Selling Out America


From Ron Epstein

Blame Wall Street for the current financial crisis. Investment banks, hedge funds and commercial banks made reckless bets using borrowed money. They created and trafficked in exotic investment vehicles that even top Wall Street executives — not to mention firm directors — did not understand. They hid risky investments in off balance-sheet vehicles or capitalized on their legal status to cloak investments altogether.

They engaged in unconscionable predatory lending that offered huge profits for a time, but led to dire consequences when the loans proved unpayable. And they created, maintained and justified a housing bubble, the bursting of which has thrown the United States and the world into a deep recession, resulted in a foreclosure epidemic ripping apart communities across the country.

But while Wall Street is culpable for the financial crisis and global recession, others do share responsibility. For the last three decades, financial regulators, Congress and the executive branch have steadily eroded the regulatory system that restrained the financial sector from acting on its own worst tendencies. The post-Depression regulatory system aimed to force disclosure of publicly relevant financial information; established limits on the use of leverage; drew bright lines between different kinds of financial activity and protected regulated commercial banking from investment bank-style risk taking; enforced meaningful limits on economic concentration, especially in the banking sector; provided meaningful consumer protections (including restrictions on usurious interest rates); and contained the financial sector so that it remained subordinate to the real economy. This hodge-podge regulatory system was, of course, highly imperfect, including because it too often failed to deliver on its promises.

But it was not its imperfections that led to the erosion and collapse of that regulatory system. It was a concerted effort by Wall Street, steadily gaining momentum until it reached fever pitch in the late 1990s and continued right through the first half of 2008. Even now, Wall Street continues to defend many of its worst practices. Though it bows to the political reality that new regulation is coming, it aims to reduce the scope and importance of that regulation and, if possible, use the guise of regulation to further remove public controls over its operations.

Keep reading Sold Out (pdf file)
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