President Barack Obama, in his speech to Wall Street on Monday, once again laid out his ambitious agenda for reforming the very institutions that brought our economy to the brink just a year ago. Now he needs the Democratically led Congress to stop its foot-dragging and pass reforms.
Obama chose an apt venue for his speech: Federal Hall in New York City, where Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson fiercely debated the level of government involvement in a nascent nation's economy. Obama attempted to cast his modern effort in historic terms: He promised the "most ambitious overhaul of the financial system since the Great Depression." He pledged greater transparency and accountability to force a fundamental shift in Wall Street culture.
"We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses," he said. "Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall."
But the truth is that despite being bailed out by billions of dollars in taxpayer money, Wall Street has not reformed its ways. Industry pay practices, including bonuses that encourage excessive risk-taking, continue to boggle the mind of the average taxpayer. And theNew York Timesrecently reported that some bankers, eager to dream up new exotic moneymakers, are planning to bundle "life settlements" to investors who will profit more if the original beneficiary of a life insurance policy dies earlier than expected. The lesson securities traders and bankers seem to have taken from the meltdown is that the government won't let big institutions fail and they can continue to take outsized risks for big short-term paydays. That has to change.
Obama wants to force financial firms to be more responsible, with tougher capital and liquidity requirements that would require banks to hold more cash in reserve when placing bets on exotic financial instruments. He wants to create an oversight council to watch for systemic risks in the financial system and identify loopholes that need plugging.
And Obama envisions a new "resolution authority" that would do for financial firms what the FDIC does for banks. When a big investment house or insurance giant is facing bankruptcy, this new authority would direct the process in a way that prevents panic and contains the damage. In a key to removing moral hazard, no longer would firms be "too big to fail."
And Obama wants to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect consumers from predatory practices. The agency would work to prevent mortgage lenders, banks and credit card companies from hiding fees and costs in unintelligible fine print.
Obama's call Monday comes as Capitol Hill remains mired in his other big reform effort, health care. Financial sector reform will be just as hard-fought. But without reforms to tame the unchecked greed fueling Wall Street, the country will almost certainly face another crisis and the potential for another extraordinary taxpayer bailout. Congress must engage and act. Taxpayers should demand no less.