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Weekly Audit: Obama's economic hits and misses

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Eight months after President Obama was sworn into office, the foreclosure epidemic is even more dire and no laws have been passed to rein in Wall Street. While Obama has helped cushion the nation’s economic fall with a stimulus plan and other proactive measures, much more aggressive action is needed to protect workers and homeowners from reckless financiers.

In an a piece for The Nation, John Nichols dissects Obama's recent speech on the one-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy. Obama praised the Bush administration's bank bailouts and advocated for regulatory reforms, because after eight months in office, we still haven't seen any new financial regulations. Quoting a recent New York Times article on the status of the federal budget deficit, Nichols notes:

 

"It is not programs that care for the children of immigrants or aid to poor countries that emptied the Treasury, and it is not the 'threat' of healthcare reform that worries serious economists. The federal government has become 'the guarantor against risk for investors large and small' while doing little to restrain CEO greed or to protect the citizens, consumers and communities that have been battered by banksters."

 

There are some signs of hope, however. Obama’s decision to appoint Daniel Tarullo, a former assistant to President Bill Clinton on international economic policy,  to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors appears to be paying off—though its been sorely underreported in the mainstream press. Salon's Andrew Leonard highlights a Wall Street Journal story indicating that Tarullo is close to securing major restrictions on bank pay practices. That's extremely good news: blockbuster bonuses don't just fuel inequality. Bankers "earn" those paydays by taking on huge levels of risk so their companies can book short-term profits. Banks were literally rewarding their top managers and executives for sabotaging the global economy.

Unfortunately, Obama has also appointed deregulatory crisis-causers to major regulatory positions. The most recent outrage, as David Corn and Daniel Schulman detail for Mother Jones, is Republican Scott O'Malia's appointment as a Commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC oversees a wide array of important trade activities, including much of the oil and energy market. O'Malia has a history of lobbying against regulation in these very markets. He spent years peddling political influence for an electricity company, Mirant, which has a history of stretching the law to profit at the public’s expense. In 2003, the year after O'Malia left the company, Mirant paid about $500 million to settle charges that it illegally ripped off California citizens during the state's electricity crisis.

Presidents typically allow very few members on top regulatory panels to come from the opposite political party—the idea is to prevent independent regulatory agencies from becoming political hatchet teams. Unfortunately, Obama's other appointments have been questionable as well.

Obama appointed Gary Gensler Chairman of the CFTC earlier this year, despite his record as a leading advocate against the regulation of complex financial products called derivatives in the 1990s. Gensler won the battle on blocking derivatives regulation, a move which helped drive the global economy into a massive recession in less than a decade. Much of the problem has to do with their complexity. Many people who traded these products did not understand just how risky they were. And as former Lehman Brothers investment banker Sony Kapoor explains in an interview with Paul Jay of The Real News, this confusing complexity was intentional. By making new financial derivatives hard to understand, major Wall Street brokerages like Lehman and Goldman Sachs were able to overcharge for them.

Some derivatives enabled other destructive economic activities. Credit default swaps provided insurance against losses from loans. If a bank was worried that a loan would not be paid back, they could go to AIG and buy insurance. The bank would pay a modest monthly fee to AIG, and if the loan ever went bust, AIG would pay the bank the full value of the loan. The swaps actually encouraged reckless subprime lending. And while plenty of Wall Streeters failed to recognize the risk associated with derivatives, almost everybody knew that subprime lending was a disaster in the making. But since Wall Streeters didn't want to give up huge short-term profits associated with subprime lending, credit default swaps allowed them to have their cake and eat it too. Banks could book the outsized profits from subprime lending, but insure themselves against the inevitable losses by going to AIG for insurance. In effect, these crazy derivatives were actually fueling the subprime lending boom.

And the foreclosures spawned by exotic mortgages are nowhere near their peak. Laura Flanders of GRITtv interviews Rosemary Williams and Ann Patterson, two Minneapolis homeowners with adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) trying to fight off foreclosure. During the housing boom, banks pushed millions of borrowers into ARMs—loans that start with a low interest that resets higher after a few years—without worrying about whether they could afford the higher payments. Those loans are only beginning to reset now, with the vast majority scheduled to pinch pocketbooks over the next two years.

The government’s support for citizens laid off as a result of the recession has not been generous. Obama fought hard to pass his economic stimulus package immediately after entering office, helping create some jobs and providing a very modest expansion of unemployment benefits to laid-off workers (I do mean modest—it’s an extra $25 per week). But while the stimulus package helped slow the economic plunge, the private sector is not likely to start hiring new workers for years, as Roger Bybee notes for In These Times. The social cost of unemployment, Bybee emphasizes, is absolutely enormous. For every 1% increase in the unemployment rate that is sustained over six years, 47,000 people actually die, while prisons and mental hospitals are flooded with inmates and patients.

Congress would be happy to sweep financial regulation under the rug and pretend the problem has passed. Obama is capable of making good decisions on the economy, but he’ll have to go to the mat for reform if we want any hope of fully recovering from the Bush era.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy and is free to reprint. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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