When Will the Big Banks Be Reined In?

Goldman Sachs aluminum
Goldman Sachs aluminum

In case anyone had doubts about the venality of the big U.S. banks, some recent news reports provide indisputable proof.

First, David Kocieniewski of the New York Times wrote a mind-boggling front-page report on how Goldman Sachs has been using a metals storage company to move large quantities of aluminum from one warehouse to another in Detroit. The maneuver, which exploits esoteric rules of the London Metal Exchange, generates millions of dollars in profit for Goldman and pushes up the price of products such as soft drinks sold in aluminum cans.

The creation of paper profits from aluminum shuffling is just one of the various ways that banks manipulate commodity prices. Occasionally they are called to task for their actions. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission just announced that JPMorgan Chase would pay $410 million in penalties and disgorgement to ratepayers to settle charges that it manipulated electricity markets in California and the Midwest several years ago. The announcement came shortly after the agency ordered the British bank Barclays and four of its traders to pay $453 million in civil penalties in connection with similar abuses in the western United States.

Apparently these banks decided that Enron’s energy market manipulation from a decade earlier was a game plan rather than a cautionary tale.

Another Times piece reports that major banks have in effect blacklisted more than a million low-income Americans because their names appear in databases of supposedly risky customers. The article highlights a Brooklyn woman who ended up on such a list after she overdrew her checking account by all of $40 in 2010 and subsequently was turned down by numerous banks when she tried to open an account. Many of the blacklisted people had to resort to exploitative check-cashing services and payday lenders to conduct their financial transactions. Among the subscribers to ChexSystems, the largest of the databases, were said to be Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

Allow that to sink it. Banks that have been involved in multi-billion-dollar scandals involving the deceptive sale of toxic securities, municipal bond bid rigging, foreclosure abuses and the like decide that it is too risky to take on a customer who once had a two-digit overdraft in her checking account.

For institutions such as these, the only proper response is to play as dirty as they do. A third NYT article reports that the city of Richmond, California is doing exactly that by employing its power of eminent domain to take over occupied homes that are under the threat of foreclosure and instead offer the owners new, more affordable mortgages that reflect the diminished value of the property. The banks, which have dragged their feet on foreclosure reforms, are indignant over the move and are, in the words of the Times, threatening to “bring down a hail of lawsuits and all but halt mortgage lending in any city with the temerity” to consider the tactic.

The need for bold tactics such as eminent domain has been brought about not only by the banks but also by the half-hearted efforts of the Obama Administration to deal with the foreclosure crisis. This is just one of the ways the administration has not held the financial industry fully responsible for the financial meltdown of 2008 and the repercussions that are still with us.

The President himself is spending his time these days lobbying Congress to support the selection of Larry Summers as the next chair of the Federal Reserve. This is the same Summers who, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, promoted the financial deregulation that helped usher in the bank recklessness that has done so much harm to the economy.

The Wall Street Journal recently revealed for the first time that Summers has been working as a consultant to Citigroup in addition to his previously reported roles advising a hedge fund, a venture capital firm and a money management company. Obama apparently thinks that someone with this kind of track record is well suited to oversee monetary policy as the head of an agency that is also one of the main banking regulators.

I’m more impressed with the public officials in Richmond, California.

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