Will 2011 bring hope for financial reform?

Dec 28, 2010

We didn’t fix the major problems that led to the financial meltdown that produced the “Great Recession,” obliterating millions of jobs and dreams. Will next year bring new hope for effective financial reform?

I’ve performed a painful annual ritual ever since I began writing a column about 20 years ago: re-reading my work for the year, and telling you, my audience, about things I got wrong and things I wish I’d done differently.

This past year, I wish I’d written more about financial reform -- or as I call it, financial “reform.” I use the quotes because I don’t think the system is close to being reformed.

I suspected, all along, that there’d be more talk than action -- that’s how things were after the Enron and WorldCom scandals, and how they always seem to be -- but I’m shocked by how little we’ve gotten right.

We didn’t fix the major problems that led to the financial meltdown that produced the “Great Recession,” obliterating millions of jobs and dreams.

We’ve still got under-capitalized financial companies that are too big and too interconnected to be allowed to fail; trillions of dollars in asset-backed securities that no one except a handful of experts with access to ultra-expensive databases can begin to analyze; and an incentive system that gives Wall Street types huge incentives to take risks with shareholders’ and taxpayers’ money.

I wished I’d been louder and more shrill about the need to break up these institutions, establish publicly available real-time databases for asset-backed securities, and give shareholders and the government five-year clawbacks for compensation paid to top executives and board members if a company fails or needs a bailout. It probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the legislation, but I’d feel better.<!-- more -->

My only hope for real change is the consumer protection operation, run by Harvard bankruptcy professor Elizabeth Warren. I’ve stayed away from that topic because there’s been so much written about it, and I think so highly of Warren, whom I’ve known for many years, that I’m not sure I can summon up the requisite skepticism about her operation.

If she can, in fact, create and require institutions to use a brief, readable-type disclosure statement that a high school graduate can understand in 15 minutes, she’ll be doing God’s work. She’ll also be doing Mammon’s, because we ultimately won’t have capitalism in this country if we don’t have fairness.

I’ve been unusually nice to the Federal Reserve this year, a contrast to my usual Fed-bashing and Fed-sniping. For much of my career, I’ve focused on the Fed’s omissions and mistakes while most of my competitors kissed up to Alan Greenspan. Now, with the move in Washington to micromanage and restrain the Fed, I realized by re-reading this year’s columns that I’ve changed sides.

We need to have at least one Washington institution that can act quickly and decisively -- God knows the Treasury, Congress, and White House don’t seem capable of it. Let’s not screw up the Fed with politically correct requirements. During Alan Greenspan’s now-not-so-glorious days as chairman, those requirements came from the left. Now, they come primarily from the ultra-right.

Finally, there’s Social Security, a subject about which I’ve written a lot over the years, and expect to write a lot more. This year, I’ve managed to annoy almost everyone interested in the topic because I don’t have a fixed ideological position. I think the Social Security trust fund has no economic value, but that we should gradually monetize its $2.6 trillion of bonds to buy time while we change its benefit formula and raise its revenues. I also think that switching to private accounts is nuts, because Social Security is an intergenerational transfer program designed to protect vulnerable old people, the disabled and orphans. It is not an investment program.

I’ve written that the program isn’t a Ponzi scheme, because Ponzi promoters deceive you, while Social Security tells you everything about itself you need to know and is run by high-grade, honorable people.

Next year, I hope to do a better job of annoying ideologues; the people who got rich from doing things that created our financial problems, but are still in power; and Wall Street types who whine about how unfair it is to criticize their eight- and nine-digit pay packages from institutions that wouldn’t be alive today were it not for taxpayer support.

And finally: a happy, healthy and prosperous 2011 to you and yours.

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