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Weekly Audit: Bank execs looting customers, shareholders and taxpayers

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Some of the largest U.S. banks may be on the ropes these days, but the disparity between the plight of financial executives and ordinary Americans has never been starker. Over the past two decades, the banking system has grown accustomed to scoring massive profits by preying on its own customers, making 2009's transition to pilfering taxpayer wallets an easy one. After burying the economy under a mountain of unaffordable debt, bank CEOs are now finding ways to subsidize their own paychecks with taxpayer bailout funds.

With over $550 billion in government money already dedicated to shoring up the financial system under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), it's easy to wonder just what Wall Street and its highly-compensated executives actually do for the economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke offered one explanation in a speech last week in Washington, D.C. At its best, Bernanke claimed, Wall Street innovates, creating new financial products that expand access to credit, making it easier to run small businesses and improving living standards for households. Armed with ever-expanding paydays, Wall Street has indeed innovated over the past thirty years, radically altering the economic landscape in the process.

But as Ezra Klein emphasizes for The American Prospect, much of Wall Street's so-called innovation is sheer gimmickry. Financiers have intentionally designed loan contracts to be mystifying and complex to the ordinary consumer, tricking bank customers into racking up unaffordable levels of debt. From credit cards to credit default swaps, these new products have indeed signaled progress for bank balance sheets, but in many cases, banks have enjoyed outsized profits at the expense of the broader economy.

"Innovations are not always win-win," Klein emphasizes. "They're often win-lose."

Of course, some financial stunts were so convoluted that many of the nation's most revered financial brands-- including AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Wachovia-- crumbled under their complexity. Today, something as simple as mortgage has become a byzantine, hard-to-value security, once Wall Street wizards bundle it together with hundreds of other mortgages and sell it off to dozens of investors. In a video for American News Project, Lagan Sebert and David Murdock put a human face on Wall Street's toxic assets, telling the story of Sandra Berrios, a mother of two who was conned into a predatory loan by a deceptive mortgage broker. The broker provided Sandra with documents promising her a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, but instead sold her an outrageous adjustable-rate mortgage in order to collect a fee from Flagstar Bank, which actually funded the loan.

"We believed the broker . . . but what they were telling us was not the truth," Berrios says.

Even though Flagstar has received $266 million in government bailout money, the company still refuses to renegotiate Berrios' loan. While some money from TARP went to healthy banks, but Flagstar was truly desperate for the funding. The company's stock is trading at around $1.00 per share thanks to fears over its financial stability, and Flagstar recently agreed to be acquired by a private equity company for still less to avoid complete financial ruin. The source of the company's difficulties? Losses on loans like the one Sandra Berrios is struggling with.

Writing for The Nation, Christopher Hayes highlights a letter from a reader who questions malfeasance on the part of Goldman Sachs, which received $10 billion in taxpayer funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Executives at Goldman recently decided to pay back the government before it paid off the investment from billionaire Warren Buffett, even though Buffett is reaping double the interest rate that the government is receiving from Goldman.

The scenario speaks volumes about just how lousy a deal taxpayers got under the bank bailout. Paying Buffett back first would clearly be the better deal for shareholders of the Wall Street titan, as it would save them years of payments at higher interest rates. But Buffett's plan does not involve the same restrictions on executive compensation that are included under TARP. By prioritizing the TARP repayment, Goldman's top brass are screwing their own shareholders to guarantee a bigger payday.

Exorbitant CEO compensation, especially on Wall Street, has played a major role in deepening income inequality in the United States. But even the onset of the worst recession since the Great Depression was cause for little alarm for top executives at American corporations last year, as Laura Flanders explains for GritTV.

"While wages and benefits have been going down for most Americans, more U.S. chief executives got pay raises than had their pay cut in 2008," Flanders said, noting that "CEO's weren't just making more, they were making more while laying their workers off."

Flanders notes that Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit slashed 74,000 jobs at his company in 2008, but did not object to paying himself a whopping $38 million salary. The outrage is compounded by the fact that Pandit allowed his company to collapse last year, ultimately tapping taxpayers for multiple bailouts that have reached $45 billion in scope, an amount nearly three times Citigroup's current stock market value.

The financial system doesn't have to be a contest between citizens and executives. There is no good reason why responsible regulations cannot be enacted to rein in CEO pay, ban socially destructive lending practices and reduce the influence of banking behemoths on public policy. We'd all be better off with that kind of innovation.

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