Soapbox

Much more work to prevent another financial meltdown

Bob Graham, right, a member of the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, speaks with Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, during a 2010 hearing in Miami. They say while there’s been progress, more safeguards are needed to prevent another Wall Street meltdown.
Bob Graham, right, a member of the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, speaks with Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, during a 2010 hearing in Miami. They say while there’s been progress, more safeguards are needed to prevent another Wall Street meltdown. Miami Herald file

Five years after the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission issued its report into the financial meltdown, we have a long way to go to prevent a repeat of the crisis.

Congress and President Barack Obama created the commission to look into the causes of the Wall Street crash. We reviewed millions of pages of documents, interviewed more than 700 witnesses and held 19 days of public hearings across the country, including in communities hard hit by the crisis.

This two-year process confirmed that the meltdown was avoidable, caused by widespread failures of regulation, reckless risk taking on Wall Street and systematic breaches in ethics and accountability. Our inquiry exposed the urgent need to increase banking oversight and consumer protection.

Despite a furious attempt by some to rewrite history, the commission’s findings have stood the test of time. In the years since, Americans continue to wonder whether anything has changed, and whether their economic security is still at risk. The answer isn’t simple.

Obama and Congress took a major step forward in 2010 by approving the Dodd-Frank financial reform law mandating that banking regulators impose risk controls at the nation’s 34 largest banks. It also established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect Americans from unscrupulous business practices. The bureau has forced the return of more than $11 billion to an estimated 25 million Americans wronged by financial companies.

Although we have made some progress, it hasn’t been nearly enough to match the magnitude of the crisis and what the country endured. Disturbingly, some members of Congress already are working to turn back the clock and return to the broken pre-crisis status quo that nearly brought down our economy.

Proposed legislation would force regulators to roll back the improved risk controls at more than two dozen of our largest banks. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also is under constant threat, as we saw during the recent fight in Congress over the omnibus spending bill.

The Dodd-Frank standard requiring that lenders find that borrowers have the “ability to repay” has helped to ensure that mortgage loans are made more responsibly. But proposed legislation would weaken these standards, making it easier for lenders to prey on borrowers.

The crisis showed the importance of having regulators who are willing to stand up to Wall Street. But strong regulators aren’t enough. They need the resources to do their job and the American people’s support when they act in the public’s interest.

That’s why it’s been so disappointing to see Congress underfund the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which serve as Wall Street watchdogs. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been given significant new responsibilities for policing a $400 trillion derivatives market. Yet, there was no increase in its $250 million budget this year, despite Obama’s request of $322 million.

The American people will never be truly protected from Wall Street wrongdoing until these agencies receive the resources they desperately need.

Since our report was presented, the Wall Street executives responsible for helping cause the Great Recession haven’t paid any real legal, economic or political price. Fines and penalties still are treated as a cost of doing business. Violations often are settled for pennies on the dollar at shareholders’ expense, without any admission of wrongdoing. What’s needed are real penalties for wrongdoing, including criminal penalties when warranted.

We have made progress since the commission’s report. But building on these reforms will take political will, as revisionists continue to try to rewrite history, roll back progress and prevent reforms from seeing the light of day.

Bob Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator from Florida, was a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and can be contacted at bob.graham@grahamcos.com. Phil Angelides, former state treasurer in California, served as the commission’s chairman and can be contacted at pa@angelides.com.

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