How to crash an economy and escape the scene

The path we take out of the recession will reveal much about who we are as a people and what we stand for.

By MSNMoney partner Oct 22, 2012 9:40AM
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By William D. Cohan

 

Is it time to put the Great Recession behind us?

 

Not in terms of the economy -- which remains bogged down with high employment, low growth and other aftershocks -- but rather when it comes to demanding a rigorous effort to hold Wall Street bankers, traders and executives accountable for their role in causing the financial crisis.

 

Should we just chalk it up to such simplified explanations as "animal spirits ran amok" and "these things happen occasionally"? Or should we continue to expend scarce political and law-enforcement resources trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and why, with a goal of holding the right people legally and financially accountable?

 

It's a conundrum, especially since many Americans have lost enthusiasm for the fight. But the path we ultimately take will reveal to us and the world much about who we are as a people and what ethics, values and morality we stand for. It will also have serious lasting implications if we hope to avoid a rerun of what happened over the past five years.

 

At the moment, the message we are broadcasting far and wide is: There will be no justice, there will be no accountability, let's return to the status quo as quickly as possible.


There are, not surprisingly, powerful and articulate voices in favor of moving on. In his book "Unintended Consequences," Edward Conard, a former Bain Capital partner of Mitt Romney (who is willing to say the things Romney wouldn't dare and has given $1 million to a political action committee that supports the Romney campaign), argues forcefully that occasional market collapses such as 1929 and 2008 are a small price to pay for a system of capital allocation that has produced vast sums of wealth, extraordinary technical and financial innovation, and an incentive system that rewards people handsomely for taking risks.

 

For better or for worse, Conard writes, this is the country that produced Apple Inc. (AAPL), Google Inc. (GOOG) and Facebook Inc. (FB), among the most admired corporations in the world. Conard believes the sooner we get back to untethering Wall Street's animal instincts the better. That means modest regulation, at best, and an end to any efforts at meting out justice for those personally responsible for the financial crisis because, hey, stuff happens.

 

Likewise, in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), returned to many of his favorite themes. One was how little he cares for much of what is in the Dodd-Frank law and the proposed Volcker Rule which limits banks' ability to trade for their own account. He reiterated his belief that the right kind of financial regulation is necessary, in the vein of laws preventing drunk driving. But, like Conard, Dimon said the new regulatory environment is holding back economic growth.

 

He said he had discussed the topic with business owners and executives around the country: "They all say it's terrible. So it's not just banks. We've done it to ourselves, folks. We're shooting ourselves in the foot and we're doing it every day. Get rid of that wet blanket and this thing will take off."

 

Even Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), has started to make noise again after a few years of laying low. As part of what the press has nicknamed his No Apologies Tour, which has taken Blankfein to forums and media outlets across the country, he has also called for jettisoning the wet blanket. "Getting rid of some regulations and rules that are impairing people from investing vast pools of liquidity that are on the sideline, that are not owned by the government, that are theirs to invest but are just sitting on the sideline" will help get the economy humming again, he told CNBC.


The Wall Street Journal reported last week that while the rest of us have moved on when it comes to the nitty-gritty details of what, say, the Volcker Rule will end up looking like when it is finally written, lawyers and lobbyists for Wall Street firms are working the regulators over with renewed intensity. JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have spent, respectively, $12.7 million and $8.3 million since the passage of the Dodd-Frank law in July 2010 on lobbying the regulators who are still drafting the final regulations. Goldman asked last week for an exemption for certain investments from a Volcker rule proposal that would limit a bank's total investment in hedge and private-equity funds to 3 percent of Tier I capital. Why? Goldman makes a boatload of money investing this way.

 

On the other side of the debate are people like Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate from Massachusetts, who still believes that accountability for the bad behavior that occurred years ago on Wall Street is essential. "People feel like the system is rigged against them," she said at the Democratic National Convention in September. "And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs -- the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs -- still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them. Anyone here have a problem with that? Well I do."

 

I'm no fan of Elizabeth Warren -- I fear that her populism and condescending tone will make her an ineffective Senator (should she win) -- but I agree with her completely that we cannot give up the fight to hold people responsible for what happened on Wall Street in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

 

No one -- no one -- on Wall Street has paid a serious price. The one criminal prosecution -- of the Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin -- failed miserably. Every bank has received its slap on the wrist, has had its insurance carrier or its shareholders cough up a few hundred million dollars -- the cost of doing business, don't you know -- and moved on. And governments, most recently New York State, have decided to milk the banks for badly needed cash rather than charge the miscreants themselves.

 

Once upon a time, prosecutors were vigilant about prosecuting bad financial behavior on Wall Street. According to the Financial Times, during the savings-and-loan crisis of the mid 1980s, about 3,500 bankers were jailed for their transgressions. I still haven't heard a good reason the number of successful prosecutions in the wake of our most recent financial crisis remains at zero.


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25Comments
Oct 25, 2012 12:35PM
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Nope, i'll be staying on the sidlines and investing in Precious Metals to hedge the printing presses.
Oct 25, 2012 10:27AM
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Perhaps we could also remove accountability for mobs who pillage firms thought to be at the heart of this"stuff" and look the other way when CEO's are dragged into the street and "roughed up". After all Stuff happens.
Oct 25, 2012 7:07AM
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They should conduct a national poll with a simple question:

Who are the biggest bank robbers of all time?

Jamie Dimon and Blythe Masters (both of JP Morgan)

or

Bonnie and Clyde.

Poll results might be surprising.

As they say, "The best way to rob a bank is to own one."

Oct 24, 2012 1:07PM
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I am all for people earning what they work for. And there should not be a limit of what you can make. To a point! That said...  Absolutely No one person male or female is worth $51 million or $543 million or etc...etc....How the Fk does that make any sense to anyone with a lick of common sense?????? That is Total BS!!!
Oct 23, 2012 5:02PM
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The system is not salvageable. The rot is too deep. American business leaders are intellectual midgets. At this point they're mentally incapable of grasping anything that goes beyond the next quarters' results.

About 15 years ago a friend whom I had met in college decided that his Bachelor of Science didn't open enough doors and went to a prestigious business school to get an MBA. After 3 months there he told me that the "education" he was receiving there was dismal. Platitudes and cliches were passed off as scientific facts. Any attempt to demand proof in the scientific sense was shut down. To this day, he's adamant that what he got was not an education but an indoctrination. "The Church of Ronald Reagan" as my friend calls business schools, is where American business leaders come from. As long as this is the case, we'll limp from disaster to disaster until the whole edifice collapses for good.
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How could ANYTHING be more discriminatory than government investment in private business? The extreme levels of exclusiveness make the worst of racial discrimination pale ............... and don't f'cking get me started on the percentage of failures among the infinitesimally tiny group of chosen businesses, it seems almost impossible to have that percentage of failure unless they were specifically chosen for that!
Oct 23, 2012 9:02AM
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Corporations (Persons? ha ha)  own the government thanks to bizarro radical activist right wing  Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United. To blame the government for the criminality of corporations has it exactly backwards. The country is run by corporations through a ceremonial government.. Pay to play.
Oct 23, 2012 7:37AM
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With plenty of blame to go around, if you had to weight the contributors, it would be the U. S. congress that was the biggest culprit. In an attempt to buy votes, gain favor with powerful supporters, including the collective support of minorities and lower income, congress and certain presidents set all this up to happen by repealing some laws, timid enforcement, and mis using monetary policy through the fed.

With the SEC, FINRA and other watchdog agencies apparently incompetent, and the Treasury and Federal Reserve bedded down with wall Street bankers, no amount of regulation can prevent serious problems as enforcement is nearly always after the fact.

Some of the fixes are simple-bring back Glass Steagall, ban flash trading, establish rules that discourage traders and stimulate investors. most people i know are keeping their cash and dont plan to put their money back in the market because they know it is a casino as it operates today. Best estimate is that there is $3 triollion on the sidelines. if you want a poster child for Wall Street recklessness and political corruption, look no farther than John Corizine- cant find over a $billion of investor money-oh well. He should already have started a very long prison sentence along with Barney Frank and others in the congress.. 

Oct 22, 2012 5:52PM
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Everything which happened in 2008 is a result of the Government backing the loans and forcing the banks to apply the loose policies.  Our great leader barrack Obama was a strong supporter of the American dream for homeownership.  All of this is by design.  Nafta which took millions of jobs the Dotcom bubble.  Repeal of Glass Stiegel...  All of it is to undermine the world currency to bring about a shift to a singel global World bank Cartel similar to our Federal Reserve sysytem.  It is all for greater control over the masses and centralizing authority.  They want a single currency and a 1 world government or single world governing body. 
Oct 22, 2012 5:38PM
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1. Replace Dodd-Frank and the Volker Rule with the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall.

 

2. Break up the bailed out TBTF banks, which have become even bigger and pose a higher risk to the economy than they did in 2008. 

 

3. Ban all lobbying and campaign contributions from any business or organization that receives money from the federal government or FED.

 

 

Oct 22, 2012 5:14PM
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the government worked hand in glove with big business to destroy the middle class. so quit blaming it all on big business. the government as in both parties over the last 60 years. i have been around for most of them.
Oct 22, 2012 4:43PM
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Vast sums of wealth. Today, this expression no longer relates to chests of gold, property that's paid for, goods and services produced and rendered...Instead, it has everything to do with leveraging. All the " vast sums of wealth" of Enron lost, including retirement pensions, had everything to do with perceived value, which was constantly borrowed against. The same with homes and property. The perceived values of property was believed to be unstoppable, so that it became viewed as an ATM that will dispense again tomorrow, once today's daily limit has been exceeded.

Vast sums of wealth is an illusion while poverty is exponentially real.

P.S. Credit ratings have replaced moral/ethical values, and has created the tolerance of dishonesty.

Oct 22, 2012 2:57PM
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One aspect of the American culture which made us so successful was the matter of trust. Everyone from the early days until but a generation ago lived with the handshake mentality.  Words mattered and a handshake gave your word.  After maybe the late 70's and the advent of the liberal media demonizing everything good this handshake mentality changed.  Lawyerdom became the rule.  If you didn't have a lawyer cast his grace the courts wouldn't recognize the validity of a contract.  And thus the New America was born. The one where you got away with everything and anything that wasn't specifically set forth and interpreted by a politically appointed judge. Money bought you access and in the end bought you legitimacy.  Oh so how inefficient our new more "fair" legal system has become.  You want to be right bring the most money. Like in most third world countries trust is but a long ago idea.  I contend most third world countries are where they are because of the lack of both education and the institution of trust. 
Oct 22, 2012 12:14PM
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Home buyers were idiots for buying what they knew they could not afford, but lenders were criminal in allowing them to do so. I doubt that a Ferrari dealership would finance someone who worked at Walmart.  Don't even get me started on the morons who snapped up the toxic debt with no thought of the consequences. If you have that kind of authority, you should know how to determine if it is a good investment. Everything that happened in 2008 is the result of  the never ending greed of those who just can't seem to have enough wealth to make them happy. They just didn't care, because as we have seen, no one has been held accountable and no one ever will be.
Oct 22, 2012 11:55AM
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I think of all the suffering caused by these smug psychopaths in wallstreet,they should all be hung on the nearest lamppost.

All the jobs sent away in pusuit of cheap labor,now look at the country,no jobs.

The usa is headed the way of greece,its the printing and ever increasing debt thats holding it off for a while.Get ready.

Oct 22, 2012 11:45AM
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Republicans vote November 7th in the upcoming election.
Oct 22, 2012 10:57AM
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reinstate Glass-Stegal.  that law worked for 65 years preventing this type of calamity and there was a lot of investment and innovation during those years.  once it was repealed all the shenanigans went into overdrive.  Goldman should be allowed to gamble however they want...but they just cannot be a systemically critical bank and do it.
Oct 22, 2012 10:14AM
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It's amazing that the Lloyd Blankfeins of Wall Street are protesting new regulations. They must think we have amnesia. Failing should have hurt them in their pockets personally.
The lack of prosecutions reminds me of how the mafia bought off the justice system. The new mafia is Wall Street.

I recently saw Jamie Dimon on CSPAN doing a question and answer interview - he thinks he's a rock-star and talks a good talk - no wonder he gets people to believe him. You have to see beyond that veneer to see the crook - look at the evidence. He wants to play with money and take big risks - it shouldn't have been with OUR money and our homes.

Hopefully Elizabeth Warren will win. I don't find her tone to be condescending - she's one of the more intelligent women we've had as a viable candidate; she does make an effort to speak with some simplicity to make her message clear. She truly represents protection and recovery of the middle class. I agree with you Mr. Cohan - that she believes in accountability for the financial industry crooks.

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