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“Plutocrats Feeling Persecuted”: Angry That They Don’t Receive Universal Deference

Robert Benmosche, the chief executive of the American International Group, said something stupid the other day. And we should be glad, because his comments help highlight an important but rarely discussed cost of extreme income inequality — namely, the rise of a small but powerful group of what can only be called sociopaths.

For those who don’t recall, A.I.G. is a giant insurance company that played a crucial role in creating the global economic crisis, exploiting loopholes in financial regulation to sell vast numbers of debt guarantees that it had no way to honor. Five years ago, U.S. authorities, fearing that A.I.G.’s collapse might destabilize the whole financial system, stepped in with a huge bailout. But even the policy makers felt ill used — for example, Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, later testified that no other episode in the crisis made him so angry.

And it got worse. For a time, A.I.G. was essentially a ward of the federal government, which owned the bulk of its stock, yet it continued paying large executive bonuses. There was, understandably, much public furor.

So here’s what Mr. Benmosche did in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: He compared the uproar over bonuses to lynchings in the Deep South — the real kind, involving murder — and declared that the bonus backlash was “just as bad and just as wrong.”

You may find it incredible that anyone would, even for an instant, consider this comparison appropriate. But there have actually been a series of stories like this. In 2010, for example, there was a comparable outburst from Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman of the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms. Speaking about proposals to close the carried-interest loophole — which allows executives at firms like Blackstone to pay only 15 percent taxes on much of their income — Mr. Schwarzman declared, “It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

And you know that such publicly reported statements don’t come out of nowhere. Stuff like this is surely what the Masters of the Universe say to each other all the time, to nods of agreement and approval. It’s just that sometimes they forget that they’re not supposed to say such things where the rabble might learn about it.

Also, notice what both men were defending: namely, their privileges. Mr. Schwarzman was outraged at the notion that he might be required to pay taxes just like the little people; Mr. Benmosche was, in effect, declaring that A.I.G. was entitled to public bailouts and that its executives shouldn’t be expected to make any sacrifice in return.

This is important. Sometimes the wealthy talk as if they were characters in “Atlas Shrugged,” demanding nothing more from society than that the moochers leave them alone. But these men were speaking for, not against, redistribution — redistribution from the 99 percent to people like them. This isn’t libertarianism; it’s a demand for special treatment. It’s not Ayn Rand; it’s ancien régime.

Sometimes, in fact, members of the 0.01 percent are explicit about their sense of entitlement. It was kind of refreshing, in a way, when Charles Munger, the billionaire vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, declared that we should “thank God” for the bailout of Wall Street, but that ordinary Americans in financial distress should just “suck it in and cope.” Incidentally, in another interview — conducted at his seaside villa in Dubrovnik, Croatia — Mr. Benmosche declared that the retirement age should go up to 70 or even 80.

The thing is, by and large, the wealthy have gotten their wish. Wall Street was bailed out, while workers and homeowners weren’t. Our so-called recovery has done nothing much for ordinary workers, but incomes at the top have soared, with almost all the gains from 2009 to 2012 going to the top 1 percent, and almost a third going to the top 0.01 percent — that is, people with incomes over $10 million.

So why the anger? Why the whining? And bear in mind that claims that the wealthy are being persecuted aren’t just coming from a few loudmouths. They’ve been all over the op-ed pages and were, in fact, a central theme of the Romney campaign last year.

Well, I have a theory. When you have that much money, what is it you’re trying to buy by making even more? You already have the multiple big houses, the servants, the private jet. What you really want now is adulation; you want the world to bow before your success. And so the thought that people in the media, in Congress and even in the White House are saying critical things about people like you drives you wild.

It is, of course, incredibly petty. But money brings power, and thanks to surging inequality, these petty people have a lot of money. So their whining, their anger that they don’t receive universal deference, can have real political consequences. Fear the wrath of the .01 percent!

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 26, 2013

September 28, 2013 Posted by | Financial Institutions | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Biggest Banks Are Bigger Than Ever”: Five Years After Lehman Brothers, We’re Still Just One Crisis From The Edge

Five years ago tomorrow, the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, officially kicking off the financial crisis that led to what we now call the Great Recession. Lehman’s bankruptcy was followed by the bailout of insurance giant AIG, the $700 billion bank bailout known as TARP and an alphabet soup of Federal Reserve programs launched in an attempt to stem the damage being done to the economy.

But even with those emergency measures, the final toll of the crisis was staggering: 8.7 million jobs were lost, $16 trillion in household wealth was wiped out and 12 million homeowners were left underwater, owing more on their mortgages than their homes were worth. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the cumulative effects of the crisis – wealth lost during the recession plus the effect that lower earnings and wealth will have on future earnings and output – could add up to more than $28 trillion.

The crisis began with a housing bubble fueled by subprime mortgage lenders, who were encouraged to make loan after loan by Wall Street banks that wanted mortgage securities to slice, dice and sell around the world. But it was exacerbated by the fact that the biggest Wall Street banks were so interconnected that the failure of one meant all the others were brought to the brink of collapse. The banks – engorged on debt and engaging in risky trading for only their own benefit – put the whole economy at risk.

Since then, quite a lot of time, effort and ink have been spent trying to fix what went wrong. So how did that attempt go?

The main legislative response to the crisis – the Dodd-Frank financial reform law – undeniably contains some things that will make the next crisis, whatever its form, easier to manage (or even prevent). There’s now a regulator explicitly tasked with policing consumer financial products, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. There’s a new process that, at least in theory, will allow the government to dismantle a failing mega-bank without resorting to ad-hoc bailouts, a legal process that was sorely missing during the 2008 crisis.

There’s a new regulatory regime for derivatives – the risky financial instruments that helped bring down AIG – that should make their market much more transparent. And banks are now required to hold more capital on hand to protect against a sudden downturn.

In other areas, though, not much has changed. For instance, the biggest banks are bigger than ever. In fact, the six largest banks in the U.S. now hold $9.6 trillion in assets, a 37 percent increase from five years ago. That total is equal to 58 percent of the entire economy. As Fortune’s Stephen Gandel noted, “The biggest bank in the nation, JPMorgan, has $2.4 trillion in assets alone — the size of England’s economy.”

And while those banks have gotten bigger, rules meant to rein in their risky trading have gone precisely nowhere. A key part of Dodd-Frank known as the Volcker Rule – which was supposed to prevent banks from making risky trades with taxpayer-backed dollars, such as consumer deposits – was watered down by Congress even before it passed, and is now stuck in a bureaucratic and lobbying morass. (Overall, just 40 percent of the rules in Dodd-Frank are actually finished.) More ambitious reforms, like capping the size of banks, garnered just one unsuccessful vote in the Senate.

Homeowners, meanwhile, continue to struggle. Not only are 7.1 million still underwater, but banks are engaging in shady practices to push homeowners into foreclosure who should have been able to stay in their homes. A much ballyhooed settlement stemming from rampant “foreclosure fraud,” as it’s called, doesn’t seem to have actually stopped these pernicious practices.

So while some things have certainly changed for the better – and having a consumer regulator will hopefully shortcircuit a lot of problems before they start – the biggest banks are still just one catastrophe away from pulling the country back to the edge of a cliff. And if the new process for unwinding a failed mega-bank doesn’t work, there won’t be many options available other than the odious bailouts used in 2008. In the meantime, homeowners who have suffered at the hands of the financial industry still find themselves with few avenues for receiving any justice.

Is there any momentum for new reform? Well, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been beating the drum for breaking up the biggest banks, and introduced a bill – along with Sens.  John McCain, R-Ariz., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Angus King, I-Maine – that would bring back a Depression-era regulation keeping investment and commercial banking separate. Former Citigroup CEO John Reed, who presided over the nation’s first true banking behemoth, told the Financial Times recently that breaking up banks can and should be done, making him one of a handful of Wall Street titans to take such a position.

But the financial industry is as strong as ever, so the prospects of real reform happening absent another crisis or a real populist reawakening are still pretty slim. If another crash comes along, we’re going to have to hope that the tinkering and tweaking that’s already occurred is enough to save us.

 

By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, September 14, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | Big Banks, Financial Crisis | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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