Sanders Op-Ed: Real Wall Street Reform

By:  Sen. Bernie Sanders

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman and one of the architects of financial deregulation, recently testified to the effect that no one could have predicted the Wall Street collapse of 2008.  Really?

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, this is what I said on the floor of the House in 1999 as I voted against the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bank deregulation bill:  “I believe this legislation, in its current form, will do more harm than good.  It will lead to fewer banks and financial service providers; increased charges and fees for individual consumers and small businesses; diminished credit for rural America; and taxpayer exposure to potential loses should a financial conglomerate fail.  It will lead to more mega-mergers; a small number of corporations dominating the financial service industry; and further concentration of economic power in our country.”

Frankly, it didn’t take a PhD in finance to come to this conclusion.  If you lock a heroin addict in a room with heroin, you shouldn’t be shocked if he overdoses.  If you give unlimited license to Wall Street speculators, whose only function is to make as much money as possible, you shouldn’t be surprised when the result is greed on steroids, reckless behavior and a disaster for ordinary people.

Today, as a result of that uncontrollable greed, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, health care and homes and our country continues to struggle through a disastrous recession.  Disgust at Wall Street is profound.  The American people want change as to how Wall Street functions, real change.  Congress must deliver.   

We must be clear that real and meaningful financial reform will not come easy.  When Wall Street and the financial sector successfully fought for deregulation they poured some $5 billion into lobbying and campaign contributions over a 10-year period.  Now, as Congress begins to address financial reform, they’re at it again.  In 2009, the major financial interests spent $300 million in lobbying and the money continues to flow like water. 

In my view, the real and transformational financial reform we need must include the following elements:

Break Up Huge Banks  The four major U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Well-Fargo – issue two-thirds of the credit cards in this country, write half the mortgages and collectively hold $7.4 trillion in assets, about 52 percent of the nation’s estimated total output last year.  Incredibly, despite all of them being bailed out during the Wall Street meltdown because they were “too big to fail,” three of them (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo) are now bigger than before the bailout.  But this is an issue which goes beyond the danger of “too big to fail” and future taxpayer liability.  We must break up these behemoths because of the incredible economic power they exert on the economy through their concentration of ownership and enormous competitive advantages.  

Financial Institutions Must be Integrated Into the Real Economy
  At a time when we are in the midst of a major recession, it is insane that our largest financial institutions continue to trade trillions in esoteric financial instruments which makes Wall Street the largest gambling casino in the world.  We need to create a financial system which invests in the real economy, and helps create millions of new jobs by providing small and medium businesses with the credit they desperately need.  We also need investments to rebuild our manufacturing sector, transform our energy system and create modern transportation and infrastructure systems.  We don’t need banks pushing home mortgages on people who can’t afford them. We don’t need huge amounts being “bet” on whether housing securities go up or down or what the price of oil will be six months from now.         

National Usury Legislation Major financial institutions have, in many ways, become nothing less than loan-sharking operations.  Today, millions of Americans who pay their bills on time are now forced to pay 25 or 30 percent interest rates.  That is not only obscene but, according to every major religion, immoral.  Banks cannot be allowed to engage in usury and charge outrageous interest rates. We must cap interest rates for private banks at the same level as we do for credit unions – 15 percent except under exceptional circumstances.

Transparency at the Federal Reserve The Federal Reserve cannot continue to operate in almost total secrecy.  During the bailout, large financial institutions received trillions of dollars in zero or near-zero interest loans.  Who received those loans and under what terms?   The Fed isn’t telling.  Did some of them turn around and, in a mammoth welfare scam, invest that Fed money in government treasury bonds at 3 percent or 4 percent interest rates?  The Fed refuses to say.  It’s time we had transparency at the Fed so that the American people know what our central bank is doing.