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Wall Street Justice: Too Big To Fail AND Too Big To Jail?

June 10, 2015

Since the financial collapse that began the Great Recession several years ago, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms were passed by Congress and several investigations took place in which many of the financial institutions agreed to multi-billion dollar settlements under which no admission of guilt was made by the banks. Settlement funds were designed as compensation for the damage done by some of the banks’ questionable dealings. At no time in the course of any of these investigations has any corporate executive faced the risk of criminal indictment or punishment. Financial settlements have been paid primarily by shareholders and not come out of the pockets of highly compensated corporate executives under whose watch the activities took place. Settlements, though they were extremely large in monetary terms, were often at least partially offset by being tax deductible, and could be seen as part of the cost of doing business.

Many, if not most, of the individuals and other businesses negatively impacted by the actions of the banks were not directly compensated for their losses. People lost their homes and often their life savings due to foreclosures and bankruptcy. Settlement money was often used to shore-up state budgets rather than to compensate homeowners’ losses. Because their own losses were deemed likely to cause even worse problems for the economy as a whole, financial institutions were bailed out by taxpayers until the banks could stand on their own again. One major investment bank was allowed to collapse, but the others were protected by the TARP funds.

The idea of the Dodd-Frank legislation was to end the need for future taxpayer bailouts of Too-Big-To-Fail banks and safeguard the savings of individual depositors against the risky investments permitted by deregulation of the financial industry under previous administrations, including that of President Clinton. The idea was to prevent the need for future bailouts by ending the existence of Too-Big-To-Fail banks and increase the assets required to be held by each bank to insure their continued viability. Problems have continued to plague the implementation of this legislation – helped along to no small degree by the banker/shareholder friendly members of Congress (primarily, but not exclusively, GOP).

The major Too-Big-To-Fail banks are now even bigger than they were prior to the meltdown. Tepid re-regulation and constant attempts in Congress to even roll them back further are leaving consumers at risk of a repeat of the recession – despite the fact that the only real recipients of significant economic gains which have come with the “recovery” have gone to the the top 1% of income earners. To a great degree, the main beneficiaries of the recovery from the last recession have been the folks that caused it in the first place.

If an ordinary average American is caught running a red light, driving drunk or smoking a joint, they can count on some sort of personal accountability. At least a fine, suspension of drivers license or even some jail time would not be unexpected consequences for such actions – whether or not they hurt someone else. We would be expected to pay this price or face even less favorable consequences to ensue. This is enough of an incentive to dissuade most of us from doing these things, unless, for example, we are alcoholics or gluttons for punishment, neither of which shields us from the full impact of the law.

CEO’s and high level executives of large financial institutions have heretofore faced an entirely different judicial system than the rest of us, apparently. They have regularly risked the funds entrusted to them by depositors and other investors in order to line their pockets and/or those of the shareholders who control their corporations. They gain the insurance of taxpayer bailouts by threatening even more dire consequences for all of us if their self-imposed financial problems aren’t fixed for them. To act as if no individual can be seen as guilty of an offense punishable by law is ludicrous and self-defeating if we want to stop them from hurting huge numbers of Americans in the future just as they have in the recent past. The reforms must remain. Regulation must occur to prevent the sort of irresponsible actions leading to great financial distress to so many people over and over again.

I’m not saying that, say, Jamie Dimon needs to be put in jail for life for the ills perpetrated by his company. Giving Bernie Madoff 150 years for his transgressions was a bit excessive, and his actions didn’t even approach the damage done by the big banks and other financial institutions during that recession. When the financial system collapsed during the Great Depression, regulations were enacted to prevent them from recurring. They worked until they were legislatively undone, which should say something for the need to reinstitute them. Personal accountability for actions resulting in such massive damage to the economy and Real People needs to be maintained, or what is to prevent them from recurring?

If it is true that nobody in executive positions in these companies is doing anything  illegal to cause all this damage, then there is something wrong with the law that needs fixing pronto. There is no excuse for us to see the end of the tracks coming up and refusing to do something to stop the train from crashing. Rewarding the personal greed of those at the top of the financial heap when it is willfully bankrupting millions of hardworking people is unjust. Ensuring that they do not do so is what our government should be striving to accomplish. Instead of arresting homeless people for sleeping in public, maybe we need to exact some punishment on those who run the financial system that made them homeless in the first place.

Break up the big banks. We’ve broken up big things in the past. Oil. Telecommunications. They don’t seem to stay broken up, but the economy does ok when they’re broken up. Don’t let them reach the point ever again when you can refer to any of them as Too-Big-To-Fail. Then if they do fail, you aren’t held hostage by having to bail them out. Make CEOs, other corporate executives and the corporate boards legally accountable. Most of them aren’t right now. Sure, if they shoot you in the street, they’ll likely go to jail for that. But if they put half of their customers out in the street, they’ll get raises as long as their stock price stays high, they’re turning a profit and making their shareholders happy. Customer satisfaction and treatment of workers should count for something, not just what they refer to as the corporate bottom line.

The biggest problem we face in making this happen is the fact that our system has been coddling the current economic system so much for so long that average people no longer have much of a say in the way either the economy or the government is run. Money has come to be so much more important to who is elected to office than ideas and good deeds that help the mass of humanity.  Changing direction becomes increasingly more difficult with each corrupt election and each bad Court decision. It’s supposed to be one person one vote, not one dollar one vote, as the plutocrats are working feverishly to achieve. The next time we have an economic collapse of this magnitude, we need to make sure that the recovery helps the people who got screwed more than it rewards those who screwed them over.

Further Suggested Readings:

Message From Plea Deal: Criminal Behavior Is Rampant on Wall Street

Bernie Sanders Storms CNBC and Slams The Sick Greed Of Wall Street

Hold Bankers Accountable for Their Crimes

Bust Up Wall Street

Bankers From Major Institutions Still Not Held Responsible for Financial Crash

Warren to SEC Chair: “Step Up” (Or Step Down)

The Impunity Trap

Iceland put bankers in jail rather than bailing them out — and it worked

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  1. From your keyboard to the voters’ eyes… excellent column


  2. J. Williams permalink

    Outstanding piece, so glad I have a chance to read your work.


  3. It pains me greatly to be so negative, but this war between money and people is just about over and our side has lost. Wall Street isn’t just too-big-to-fail or too-big-to-prosecute, it is now too big to be even challenged by democratic governance. Corporatism has become a runaway freight train, and with the upcoming passage of so-called “free trade agreements” (TPP, TTIP, etc.) multinational business interests will score a momentous victory for globalism subjugating ordinary people everywhere under the thumb of authoritarian rule. Orwell was right, but we didn’t listen.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As usual, another great entry in this blog!


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