing to pay—in a mortgage, the borrower keeps paying the bank, or the bank gets the house. Walking away just means that the bank gets the house.

But, of course, bankers are upset that they didn’t predict the downturn in home prices, even though this is part of their job description, and the reason they get paid big bucks. When borrowers walk away, bankers lose money. So banks putting pressure on the government, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to punish borrowers who walk away, and Fannie Mae has acquiesced by agreeing to shut borrowers out of the mortgage market for seven years, and harassing them in court for unpaid mortgage balances.

Your right to rent

As Greg Kaufmann emphasizes in The Nation, there are much better policy alternatives. Instead of slamming borrowers, the government could encourage bankers to write down their total debt burden to whatever their house is currently worth. Bankers don’t want to do that, because it means taking a loss, and when agencies like Fannie Mae are willing to intimidate borrowers to line bankers’ pockets, why should bankers agree to play ball?

According to  Kaufmann, one of the best ways to get banks to negotiate seriously with borrowers is to establish a right-to-rent policy. Borrowers who receive a foreclosure notice would get the right to rent their current home at a fair market rate, determined by a court, for up to five years. Bankers don’t want to be landlords, so the provision would force them to negotiate with borrowers in trouble by imposing an unpleasant new duty on the bank. If bankers still didn’t want to negotiate, borrowers would have five years to find a new place to stay. It’s great policy, and legislation to implement it has already been introduced in the House.

The final version of the Wall Street reform bill is worth supporting, but it won’t fix the foreclosure crisis or prevent bankers from taking outrageous risks that put the entire economy in jeopardy. Many key reforms are still necessary, and it’s up to progressives to keep the pressure on lawmakers to make sure they are enacted in the coming months.

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