BY MICHAEL STEELE, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL — 04/21/19 09:30 AM EDT
Earlier this year I raised concern that many of the lessons that should have been learned from the 2008 financial crisis had not been; and that incoming Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters (D-Fla.), would have an opportunity not only to take an in-depth look at the causes of the crisis, but to ultimately begin to hold those responsible — big banks — accountable.
Well, Chairwoman Waters and the House Financial Services Committee called before the committee the most powerful financial institutions in the world to discuss what they have done to address the systemic issues that caused the 2008 financial crisis.
In a hearing titled: Holding Megabanks Accountable, the chairwoman set out that the hearing would “review the activities of these mega-banks and examine how they are operating today” and whether “the practices of these banks [are] still causing harm.” Unfortunately, the hearing did not live up to its title.
While the hearing touched upon important issues like current systemic risks in the financial markets, the diversity in leadership positions of these big banks, and global cybersecurity threats, very little time was spent on the issue of accountability. In fact, aside from taking down Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s condescending mansplaining, this hearing was a missed opportunity to ask substantive questions on behalf of the millions of Americans who lost their homes due to the excesses of these banks. The American public deserves better.
Despite my earlier reservations about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), during the hearing I found myself encouraged by her incisive way of getting to the heart of the issue of accountability. Ocasio-Cortez rightly pointed out that these banks each paid out billions of dollars in fines as a result of their misdeeds that caused the 2008 crisis, while they essentially treated such fines as the cost of doing business.
She smartly zeroed in on how these regulations and fines do little to deter bad behavior and queried the banks as to whether or not this was a failure of our legal system. While each respondent provided the obligatory “of course not,” it was hard to believe them.
Some banks, like Bank of America, still have ongoing litigation dating back nearly nine years which pertain to claims of fraud perpetrated by Countrywide Financial, now owned by Bank of America, and one of the largest culprits of predatory lending and fraud leading up to the crisis. But as Ocasio-Cortez alluded to, dragging out court cases and paying any fines, are all just part of the game. As a result, our legal and regulatory system has not changed the behavior of any of these financial institutions.
Bank of America’s CEO, acknowledged in his latest earnings call that while his bank continues to make risky loans like the ones made leading up to the crisis, his bank sells those loans immediately to get rid of any risk on their balance sheet. These loans are packaged and sold as collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), a trend that some regulators are starting to become concerned about, as the CLO market has increased from $300 billion at the end of 2008 to $615 billion at the end of 2018.
While the hearing spent considerable time on past practices, I was surprised at the amount of hearing time spent discussing climate change and gun control. While such issues are important, issues like predatory lending (which was not addressed) should have been given greater priority.
In Bank of America’s settlement with the Department of Justice, the bank admitted to overcharging more than 200,000 black and Hispanic borrowers for their loans and that there was a much greater chance — twice as likely in fact — of a minority applicant being steered into a riskier and more expensive subprime loan. In fact, there were bonus incentives to encourage loan officers to engage in this practice.
While Dodd-Frank and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) have worked to curb such practices, the Trump administration has worked harder to cut these regulations thereby leaving the CFPB powerless and opening the door for further abuse.
Having served as Lt. Governor of Maryland immediately prior to the financial crisis of 2008, and on the board of a small community bank during the crisis I am uniquely aware of the disingenuous tactics that some megabanks took to place profit over people.
The impact was devastating; and the millions of Americas that lost their homes in places like Prince George’s County, Maryland suffered because of the decisions and actions of these banks. They deserved better then and even more so now.
It is the job of Congress to safeguard against any potential threat to the American Dream of the most vulnerable in our society and I urge this Congress to get serious about that and to keep focused on the health of our financial markets, the ongoing practices of these mega-banks and the impact such practices will have on all Americans — especially before it’s too late. Again.
Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland. He is also an MSNBC political analyst.