In the following op-ed that appeared in the Feb. 9, 2010, edition of the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren makes the case for the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Warren is the chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel.
by Elizabeth Warren
Banking is based on trust. The banks get our paychecks and hold our savings; they know where we spend our money and they keep it private. If we don’t trust them, the whole system breaks down. Yet for years, Wall Street CEOs have thrown away customer trust like so much worthless trash.
Banks and brokers have sold deceptive mortgages for more than a decade. Financial wizards made billions by packaging and repackaging those loans into securities. And federal regulators played the role of lookout at a bank robbery, holding back anyone who tried to stop the massive looting from middle-class families. When they weren’t selling deceptive mortgages, Wall Street invented new credit card tricks and clever overdraft fees.
In October 2008, when all the risks accumulated and the economy went into a tailspin, Wall Street CEOs squandered what little trust was left when they accepted taxpayer bailouts. As the economy stabilized and it seemed like we would change the rules that got us into this crisis—including the rules that let big banks trick their customers for so many years—it looked like things might come out all right.
Now, a year later, President Obama’s proposals for reform are bottled up in the Senate. The same Wall Street CEOs who brought the economy to its knees have spent more than a year and hundreds of millions of dollars furiously lobbying Washington to kill the president’s proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA).
Within the thousands of pages of print in the “Restoring American Financial Stability Act” now before the Senate, the consumer agency is the only proposal that would help families directly. Even those most concerned about the role of personal responsibility concede that it is hard for families to make smart decisions and to compare products when the paperwork on mortgages, credit cards and even checking accounts has morphed into reams of incomprehensible legalese.
The consumer agency is a watchdog that would root out gimmicks and traps and slim down paperwork, giving families a fighting chance to hang on to some of their money. So far, Wall Street CEOs seem determined to stop any kind of watchdog. They seem to think that they can run their businesses forever without our trust. This is a bad calculation.
It’s a bad calculation because shareholders suffer enormously from the long-term cost of the boom-and- bust cycles that accompany a poorly regulated market. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently explained this brave new world, saying that crises should be expected “every five to seven years.”
He is wrong. New laws that came out of the Great Depression ended 150 years of boom-and-bust cycles and gave us 50 years with virtually no financial meltdowns. The stability ended as we dismantled those laws and failed to replace them with new laws that reflected modern business practices.
The reputations of Wall Street’s most storied institutions are evaporating as the lack of meaningful consumer rules has set off a race to the bottom to develop new ways to trick customers. Wall Street executives explain privately that they cannot get rid of fine print, deceptive pricing, and buried tricks unilaterally without losing market share.
Citigroup learned this the hard way in 2007, when it decided to clean up its credit card just a little bit by eliminating universal default—the trick that allowed it to raise rates retroactively, even for consumers that did nothing wrong. Citi’s reform resulted in lower revenues and no new customers, triggering an embarrassing public reversal.
Citi explained sheepishly that credit cards were now so complicated that customers couldn’t tell when a company offered something a little better. So Citi went back to something a little worse. Without a watchdog in place, the big banks just keep slinging out uglier and uglier products.
With their reputations in tatters, the CEOs have decided to go on the offensive in Washington. They might have had some thoughtful suggestions for how to better shape a consumer agency. Instead, they have unleashed lobbyists who are determined to do anything to kill the consumer agency.
The latest lie is that the CFPA is “big government.” The CEOs all know that the current regulatory structure, which they support, is big government at its worst: bureaucratic, unaccountable and ineffective. The CFPA will consolidate seven separate bureaucracies, cut down on paperwork, and promote understandable consumer products. In the process, it will stabilize the industry, rebuild confidence in the securitization market, and leave more money in the pockets of families. Complaining about short, readable contracts and efforts to slim down bureaucracy only further diminishes the banks’ credibility.
This generation of Wall Street CEOs could be the ones to forfeit America’s trust. When the history of the Great Recession is written, they can be singled out as the bonus babies who were so short-sighted that they put the economy at risk and contributed to the destruction of their own companies. Or they can acknowledge how Americans’ trust has been lost and take the first steps to earn it back.