Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

After five tough years, a skeptical nation sees few lessons learned from financial crisis

Five years after our near-economic meltdown, we should have learned more practical lessons by now.

The 2008 economic crisis cratered major financial firms and drove the Dow below 6,700. It kicked Florida into a near-depression, crushed home values and derailed thousands of people who lost decent-paying jobs.

And it plunged the world into a global recession that weakened international relations. It even contributed to the political strife confronting us today.

Our leaders grew frighteningly smug in the go-go, precrash years. Some top officials even boasted this country could anticipate and avoid just about any threatening economic pitfall.

Oops.

After the U.S. economy faced its most serious crisis since the Great Depression, nearly two thirds (63 percent) of Americans say the nation's economic system is no more secure today than it was before the 2008 market crash. That's the key takeaway from a survey out this week by the Pew Research Center.

That's no way to run a financial system that claims to be the envy of the modern world.

So we better have a good answer to this question:

Are we any stronger, smarter or better prepared today to handle a major economic crisis than we were five years ago?

Some folks think we are.

A trio of U.S. Treasury officials held a teleconference this past week. The Tampa Bay Times listened in.

"The financial system is safer, stronger and more resilient than it was beforehand," they said. "We are still living with the broader economic consequences, and we still have more work to do to repair the damage.

"The financial crisis reminds us that we must remain vigilant to emerging risks in the system."

And, correctly, the Treasury officials insisted the economic crisis would have been far worse without aggressive government intervention in both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Our Washington leaders defend their actions with an intricate patchwork of legislative and regulatory acronyms and names like TARP (to bail out the banks and auto industry), TALF (to bail out the lending market), HARP (to help homeowners with underwater mortgages), QE2 (Federal Reserve stimulus to boost the economy), Dodd-Frank (law to tighten financial industry oversight), bank stress tests and many more quick-fix-its for the economy.

But if the 2008 panic taught us anything, it is to be more skeptical of assurances that we can control crazy and complex Wall Street via crazy and complex oversight overhauls after the fact.

Some of the most important players in financial oversight took a pass on their duties.

The lack of action since 2008 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, our so-called financial police force, is already legendary. The SEC embarrassed itself by its inability or unwillingness to find few if any Wall Street culprits to prosecute for the meltdown. Firms that did get their wrists slapped simply paid their fines and issued press releases denying any wrongdoing.

Alas, all those banks deemed "too big to fail" suddenly became "too big to jail."

Ex-Wall Streeter Michael Lewis is the insightful author of books that include Liar's Poker (1980s frat boys on Wall Street), Moneyball (finding hidden values in overlooked baseball players) and the more recent The Big Short (Wall Street's greedy bet against the very mortgage securities it peddled). Lewis suggests if nothing has changed in the culture of investment banks, there's little the government can do.

"Wall Street, all by itself, orchestrated the crisis by a web of deceit that was breathtaking," Lewis told Bloomberg Businessweek in an interview published Friday. "If Wall Street continues to operate in that spirit, I would argue that there's almost nothing the government can do to prevent them from doing bad things."

Incentives are at the bottom of it all. Said Lewis: "At the gambling end of Wall Street, the people who are making decisions are making decisions not with their money, but with other people's money, so they themselves are not personally responsible."

Maybe that's one reason an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Friday finds that Americans continue to hold sharply negative views of Wall Street. A whopping 42 percent view Wall Street firms negatively. Just 14 percent view them favorably.

In a similar vein, the Pew survey finds convincing majorities of Americans say government policies after the recession have done little or nothing to help poor people (72 percent), middle-class people (71 percent) and small businesses (67 percent).

Small wonder, given this startling statistic.

Of all the income gains in the United States since 2009, 95 percent have accrued to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest households. That's according to this month's update on income equality published by Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez.

Whatever your politics, there's a very dissatisfied nation out there. Americans wonder why, for all the talk and promise, so little has changed in five painful years.

That does not bode well for the next half decade.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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