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August 20, 2018

Middle-class Americans can’t afford another $22 trillion financial crash

by Dennis Kelleher (this op-ed first appeared in The Hill)

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sep. 15 and the onset of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco released a new study on the lasting and ongoing impact of that financial and economic disaster.

The study found that the so-called “Great Recession” that started in 2008 has cost every single person in the United States $70,000, or, to put it differently, almost $23 trillion in total lost gross domestic product (GDP). The study’s conclusion was that much of that loss is permanent:

“Our estimates suggest that the economy is unlikely to regain this large output loss and GDP is unlikely to revert to its previous trend level. Financial market disruptions can have large costs in terms of societal welfare by causing persistent losses in the level of GDP.”

While the study divided that $23 trillion cost equally among all Americans, we know that the pain and suffering was not equally distributed among the American public.

Tens of millions of middle-class Americans were wiped out, losing their homes, jobs, benefits and retirements and taking on thousands of dollars in debt to make ends meet, paying for their kids’ education and so much more.

Meanwhile, not a single financier or Wall Street executive served any time in jail, personally paid any substantial fine or was held accountable in any meaningful way. In fact, many of the same bankers involved in the recklessness and illegal conduct back then are still working in the financial industry today, some in leadership and supervisory roles and many back to collecting big bonuses. 

That was not due to a lack of evidence. It sadly reflects the unprecedented power and influence of the financial sector and the unwillingness of prosecutors and regulators to enforce the law without fear of or favor to the wealthy, powerful and well-connected. History will judge this dereliction of duty harshly.

Importantly, the San Francisco Fed study is not an outlier. In fact, Better Markets conducted a similar study in 2015, finding that the cost then to the United States was $20 trillion and rising.

That study detailed the wide-ranging and ongoing devastation from the crash, including historic levels of unemployment, foreclosures, underwater homes, student loan debt, lost savings, personal debt and bankruptcy, business debt and bankruptcy and much more.

But just 10 years later after the worst financial crash since 1929, you would think many of our so-called leaders in Washington have forgotten this entirely.

With the Trump administration in the lead, many of them are pushing to weaken, loosen or eliminate the very safeguards put in place after that crash to prevent another one from happening. The amnesia is so severe that it makes one wonder if it’s on purpose. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created in 2010 is a clear example. What was once the premier consumer protection agency, returning more than $12 billion to more than 25 million ripped off American consumers, the CFPB has turned into the “Financial Predator Protection Bureau.”

Acting Director Mick Mulvaney continues, month after month, to side with the financial institutions causing the harm rather than the Main Street Americans being harmed. 

Equally troubling, his Trump-nominated successor, Kathy Kraninger, has zero experience handling finance, banking or consumer protection issues. Her non-responsive and vacuous nomination testimony sent a strong message: The consumer protection agency is going to be crippled, leaving consumers on their own again to battle against the biggest financial institutions in the world.

But, the mindless deregulation mania isn’t limited to consumer protection; now, even Wall Street’s handful of biggest, most dangerous banks are pushing to dismantle the most modest and sensible rules put in place to protect Main Street families. 

Success stories, like:

  • The Volcker Rule, which stops banks from using taxpayer-backed money to gamble with proprietary trading;
  • Capital requirements, which prevents bailouts by making sure banks have enough money if they fail;
  • Living wills, which are big bank bankruptcy plans so they don’t crash the economy when they fail; and
  • Stress tests, which make sure banks can withstand a potential future financial crisis (all put in place after of the 2008 crisis), are either in the process or have already been weakened

The San Francisco Fed study said that “finding ways to prevent or contain future financial crises is an important research and policy priority,” but it is not so in the Washington swamp filled with Wall Street’s lawyers and lobbyists and their political allies all looking for loopholes. Their massive deregulation efforts make another crisis more likely, if not inevitable, putting everyone at needless risk.

Every elected official, the financial protection agencies, the financial industry, consumer protection groups and advocacy organizations should all be working together to find ways “to prevent or contain future financial crises.”

Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat, Independent, small business or big corporation: A financial crash and the collapsing economy it will cause will come for you, just as it did 10 years ago.

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