Are we headed for a ‘double dip’? The head of the United States Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said last month that this is unlikely in the US, but a recent CNN poll shows 48 percent of Americans think the country is en route to another Great Depression in the next 12 months. The other options raging through economic debates around the world is whether the US is on track not merely for another dip, but a mega-dip, or indeed if the US economy ever actually pulled out of the first recession.
If a second financial crisis occurs it will be bad news not just for the world’s largest economy, but for everyone on the planet. The problem, in short, is regulation, or the lack thereof. It was the lax regulatory oversight of such financial products as derivatives and sub-prime mortgages in the US and elsewhere that triggered the first financial meltdown in 2008.
Major banks were bailed out, consolidation occurred, but few individuals were effectively punished. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that regulators were not empowered to properly leash the insidious corporate culture of casino-style capitalism which, though briefly brought to heel in the throes of the first financial fallout, has now returned to rabid form.
Sure, the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010was enacted, but financial institutions and the Republican Party are actively trying to weaken the framework. And unfortunately the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report was released in January, long after the act was passed, meaning its findings were not taken into account in crafting the legislation. The commission’s report makes for sober reading; “We conclude the financial crisis was avoidable… Widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets… Dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions were a key cause of this crisis…We conclude the failures of credit rating agencies were essential cogs in the wheel of financial destruction.”
Where the report was weak was in addressing systemic financial fraud, which was present in much of the sub-prime mortgage loans — a major factor behind the financial crisis. According to William Black, author of “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One,” a fraudulent loan is where a lender loans to a debtor without knowing how the debtor can repay the loan, hence a form of fraud, or what criminologists call accounting control fraud.
With regulators still lacking authority and having little chance of successfully convicting individuals on charges of financial fraud in the US, the stage is set for “Financial Crisis Part II: The Really Big One”. The irony is that while the US has banged on for years about the need for other countries to implement financing laws — regarding anti-money laundering controls, due diligence and so on — the most pertinent regulations to been forced are in the US itself, given that a crippled American economy would have a precipitous downside worldwide.
As Black stated earlier this year, “elites can now commit white-collar crimes with near impunity. Yeah, there are exceptions, like the Galleon case [against hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam] and [Bernie] Madoff, but that is the teeniest, tiniest percentage of these elite frauds [which have] any risk of being prosecuted. And the result is catastrophic for our nation, and of course not just our nation: we’re seeing these epidemics of control fraud in many other nations.”
One of the more sensible decisions to come out of the US recently was by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, suggesting countries should mutually enact tighter financial regulations and set standards to better control the $601 trillion over-the-counter derivatives market. This would be a sensible move and it would make sense for governments to push for this. Simultaneously, however, rightwing US lawmakers are trying to cut funding to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. This is obscenely irresponsible, raising the specter of the double-dip recession by hobbling effective oversight of multi-trillion dollar markets. Public outcry in the wake of the financial crisis was relatively muted. But if we are all plunged into hot water again due to a flimsy regulatory safety net, a hell of a lot of people will not only be burned, but also burning with rage — and will know who truly is to blame.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services