No one in a position of authority in our government today seems to understand fully the threat to American institutions and ideals represented by the untrammeled clout the financial industry now holds permeating the halls of government through the power of influence and money. We are barreling toward a destabilizing schism in our society where one interest group, the finance world and its allies, are running the nation to their own economic benefit, oblivious of the pain and loss being endured by their fellow citizens on the Main Streets of our towns and villages and the neighborhoods and tenements of our cities
Our president, whose objectives are certainly sincere, has surrounded himself with men whose formation and ties run deep into the culture of Wall Street -- be it his Chief of Staff William Daley, formerly Midwest Chairman of JPMorgan Chase; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Former Chair of the New York Fed, or Gary Gensler, Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and former Goldman Sachs partner -- while consulting freely with Warren Buffet, that champion of and investor in Goldman Sachs. In many ways very little has changed from the previous administration when the Treasury and virtually all government agencies responsible for financial oversight were in some manner beholden to Wall Street houses and banks, and when the crunch came in September 2008 it was their "club" members who were bailed, while the rest of the country sank into a miasma of recession and unemployment. As Sheila Bair was quoted in the New York Times Magazine saying to Joe Nocera: "You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses. Isn't that ridiculous?"
Nor has there been a serious effort made by prosecutors in the Obama administration and its agencies to hold individuals responsible nor to claw-back the billions of dollars paid out as bonuses for phony profits that were booked by creating and marketing fundamentally flawed financial instruments such as the now notorious C.D.O.'s. The Justice Department opted for a policy known as 'deferred prosecutions'. The guidelines left open a possibility other than guilty or not guilty, giving leniency all too often if companies investigated and reported their own wrongdoing. In return the government would enter agreements to delay or cancel prosecution if companies promised to change their behavior -- in other words, no punishment and little assurance that it wouldn't happen again.
Yet there was one player in government, that progressively rare breed, a moderate republican appointee holdover from the Bush Administration, who fought tooth and nail against the clubhouse fraternity that had taken over the fiscal soul of the nation. She was unflinching in defending the interests of the nation's citizens, becoming an equal opportunity irritant to Democrat and Republican alike. And she knew what she was talking about.
I personally have had the good fortune of hearing her speak at an Aspen Ideas Festival event just over a week ago. She was lucid, forthright, without hyperbole conveying a sense of reasoned indignation felt by too many of us, at the unfairness of the present structure. Where we, as citizens seem unable through our elected officials to stem the influence, the systematic 'heads I win, tails you lose' construct of our financial institutions and their growing impact on the functioning of our society.
Upon her retirement as Chairman of the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) this July 8th Sheila Bair received this accolade from the Wall Street Journal's Deborah Salomon: "Sheila Bair, who is stepping down as Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. this week, leaves behind an agency transformed from a sleepy bank overseer into a financial regulatory powerhouse focused on preventing another financial crisis." The article goes on to report that at her last FDIC meeting the agency finalized a rule allowing the government to recover compensation from executives responsible for a financial firm's collapse. Only someone with the gumption of Bair could have achieved such a result given the opposition massed against her.
In an in-depth article by Joe Nocera, Nocera writes that Bair began sounding the alarm about the dangers posed by the explosive growth of subprime mortgage rates in June 2006. At the time, "Bair insisted that she and her agency have a seat at the table and fought Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner, the President of the New York Federal Reserve, as they tried to cobble together solutions that would keep the financial world from going off a cliff: She and the F.D.I.C. managed a number of huge failing institutions during the crisis including Indy Mac, Wachovia, and Washington Mutual."
Of particular significance was Bair's belief in market discipline where, according to Nocera, she found herself at variance with Obama's Treasury Department, meaning she held that shareholders and debt holders should take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers. "She was tough-minded and straight-forward." And as she would be quoted, "Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks."
She fought for increasing the capital requirements for banks in the face of banks who lobbied strenuously against her. Lower capital requirements allow for more risk, ergo larger bonuses. She fought against the United States' adoption of the bank boondoggle called Basel II which would have lowered bank capital requirements and worse, self selection of risk models thereby significantly exposing the system to even greater bank failures. Nocera would declare "I've long believed her opposition to Basel II has been a hugely underappreciated factor in helping to save the financial system when the crisis came."
And on it went. Geithner, in full Wall Street mode, wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee all debt issued by bank-holding companies (such as JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley). Sheila Bair said NO!
To Bair, her fight with the Treasury and the federal Reserve was ultimately about the bondholders. According to Bair "They did not want to impose losses on bondholders and we did...there is no insurance premium on bondholders... For the little guy on Main Street who has bank deposits, we charge the banks a premium for that, and it gets passed along to the customer. We don't have the same thing for bondholders, they're supposed to take losses."
And, most tellingly, she was clear in her displeasure that the government, by acting as if it was no one's fault, placed no responsibility where it should have been placed. For the many of us who have been wondering the same thing, what a breath of fresh air.
She has a stalwart fighter for mortgage modifications that would truly help homeowners. As Nocera explains that "what particularly galls her is that the Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks. But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners."
All the while the Dodd-Frank Bill meant to prevent the too big to fail syndrome from ever rearing its head again, thereby making the largest banks accountable for their actions, is being lobbied into impotence by the financial brotherhood.
Here we have Sheila Bair, Kansas transplant to Washington, taking on the behemoths of the financial world, dogged in her defiance, "We always saw ourselves as the champion of the little guy. The other regulators never saw a bank closure, because that was our role. We were the ones that saw people losing their jobs when we had to shut down a little bank. They never understood the unfairness of the way little banks were treated versus the big banks...I've always thought that it was really important for everybody to have to play by the same set of rules."
Given the financial crisis in which our nation finds itself -- given the access and the power of the financial intuitions' hold, enabling them to play events to come to their own advantage -- would it not be better to have one of our own in the White House who understands the game? Who is on our side, and by virtue of her position and knowledge can stare down all the entreaties for special treatment because she inherently understands that this nation cannot flourish, nor overcome the obstacles that lie ahead and maintain its dignity if we do not all together play by the same set of rules?
Sheila Bair may not know it yet, but we need not only her kind, we need her to become our president. Her persona, her values, her experience would be a rare and welcome gift to the nation!
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