Here is one difference between the generations of reporters. The older generation was (and is) skeptical of big business and trusted government more to provide protection from the cold blasts of laissez faire. The younger, Dow generation, while cynical of government and almost everything else, believed that stocks and property values will always go up.
Thus, while some of us–Morton Mintz and I among others–decried the stampede towards deregulation, most of the rest of the press joined in the conventional wisdom that deregulation was cool and would create a business boom. Remember the 1999 predictions by the Washington Post’s James Glassman that the Dow was headed towards 36,000? That was the same year that one of the New Deal’s great consumer protection monuments–the Glass-Steagall Act–was repealed.
Economist Dean Baker, blogging in The American Prospect, has asked, “Suppose we had invested Social Security in the stock market.” Thanks to the older generations and their skepticism toward the market, that did not happen. But Baker recalls that the press hardly uttered a peep of protest when Glass-Steagall died. “Most of the press supported it,” he said.
Along with the emasculation of the FDA, the NLRB and OSHA, deregulation set the stage for the health, safety, mine and drug disasters of the Bush administration and its policies of malign neglect. And still only a few in the press has linked these disasters to deregulation.
But now as recession deepens, and comparisons are made to 1929, it’s dawning on younger Americans and some reporters watching their retirement savings vanish, that there may be a need for government action, like re-regulation.
For the first time since the gay 1990s, when the fad of “deregulation” swept aside some of the strongest deterrents to the financial shenanigans of today, frightened administration officials as well as Democrats are talking about re-regulation. Well, sort of.
Treasury Secretary and former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, Jr., who still supports privatizing Social Security but missed the subprime and housing meltdown, has proposed better supervision of investment banks, whose backsides taxpayers are being asked to save. But, as the New York Times reported, Paulson’s plan “carefully avoids a call for stronger regulation” and it may actually loosen regulation.
In Congress, Democrats are drafting stronger legislation to create new regulations to permit the Federal Reserve to oversee commercial banks, Wall Street firms, hedge funds and non-bank financial institutions that have been buying and selling billions in paper assets, without anyone looking over their shoulders or even understanding what they are doing.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, noted that government has failed to keep up with the explosion of new, exotic financial instruments. “You need regulation,” he said, “that is adequate to the scope of innovation.”
Among the presidential campaigners, Sen. Barack Obama, speaking at New York’s Cooper Union in late March, blamed corporate lobbyists for carrying deregulation too far and he pledged regulatory reform, but nothing more specific than the creation of a financial oversight commission.
Republican Sen. John McCain, staked out a classic conservative position and opposed government intervention in the market. Government, he said, should not reward “irresponsible” behavior by businesses or borrowers. That was not his position in the 1980s when he was one of five senators who met with and offered help to fellow Arizonan Charles Keating who was convicted of fraud and racketeering after the collapse of his Lincoln Savings & Loan. Keating had given McCain $112,00 in campaign contributions, among other favors, some of which enriched his family. An ethics probe into the “Keating Five” found McCain did the least for Keating,
Sen. Hillary Clinton, like Obama, has suggested the creation of a regulatory reform commission and she called for something like the New Deal’s Home Owners Loan Corp. to help people hang onto their homes with mortgage refinancing. But she failed to mention her husband’s role in 1999, in cooperating with Republicans and businesses in repealing the Glass-Steagall Act.
Glass-Steagall was enacted in 1933 following the failures of one in five American banks, in large part because they used depositors’ funds to speculate in stocks and other investments. Proposed by then Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.) and Rep. Henry Steagall (D-Ala.), the law prohibited commercial banks from trading in stocks and bonds in order to limit conflicts of interest that could hurt individual depositors.
The act also established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), to protect depositors from catastrophic bank losses. The FDIC recently announced it was beefing up its staff to prepare for more banks failures. Together with the Securities and Exchange Commission, these agencies were to protect investors and depositors with regulation.
More than 20 years ago the big banks and brokerages, led by former J.P. Morgan executive Alan Greenspan, began a campaign for banking deregulation, and an end to Glass-Steagall. In 1999, Greenspan, President Bill Clinton, a band of Wall Street barons, including several of the same people who got us into or profited from the current economic mess, joined with eager congressional Republicans, and Glass-Steagall was repealed. And the protective walls between banks and investment houses came tumbling down.
History doesn’t repeat, but it does echo. And as banks, brokerages and investors lose billions, and Americans lose their savings and their homes, reporters might interrupt their preoccupation with campaign trivia and ask the candidates about re-regulation. As finance writer Thomas Kostigan, of MarketWatch, wrote, perhaps Glass-Steagall “should be considered again.”