Wall Street wins, Main Street pays — again.
This was the year America finally took on the power and greed of the Wall Street banks.
And the banks won.
They dodged the bullet of real reform, probably for all time. They bounced back to post huge profits, helped by legal theft from the middle class. They completed their takeover of both political parties — and bought themselves a new Congress even more pliable than the old one.
Middle-class America is flattened, devastated and broke. The bankers that caused it all have escaped punishment. They’re raking in huge profits. Oh, and the tax cuts just got extended for high earners, too!
Of all the signs of Wall Street’s gloating and arrogance this year, which one stands out the most?
The image of the president of the republic, traveling to New York to reassure them that they wouldn’t suffer too much from new regulations?
Or maybe billionaire Steve Schwarzman, the private-equity oligarch at Blackstone Group /quotes/comstock/13*!bx/quotes/nls/bx (BX 14.10, +0.02, +0.14%) , complaining that any attempt to make him pay actual income tax on his income was akin to “when Hitler invaded Poland.”
Not France. Not Belgium. Poland.
In the aftermath, he grudgingly issued a partial retraction.
In any civilized society he would now be pariah. He’d have to eat alone at unfashionable restaurants, and the waiters would spit in his soup.
Instead, as the year drew to a close, I saw him being interviewed on TV, the hosts hanging on his every word.
In 2010, Wall Street’s year, Schwarzman’s only real sin was getting caught flaunting his contempt for the nation.
Far worse went on behind closed doors.
Consider the Dodd-Frank reform act — all 2,300 pages of it. Sure, it fills in a few regulatory gaps, ends a couple of the more gratuitous abuses. You have to throw a few scraps to the masses.
But most of the reforms are meaningless. New rule books and committees. Bah. They’re like half-built fences. Anyone can just walk around them.
As for the new consumer finance watchdog? The agency that’s supposed to stand up to the banks will be housed… within the Federal Reserve. Literally, it will be a tenant of the banking system.
Champions of the “reforms” say this won’t really matter. But if that’s the case, why did Wall Street fight so hard to make sure it happened?
There are no coincidences in Washington.
Meanwhile, missing from this giant “reform” bill was any actual, serious reform like threatening crooked bankers with real jail time. Or ending the “other people’s money” racket of securitization, or smashing “too big to fail” megabanks into smaller firms that can never again threaten the republic.
Instead we’ve enshrined “too big to fail” as national policy. A standing taxpayer guarantee to the biggest banks. What a deal!
It’s amazing when you think about it.
Look at the chaos and catastrophe these guys have left in their wake. One middle-aged man in five is out of work. Tens of millions of families have been financially wiped out. The national debt has nearly doubled.
If inner-city gangs had done this to America, we’d have martial law. If Arabs had done it, we’d have launched another war.
Wall Street bankers? They’ve walked away scot free. And they’re actually being rewarded.
By keeping short-term interest rates near zero, the Fed is basically robbing your grandmother, and other hard-working savers, and giving to Wall Street. The banks borrow from us for free, and then lend us back our own money at interest by purchasing Treasury bonds.
And in a perfect circle of cynicism, the beneficiaries of bailouts are now spending some of their loot lobbying our Congress to overrule us on reform.
The commercial banks and investment firms spent a total of $118 million lobbying just in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That included $4 million spent directly by Citigroup Inc. /quotes/comstock/13*!c/quotes/nls/c (C 4.74, +0.03, +0.64%) , nearly $3 million by Bank of America Corp. /quotes/comstock/13*!bac/quotes/nls/bac (BAC 12.99, +0.01, +0.08%) , $3.5 million by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. /quotes/comstock/13*!gs/quotes/nls/gs (GS 168.25, +0.02, +0.01%) and $2.8 million by Schwarzman’s Blackstone.
This is in addition to the vast campaign contributions the top brass at these firms have lavished on pliable congressman, and indirect political lobbying through trade bodies like the American Bankers Association.
But it’s unfair to give the bankers all the credit for subverting democracy.
They couldn’t have done it without the Democrats.
Wall Street has spent years capturing the party establishment.
Think of the lavish campaign checks. The lucrative hedge fund “adviser” jobs. The pervasive influence of pinstriped “progressives” like Larry Summers and Bob Rubin.
This was the year the investment paid off. Big time.
Top Democrats were too terrified of alienating their sugar daddies to pass real reform.
But the joke was on them.
First, Wall Street’s campaign contributions aren’t that important — they only account for about 10% of the party’s money. The Democrats could have lost all of it (an unlikely scenario in any event) and still been in business.
Second, the Democrats would have got a lot more credit — and contributions — from the rest of America if they’d stood up to Wall Street.
And third: Sucking up to Wall Street didn’t help them anyway. Wall Street still turned Republican. The American Bankers Association, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. /quotes/comstock/13*!jpm/quotes/nls/jpm (JPM 41.03, +0.03, +0.07%) , Citigroup, Bank of America, even Goldman Sachs: This time around, more than half their donations went to the GOP.
Most Americans don’t realize it, but this talk of a “grassroots” and “anti-establishment” election was a bunch of hooey. What really happened was that Wall Street has just bought itself a new, even more compliant Congress.
The new Republicans are already fawning over the bankers. They’re promising to stop the restrictions on (ahem) “financial innovation.” Congressman Spencer Bachus — the next chairman of the House Financial Services Committee — actually said “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” Let the good times roll!
It was the greatest heist in history. The bankers pulled it off under everyone’s nose.
Brett Arends is a columnist for MarketWatch and The Wall Street Journal, based in Boston.