Is it time to put the Great Recession behind us?
Not in terms of the economy – which remains bogged down with high unemployment, low growth and other aftershocks – but rather when it comes to demanding a rigorous effort to hold Wall Street bankers, traders and executives accountable for causing the financial crisis.
Should we just chalk it up to such simplified explanations as “animal spirits ran amok” and “these things happen occasionally”? Or should we continue to expend scarce political and law enforcement resources trying to get to the bottom of what happened, and why, with a goal of holding the right people legally and financially accountable?
It’s a conundrum, especially since many Americans have lost enthusiasm for the fight. But the path Americans ultimately take will reveal to everyone much about who we are as a people and what ethics, values and morality we stand for. It will also have serious lasting implications if we hope to avoid a rerun of what happened over the last five years.
At the moment, the message we are broadcasting far and wide is: There will be no justice; there will be no accountability; let’s return to the status quo as quickly as possible.
There are, not surprisingly, powerful and articulate voices in favour of moving on. In his book Unintended Consequences Edward Conard, a former Bain Capital partner of Mitt Romney argues forcefully that occasional market collapses such as 1929 and 2008 are a small price to pay for a system of capital allocation that has produced vast sums of wealth, extraordinary technical and financial innovation, and a system that rewards people handsomely for taking risks.
For better or for worse, Conard writes, this is the country that produced Apple, Google and Facebook, among the most admired corporations in the world. He believes the sooner we get back to untethering Wall Street’s animal instincts the better. That means modest regulation, at best, and an end to meting out justice for those personally responsible for the financial crisis because, hey, stuff happens.
Likewise, in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Jamie Dimon, the chairman JPMorgan Chase, returned to many of his favourite themes. One was how little he cares for much of what is in the Dodd-Frank law and the proposed Volcker Rule which limits banks’ ability to trade for their own account.
He reiterated his belief that the right kind of financial regulation is necessary, in the vein of laws preventing drunk driving. But, like Conard, Dimon said the new regulatory environment is holding back growth.
He said business owners and executives around the country “all say it’s terrible. So it’s not just banks … Get rid of that wet blanket and this thing will take off”.
Even Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, has started to make noise again after a few years of laying low.
“Getting rid of some regulations and rules that are impairing people from investing vast pools of liquidity that are on the sideline, that are not owned by the government, that are theirs to invest but are just sitting on the sideline” will help get the economy humming, he told CNBC.
On the other side of the debate are people like Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate from Massachusetts, who still believes that accountability for the bad behaviour that occurred years ago on Wall Street is essential.
“People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she said at the Democratic National Convention in September.
“And here’s the painful part: they’re right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs – the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs – still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favours, and acting like we should thank them.”
No one on Wall Street has paid a serious price. Every bank has received its slap on the wrist, has had its insurance carrier or its shareholders cough up a few hundred million dollars – the cost of doing business, don’t you know – and moved on.