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Robert Reich: Does the Obama Plan for Reforming Wall Street Measure Up?

June 19, 2009

In a word: No.

The plan doesn’t stop stop bankers from making huge, risky bets with other peoples’ money. It does increase capital requirements and oversight, but it doesn’t require bankers to take their pay in long-term stock options or warrants, and it doesn’t even hint that banks should go back to being partnerships instead of publicly-held corporations.

All this means traders still have very incentive to place big and often wildly risky bets as long as the potential winnings are big enough, and top executives have very little incentive to monitor what traders are up to as long as the traders are collecting large commissions on the bets.

It’s a mere filigree of reform, a sheer gossamer of government. Wall Street must be toasting its good fortune.”

Nor does the plan do anything to prevent banks from becoming too big to fail. It doesn’t hint at a return to the days before the late 1990s when commercial banks were separate entities from investment banks — before mammoth bank supermarkets like Citigroup came to be so tied up with so many other commercial and investment vehicles that they couldn’t be allowed to go under. And there’s not the slightest mention of antitrust, to break up the largest banks.

The plan does focus on a few conflicts of interest, such as how credit rating agencies are paid. And it does establish a new agency to oversee all forms of consumer loans — thereby helping make sure borrowers know what they’re getting into, and can comparison shop. But these are small potatoes relative to the size of the overall problem. The Fed is given new oversight powers, but there’s no suggestion that regional Fed bank presidents, who already have a substantial oversight role, should be recruited from the ranks of people who are not bankers and don’t have a big financial stake in keeping oversight to a minimum.

In short: It’s a mere filigree of reform, a sheer gossamer of government. Wall Street must be toasting its good fortune. Unless Congress shows some spine, the great Wall Street meltdown of 2007 and 2008 — which lead to the biggest taxpayer bailout in history, very likely the largest taxpayer losses on record, and the largest investor losses since 1929 — will repeat itself within a decade, if not sooner.

In fact, the banks that have repaid their TARP money are already planning to resume supersize bonuses, even though many of them are still awash in toxic assets and their non-performing loans are up. Bad credit-card and commercial property debts are mounting. Foreclosures are soaring. Yet several of the big banks are showing profits. How are they pulling this off? First, they strong-armed the Financial Accounting Standards Board into allowing them to assign whatever value they wanted to all the junk on their balance sheets. Then they played hardball with the Treasury staffers whose so-called “stress tests” lapsed into little more than negotiations over numbers and probabilities. (The national unemployment rate is already approaching the highest unemployment rate in the stress tests.) Then they convinced investors that financials have hit bottom and were now good bets. Presto!

Watch your wallets. The Street is up to its old tricks. And the White House’s so-called reform is little more than a whitewash.

Robert Reich.JPGRobert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2009 Robert B. Reich

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