According to the federal accountants and financial institutions who benefited, the 2008-09 taxpayer bailout of Wall Street has made money for the U.S. Treasury.
The ponderous Dodd-Frank law is supposed to ensure there’s not another rescue of the nation’s biggest banks. Still, Sheila Bair, named by Forbes magazine as the second-most-powerful woman in the world in 2008, is not done with Wall Street.
“I think the bailouts saved the [huge financial institutions from Citigroup to Goldman Sachs],” Bair said in Minneapolis last week. “We didn’t save the economy.”
Bair, a populist Republican lawyer from Kansas who was counsel to Sen. Robert Dole in the 1980s and a federal regulator after that, was chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which insures bank depositors, between 2006 and 2011. Starting in 2008, the panicked Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury pumped hundreds of billions in cash into wounded banks, money managers, General Motors and insurers to reinflate an overleveraged financial system that threatened a global economic meltdown.
The system survived. The stock market, thanks partly to government policies that have held down interest rates, has since hit all-time highs. But our opinion of Wall Street couldn’t be lower.
Bair wrote a book in 2012 called “Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself.” In her speech last week at the annual Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership Forum at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis, Bair noted that the leaders of those institutions that survived (and went on to make tens of millions in compensation) still deny their roles.
“Where is the ethical leadership in making and funding millions of loans that people could not afford,” Bair said. “[Where’s] the ethical leadership in taking people in low-income neighborhoods and refinancing them out of FHA-insured 30-year loans” into subprime loans with short-term balloon payments?
In short, Bair argues that the money lenders and Wall Street paper peddlers violated the trust that used to be taught in first-year business school classes: the sellers of financial products know more than their customers and have a fiduciary duty of care to not put them in jeopardy.
Proper underwriting and prudence lost out to short-term greed. And millions of lost homes and millions of lost jobs later, Main Street believes more than ever that the system is rigged for the big guys.
As FDIC chairwoman in late 2006, Bair grew nervous that nonbank mortgage lenders had flooded the system with too much bad paper. At summits with regulators, she recalled, the money guys routinely blamed consumers for taking on too much debt or overregulation as the problem. Those types can’t control themselves in the face of the irresistible lure of another few million on the bonus check.
Bair is working with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and consumer groups to strip out the taxpayer-insured bank units from the huge, globe-spanning trading desks and derivatives machines of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and J.P. Morgan.
She advocates for higher equity-capital ratios and other measures designed to insure that these players are not “too big to fail” and that the owners and bondholders in them will take the biggest hits during the next crisis.
A lost battle
Bair lost the battle to former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who did a better job representing Wall Street than Main Street and who still argues that the bailouts were all necessary and won’t happen again.
Yet Bair notes that the credit-rating agencies still give the biggest institutions the highest ratings because of “implied government support” in a crisis.
Bair’s message resonated with Martha Pomerantz, a Wall Street veteran who is an owner and portfolio manager at Evercore Wealth Management in Minneapolis.
“Educating those on Wall Street about the human implications of their financial instruments is what is needed to effect change,” Pomerantz said. “It seems like a big game to them and a lot of numbers. Sometimes they ignore the impact on real lives. Just like we require new drivers to watch videos of those in accidents, maybe we should require investment bankers and brokers to hear real-life testimonials of those who have suffered from misguided financial instruments, so they can connect their policies to the people they impact.’’
A relatively few mortgage brokers and traders have gone to jail for their activity. Not one of the financial kingpins — all men — has been criminally charged or has apologized for the disaster. Many big banks have paid huge settlements without admitting guilt.
Sheila Bair, a sharp, empathetic woman, is worth hearing out. Check out her site at www.bairblog.com.