Today's Wall Street Not Much Different From 2008

Oct 23, 2011
Originally published on October 23, 2011 6:16 pm

Top European finance officials met again Sunday in Brussels to try and prevent a financial collapse and save the continent from its debt crisis.

Europe's debt situation differs from what happened in 2008 in the U.S., where banks lent money to fuel an unsustainable housing boom. Still, a default in Europe could have serious consequences on Wall Street and on global markets.

As the European markets get closer to a meltdown and the echoes of the 2008 banking crisis still resonate in the U.S., has anything changed on Wall Street in the past few years?

The Dow Jones industrial average recently reached a three-month high. Despite high unemployment, many on Wall Street are still making big money, says Jesse Eisinger, who covers finance for ProPublica.

Eisinger tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that though the Dodd-Frank financial oversight law tries to prevent Wall Street banks from doing the sort of proprietary trading that led to the financial crisis, it doesn't mean it's not still happening.

"They can't do that as much, which leads to being less profitable," Eisinger says. "But they're still doing a lot of trading for their own account — it's just much harder to see."

The ecosystem of financial institutions funding other financial institutions without any larger societal benefit is unsustainable, Eisinger says. He says the current caution on Wall Street created by the Dodd-Frank law is going to be temporary unless there's serious structural change to the financial system.

"We didn't break up the banks; we didn't make them smaller -– we just asked them to change their behavior," he says. "That works maybe for a couple of years ... but that won't work in the long term."

Still Too Big To Fail

Though many ordinary people have lost millions, it's business as usual for the large investment firms. For example, investment banking giant Goldman Sachs announced a quarterly loss last week — just the second time since 1999 it has posted a loss; yet Goldman still set aside more than $10 billion for year-end bonuses.

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who also served as New York's attorney general, says small investors do not get a fair shake on Wall Street.

"Small investors are sold stuff that they should not be sold," Spitzer tells Raz. "They have sold a product to the public and then bet against it -– they have designed it to fail."

Large investment firms have access to IPOs, stocks and information, among other things, in order to make money, Spitzer says. He says these advantages create conflicts of interest in the products they create for small investors.

"I spent many years as attorney general trying to root out the inherent conflicts of interests," he says. "[The people] who put together these products may have one thing in mind that may not be in the best interest of the person who was sold that product."

In a recent article for the online magazine Slate, Spitzer says the Occupy Wall Street movement has "shaken up American politics." He says it has helped re-inject the issue of income inequality, jobs and equity into the political discussion, which until now has been focused solely on debt reduction.

Although Wall Street might be an easy target for critics of the financial crisis, Spitzer, like Eisinger, says it's the very structure that is the problem. He says structural reforms in the financial industry are the first critical step in dealing with equity and growth issues.

"We still have major institutions that are more concentrated now than they used to be," he says. "Have we made some progress? Sure, but not enough."

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From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Europe's leaders met again today in Brussels to try and prevent a potential financial collapse. There are echoes of the banking crisis here in the U.S., which came about after banks lent money to fuel an unsustainable housing boom.

Well, in Europe, it's slightly different. Banks lent money to European countries like Greece, countries that are now unable to pay back those loans. And many in Europe don't want to bail out those banks or those countries. Default, of course, could have serious consequences on Wall Street.

Our cover story today: As European markets get closer to possible meltdown, has anything changed on Wall Street since 2008? In a moment, we'll hear from the sheriff of Wall Street, Eliot Spitzer. But first to NPR's Eric Westervelt, who is in Brussels.

And Eric, talk to me for a moment about what is at stake right now in Europe.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Good evening, Guy. Yes, another weekend, another failed E.U. summit about the eurozone. I mean, European leaders really, as expected, postponed the big decisions until later in the week. And here are some of the big - major issues they hope to come to an agreement on by this Wednesday. The biggest one, by far, is really, how to best use and leverage the power of the eurozone's rescue fund, how to get the most out of this 440 billion euro fund. So if the debt contagion spreads to bigger European economies - such as Italy and Spain - European countries will, in theory, be ready.

We've already seen during this debt debacle, you know, an ineffectual bailout of Greece - at least, so far, it's been ineffectual - as well bailouts of Portugal and Ireland that have, by all accounts, worked a little better to shore up those two economies. But the fear is, Guy, that the cost of borrowing will become too high for these much larger economies of Italy and Spain. Major European banks then could be undermined. And what started as a Greek debt problem, you know, quickly mushrooms into another global financial crisis.

RAZ: Well, what are the potential consequences if European leaders don't get this right - both for Europe and for the U.S.?

WESTERVELT: The stakes are very high, certainly because the financial system is, of course, so interconnected. And a deeper European debt and banking crisis, you know, would have a huge ripple effect and could further undermine America's still-fragile economic state, and would certainly reverberate across global markets even more.

On the political, social level, Guy, I think the debt crisis, you know, has already deeply shaken Europe. It has continually rattled the markets. It's prompted unprecedented and very painful austerity measures and budget cuts in Greece and in other countries. It sparked street protests and riots in Athens as well as demonstrations in many European capitals. You know, ordinary citizens across the continent are worried about the debt problem, triggering a deep recession on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis.

Taxpayers and protesters are saying, you know, don't use our money to bail out banks. They made bad investments. They should shoulder the losses themselves. Germans are angry, saying, you know, Greece lied about its finances to get into the eurozone. Why should we prop them up?

So I have to say, the euro - which was supposed to help unite Europe - is now, during this debt mess, really starting to pull Europe farther apart. And the pressure really is on politicians, you know, to get it right this coming week and finally propose, you know, a much-promised, comprehensive strategy to tackle the debt mess.

RAZ: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Brussels. Eric, thanks.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: It's been three years since the banking crisis here sent Wall Street into a tailspin, and more than a year since the Dodd-Frank financial reforms were passed by Congress. This past week, the Dow reached a three-month high. And despite high unemployment across the country, Jesse Eisinger, who covers finance for ProPublica, says many people on Wall Street are still making big money.

JESSE EISINGER: The top four banks are still extremely profitable - Wells Fargo, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America. Those are very highly profitable banks. The concern of investors is that the asset quality isn't good, and that they're going to take losses on the assets that they had; loans that they've made in the past are going to go bad. But right now, the new loans look profitable on first blush - initially - because the yield curve is relatively steep.

RAZ: Why do you think it is that there seems to be a huge gap, a disconnect between the majority of Americans and those who work on Wall Street, in the sense of trust? There's this idea that the people who work on Wall Street know how to game the system, and that the rest of us can't really be part of that. I mean, is that the sense you get?

EISINGER: Absolutely. Over the last 20 years, we've had a process where the economy has become increasingly financialized. So a greater proportion of the economy is financial services. And it's almost become a sort of closed system, a self-fulfilling system where finance companies finance other finance companies. And there's an enormous amount of speculation in this ecosystem that creates a lot of profits without any societal benefit from more efficient financial markets and capital markets.

We don't see companies more easily raising money to go out and make goods and services that people really want. And that leads to a deep problem. And then the other, obvious, problem is that these guys blew up the world in 2008. So they got all this money, all these profits, all these huge bonuses, and then brought us into a global recession. And then we had to, as taxpayers, bail them out. And we haven't gotten the good economy that we thought we paid for when we bailed these banks out.

RAZ: After the financial collapse in 2008, we started to learn about all these shenanigans - default swaps, the derivatives and the ways that bankers were able to make money. Given the reforms introduced by Dodd-Frank, is Wall Street as a whole - are people on Wall Street now behaving better?

EISINGER: There is a - ascendency of the people who were a little bit more cautious. The problem is, that's largely going to be a temporary phenomenon unless there's some serious structural change. And we got almost no serious threshold change in Dodd-Frank. What we got, instead, was trying to strengthen the regulators' hands. But really, regulators are still susceptible to being lobbied by banks and their expensive lawyers, and they didn't have any structural change to their business. So we didn't break up the banks; we didn't make them smaller. We just asked them to change their behavior. And that works maybe for a couple of years after a crisis, because everybody remembers and it's fresh in their minds. But that won't work over the long term.

RAZ: Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica. He won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his coverage of Wall Street. Jesse Eisinger, thank you so much.

EISINGER: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

RAZ: This past week, Goldman Sachs announced a quarterly loss. It's just the second time since 1999 that the company's posted a loss, and yet Goldman has still set aside more than $10 billion for year-end bonuses. And former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer says that shows just how little things have changed on Wall Street since the crisis of 2008.

ELIOT SPITZER: Well, see, that's the thing people need to understand - the fact that there was a loss there on paper should not be interpreted by people as meaning suddenly, the executives and shareholders of Goldman Sachs and the partners of Goldman are not going to be getting their enormous salaries. They still are getting very, very outsized compensation.

RAZ: OK. Eliot Spitzer, many ordinary people, as you know, who don't work on Wall Street, have lost so much trust in our financial institutions that they are unwilling to invest in the stock market today. There's this idea that somehow the system is rigged.

SPITZER: I think that small investors do not get a fair shake. Small investors are sold stuff that they should not be sold, while the insiders are given advantages both in terms of the information, access to stocks, access to IPOs, access to all of the games that can be played - most recently, the settlement by Citibank. They paid $285 million; sounds like a big sum of money, but it's not in the context of Citibank's profit last quarter, I think - the 2.8 billion - because they have sold a product to the public and then bet against it. They have designed it to fail.

Now, how can you do that? How can any self-respecting person in business do that? Now, that is not, I'm saying, that is always what happens, but I spent many years as attorney general trying to root out the inherent conflicts of interest that exist between the interests of many - of the people at Goldman and Citi and Bank of America, who put together these products, who may have one thing in mind that may not be the best interests of the individual who was sold that product.

RAZ: Let's move on to the Occupy Wall Street movement. You have written recently in Slate that this has shaken up American politics. How so?

SPITZER: The defining issue in the political arena over the last year had been almost exclusively, how do we cut the debt? Issues of equity, issues of jobs, issues of growth had fallen off the agenda. And somehow, what the Occupy Wall Street folks have done is re-inject the issue of equity into our discussion. And that is critically important because we are distributing wealth in a way that is long-term corrosive and more importantly, we're generating the wealth in a way that may not be good for the country in the long run. The Occupy Wall Street folks are the ones who, I think, have to be given a fair bit of credit for putting it back on the agenda.

RAZ: Couldn't you make the case, though, that Wall Street is an easy target? I mean, as a former governor of New York, you know that Wall Street - their argument is they count for 14 percent of all tax revenues in New York state.

SPITZER: Wall Street is an easy target, and that doesn't mean that's why they're the target. And when I was attorney general and began to make cases with respect to highly improper practices on Wall Street, it wasn't popular to do it. I thought it was necessary. So yes, they're an easy target at times because they've made themselves an easy target, and I don't say that to sort of paint with too broad a brush. But structurally, we've got a significant problem. And that's why putting structural reforms in place to deal with not only equity issues but growth issues, is critically important.

RAZ: Is there still, in your view, fraud happening on Wall Street?

SPITZER: The answer is, inevitably, yes - and I don't say that, again, to sweep with too - paint with too broad a brush. There are going to be some examples of it. The question is, is there a structural crisis the way there was two or three years ago? And I think we have made some real progress, but not nearly enough. In other words, Dodd-Frank doesn't get rid of the issue of too big to fail. We still have major institutions that are, in fact, more concentrated now than they used to be. Have we made some progress? Sure. Enough? Not even close.

RAZ: That's Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York. Eliot Spitzer, thank you so much.

SPITZER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.