The U.S. Congress passed a historic financial reform bill yesterday, imposing more than 500 new regulations on everything from how credit rating agencies work to lending practices.
The bill gives the Securities and Exchange Commission power to approve or reject derivatives that are traded on Wall Street, which some have argued contributed to the financial crisis. The bill even creates a new council to oversee the financial stability of this country, and the council is imbued with the power to break up businesses that might otherwise bring down our economy.
So, why is it that we can’t help but feel a bit disappointed by the bill?
We have no doubt that the financial overhaul package will benefit consumers in the long run, if for no other reason than the creation of Consumer Protection Agency which will act as a watchdog for consumers when dealing with financial institutions and will have the power to author new regulations as needed. But part of the reason that this bill feels unsatisfying to us may be the fact that the companies we’ve come to think of as the culprits of the financial crisis seem, for the moment at least, mostly unscathed.
The same day that the bill passed, Goldman Sachs agreed to pay $550 million to settle a fraud case with the SEC alleging that they had knowingly misled investors into buying investments that Goldman knew were bad. This case had bubbled up into the public eye earlier in the year, only to recede when oil started to leak onto our shores and BP became public enemy #1.
Now, obviously, $550 million is nothing to sneeze at… unless of course you’re Goldman. The company earned $13.39 billion last year, which works out to be $36.7 million a day, according to U.S. News and World Report, which means they could pay off the fraud settlement in less than 15 days. Or much less in our crazy market, because the company’s value actually grew by $5 billion between Wednesday and mid-day today, undoubtedly because investors recognized that Goldman was getting out of the woods soon.
As Tonku Varadarajan wrote in the Daily Beast, “We can see the suit now, clearly, for what it truly was: a smokescreen to smooth the passage of the populist, and deeply flawed, Dodd-Frank bill.” He added that now, “Goldman has, effectively, bought its reputation back.”
And what about the other bad guys from the early days of the recession? How are they doing?
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giants that essentially ruptured the housing market, were largely left out of this bill. As one analyst told CNBC, these two companies were considered “too politically volatile to handle” in this reform package. Maybe that would be OK if we had the sense that they had somehow improved their business practices in the last year or two, but recent events suggest otherwise. Earlier this week, California’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the two companies because they are obstructing the implementation of a federal program that would improve homes by making them more energy efficient. Never mind that these two companies were bailed out by the government, or that that the program would help move America’s housing market forward rather than just trying to undo the damage that Fannie and Freddie did.
Of course, we can’t forget about AIG, which was bailed out in 2008 shortly after Fannie and Freddie. All in all, the government has given nearly $200 billion of taxpayer money to AIG and as we reported recently, and much of it might never be returned. To make matters worse, billions of dollars from this bailout only ended up going to other banks that we didn’t completely trust. Unfortunately, as Time magazine points out, there is nothing in the new financial reform bill which would prevent another big bailout.
Still, not everyone in the gang is getting off easy. Bank of America recently admitted that the new financial reform bill may cost it $10 billion or more in interchange fees, and other big banks like CitiGroup and Chase could see their stocks take a turn for the worse.
So why are so many people still disappointed with this bill, despite all the good it does? Here’s another thought: Maybe it’s because there is this lingering feeling that with the passage of a massive financial overhaul package, politicians and the public may lose the sense of urgency that more is needed to police and punish those who have maimed our economy, even as this bill helps to establish more regulations with which to do so. Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s just the simple fact that the bill unintentionally proved something we all already knew. Whether or not these businesses are too big to fail, they certainly seem too big to punish. They just take our light jabs and keep on doing what they want.
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