August 29, 2010

BUT HE DID VOTE "PRESENT":

Obama’s Old Deal: Why the 44th president is no FDR—and the economy is still in the doldrums. (Michael Hirsh, 8/29/10, Newsweek)

[B]y midsummer of 2010 the Volcker rule that Obama finally backed was so full of exemptions—allowing banks to invest substantially in hedge and equity funds—that even Volcker expressed dismay. The fundamental structure of Wall Street had hardly changed. On the contrary, the new law effectively anointed the existing banking elite, possibly making them even more powerful. The major firms got to keep the biggest part of their derivatives business in interest-rate and foreign-exchange swaps. (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley control more than 95 percent, or about $200 trillion worth, of that market.)

The same banks may end up controlling or at least dominating the clearinghouses they are being pressed to trade on as well. New capital charges, meanwhile, have created barriers to entry for new firms. This consolidation of the elites has in turn kept alive the “too big to fail” problem. “It makes it way tougher now to kiss somebody off when they get in trouble,” says the former Fed official. Eugene Ludwig, a former comptroller of the currency, believes the new law’s impact will be “profound” in changing the way banks do business. But he worries about a “skewing of the playing field” in favor of the big banks, putting community banks at a disadvantage.

The Obama administration also did little to use its bully pulpit to reorient pay packages at the big financial houses, where bonuses still often run in the tens of millions of dollars. Critics make the case that changing this pay structure would do more than punish those who helped spur the meltdown. It might also encourage some of America’s greatest minds to stay away from financial engineering, which contributes little of substance to the economy, and instead consider real engineering. Nor has the Justice Department launched prosecutions as it did after the S&L crisis, or during the insider-trading scandals of the ’80s, when Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky were led off in handcuffs. (One problem this time around, lawyers say, is that virtually everyone was complicit in the subprime-mortgage scam.)

Most significantly, Barack Obama, in contrast to FDR in the depths of the Depression, has failed as yet to restore confidence in the economy. A recent Associated Press poll showed him at his lowest point ever on that issue, with just 41 percent of Americans approving of his performance. It was little surprise last week when Republican House leader John Boehner, sensing blood in the water—and a possible speakership in his future—attacked the president’s economic team and called for the resignations of Geithner and Summers. (Both budget chief Peter Orszag and Romer had already announced over the summer they were leaving.)

Obama can hardly take all the blame for the surprising persistence of high unemployment and slow growth. Among the new headwinds beating the economy down in recent months was Europe’s currency crisis, for example. But the leadership question can’t be ignored. Financial and economic reform just never seemed to be a subject that kindled Obama’s passions, his critics say. (The White House strenuously disagrees: “Financial reform has been a top priority to the president since day one,” administration spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told me.) For much of his first 18 months in office, Obama always seemed to be finding some new thing to focus on. He spoke about financial reform, but he often seemed to address it on the fly, as he was tackling other priorities, like health care. To be fair, Obama was also juggling two wars. Yet all in all, he seemed perfectly willing to leave things to his trusted lieutenants, Geithner and Summers, puzzling some Democratic allies on the Hill. “Doesn’t the president realize he’s got a big flank exposed here?” said one Democratic staffer pushing for tougher restrictions on Wall Street early in the summer of 2010.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 29, 2010 10:56 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« BUT FIRST YOU HAVE TO BREAK THE BAKER'S WINDOWS: | Main | IF ONLY IT WEREN'T SO CLOSE TO GROUND ZERO...: »