Aug 102012

Screwed Election: Wall Street Can’t Lose, and America Can’t Win

by Joel Kotkin

Everyone hates the big banks—except the two candidates running for president. Joel Kotkin on the bipartisan triumph of crony capitalism.

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stand and cheer in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street as they celebrate the protest’s sixth month on March 17, 2012. (John Minchillo / AP Photo)

About two in three Americans do not think what’s good for Wall Street is good for America, according to the 2012 Harris poll, but do think people who work there are less “honest and moral than other people,” and don’t “deserve to make the kind of money they earn.” Confidence in banks is at a record low, according to Gallup, as they’ve suffered the steepest fall in esteem of any American institution over the past decade. And people have put their money where their mouth is, with $171 billion leaving the stock market last year alone, and 80 percent of Wall Street communications executives conceded that public perception of their firms was not good.

Americans are angry at the big-time bankers and brokers, and yet, far from a populist attack on crony capitalism, Wall Street is sitting pretty, looking ahead to a presidential election that it can’t possibly lose. They have bankrolled a nifty choice between President Obama, the largest beneficiary of financial-industry backing in history and Mitt Romney, one of their very own.

One is to the manner born, the other a crafty servant; neither will take on the power.

Think of this: despite taking office in the midst of a massive financial meltdown, Obama’s administration has not prosecuted a single heavy-hitter among those responsible for the financial crisis. To the contrary, he’s staffed his team with big bankers and their allies. Under the Bush-Obama bailouts the big financial institutions have feasted like pigs at the trough, with the six largest banks borrowing almost a half trillion dollars from uncle Ben Bernanke’s printing press. In 2013 the top four banks controlled more than 40 percent of the credit markets in the top 10 states—up by 10 percentage points from 2009 and roughly twice their share in 2000. Meantime, small banks, usually the ones serving Main Street businesses, have taken the hit along with the rest of us with more than 300 folding since the passage of Dodd-Frank, the industry-approved bill to “reform” the industry.

Yet past the occasional election-year bout of symbolic class warfare, the oligarchs have little to fear from an Obama victory.

Dan Gross discusses Knight Capital’s $440 million loss

“Too big to fail,” enshrined in the Dodd-Frank bill, enjoys the full and enthusiastic support of the administration. Obama’s financial tsar on the GM bailout, Steven Rattner, took to The New York Times to stress that Obamians see nothing systemically wrong with the banking system we have now, blaming the 2008 market meltdown on “old-fashioned poor management.”

As anger at the banks builds, Republicans nominate a Wall Street patrician whose idea of populism seems to be donning a well-pressed pair of jeans and a work shirt.

“In a world of behemoth banks,” he explained to we mere mortals, “it is wrong to think we can shrink ours to a size that eliminates the ‘too big to fail’ problem without emasculating one of our most successful industries.”

But consider the messenger. Rattner, while denying wrongdoing, paid $6.2 million and accepted a two-year ban on associating with any investment adviser or broker-dealer to settle with the SEC over the agency’s claims that he had played a role in a pay-to-play scheme involving a $50,000 contribution to the now-jailed politician who controlled New York State’s $125 billion pension fund. He’s also expressed unlimited admiration for the Chinese economic system, the largest expression of crony capitalism in history. Expect Rattner to be on hand in September, when Democrats gather in Charlotte, the nation’s second-largest banking city, inside the Bank of America Stadium to formally nominate Obama for a second term.

In a sane world, one would expect Republicans to run against this consolidation of power, that has taxpayers propping up banks that invest vast amounts in backing the campaigns of the lawmakers who levy those taxes. The party would appeal to grassroots capitalists, investors, small banks and their customers who feel excluded from the Washington-sanctioned insiders’ game. The popular appeal is there. The Tea Party, of course, began as a response against TARP.

Instead, the party nominated a Wall Street patrician, Mitt Romney, whose idea of populism seems to be donning a well-pressed pair of jeans and a work shirt.

Romney himself is so clueless as to be touting his strong fund-raising with big finance. His top contributors list reads something like a rogue’s gallery from the 2008 crash: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Citicorp, and Barclays. If Obama’s Hollywood friends wanted to find a perfect candidate to play the role of out-of-touch-Wall Street grandee, they could do worse than casting Mitt.

With Romney to work with, David Axelrod’s dog could design the ads right now.

True, some of the finance titans who thought Obama nifty back in 2008 have had their delicate psyches ruffled by the president’s election-year attacks on the “one percent.” But the “progressives,” now tethered to Obama’s chain, are deluding themselves if they think the president’s neo-populist rancor means much of anything. They get to serve as what the Old Bosheviks would have called  “useful idiots,” pawns in the fight between one group of oligopolists and another.

This division can be seen in the financial community as well. For the most part Obama has maintained the loyalty of those financiers, like Rattner, who seek out pension funds to finance their business. Those who underwrite and speculate on public debt have reason to embrace Washington’s free spenders. They are also cozy to financiers like John Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO and governor of New Jersey, whose now-disgraced investment company MF Global is represented by Attorney General Eric Holder’s old firm. 

The big-government wing of the financial elite remains firmly in Obama’s corner, as his bundlers (including Corzine) have already collected close to $20 million from financial interests for the president. Record support has also poured in from Silicon Valley, which has become ever more like a hip Wall Street west. Like its east-coast brethren, Silicon Valley has also increased its dependence on government policy, as well-connected venture capitalists and many in the tech community  have sought to enrich themselves on the administration’s “green” energy schemes.

Romney, on the other hand, has done very well with capital tied to the energy industry, and others who invest in the broad private sector, where government interventions are more often a complication than a means to a fast buck. His broad base of financial support reflects how relatively few businesses have benefited from the current regime.

Who loses in this battle of the oligarchs? Everyone who depends on the markets to accurately give information, and to provide fundamental services, like fairly priced credit.

And who wins? The politically well-situated, who can profit from credit and regulatory policies whether those are implemented by  Republicans or Democrats.

American democracy and the prosperity needed to sustain it are both diminished when Wall Street, the great engineer of the 2008 crash, is all but assured of victory in November.

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