Wall Street: Land of the Million Dollar Babies

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Dean Baker
TPMCafé, May 11, 2010

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Wall Street is known around the world as the land of the million dollar babies since it is chock full of people who have gotten incredibly rich as a result of handouts from the government. These handouts come in all forms, but most in the size extra large. The basic story is always the same; the banks and financial firms take gambles that provide big payoffs for their shareholders and "top performers" and pass along big risks to the taxpayers.

The TARP and the associated bailouts through the Fed were the most obvious example. The industry and their paid hacks are telling us that we shouldn't be upset about these deals because we got repaid most of our money. The reality was that we gave the banks the money they needed to survive in the midst of a financial panic. They used this money - and the backing of the federal government - to restore themselves to health.

While we may have gotten most of our money back, the loans we gave them were way more valuable at the time they were given. This is like giving someone water in the middle of the desert.

When we get back to the lush lakeside in the middle of a rainstorm, they generously offer to repay us. Of course, a big part of the story is that the banks relent the money to other people who were dying of thirst and kept the profit. Yes, we should be happy - tell that to the 15 million unemployed and the millions who are losing their homes.

We had some hopes of reining in the million dollar babies with the financial reform package, but those hopes appear to be dimming. The effort to downsize the "too big to fail" banks got trounced in the Senate last week, garnering just 33 votes. Apparently, the prospect of having to head out into the markets unprotected by the implicit guarantee of government bailouts was too frightening for JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the other big banks. Their lobbyists twisted the arms and got the overwhelming majority of the Senate to continue the big bank subsidy of free government insurance indefinitely.

There is still another good opportunity to rein in the banks ability to gamble with our money. Senators Merkley and Levin have proposed an amendment that would prohibit commercial banks from trading on their own behalf. The point is that commercial banks are backed up by the Federal Deposit Insurance Cooperation and the Federal Reserve Board. If they get into trouble, it is taxpayers' dollars at risk.

Until the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, commercial banks were sharply restricted in what they could do, precisely in order to prevent them from taking advantage of this guarantee. If you wanted to engage in highly speculative activity you could set up a hedge fund or an investment bank, but Glass-Steagall prevented banks from gambling with government-insured deposits. But this separation was obliterated by the repeal, and now we have investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley that are openly speculating with taxpayer-insured money.

The Merkley-Levin amendment seeks to restore this separation. It really should be in the category of no-brainer: Why should schoolteachers and firefighters be subsidizing the high-powered traders at Goldman Sachs?

But, as Senator Richard Durbin said last spring when the Senate voted down a bill that would have helped homeowners keep their homes: "The banks own the place." We'll see what happens.

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.