Sen. Warren comes out swinging

In case you missed it, Elizabeth Warren made quite the splash at her first Senate Banking Committee hearing on Thursday.

In front of a panel entitled “Wall Street Reform: Oversight of Financial Stability and Consumer and Investor Protections,” Warren berated regulators for failing to prosecute a single Wall Street criminal in recent years, and for not letting institutional suspicions arise due to the fact that banks are trading at below-book value.

This, as you can imagine, did not sit well with banking executives.

According to POLITICO’s Ben White, they went apoplectic:

“We have been through more tests and thorough exams than any college student over the past four years, including many conducted by the CFPB,” said Richard Hunt, president and chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association.

“While Sen. Warren had every right to ask pointed questions at [Thursday’s] Senate Banking Committee hearing, her claim that ‘nobody believes’ that bank books are honest is just plain wrong,” [another anonymous] executive said in an email. “As Federal Reserve Gov. [Daniel] Tarullo explained in response to her question, the low valuations are more likely due to continued economic uncertainty and concerns on the part of investors regarding the impact on banks’ profitability due to the hundreds of new regulations.”

White, however, left out key pieces of background here. The first is that Wall Street banks are performing like they were in 2006, and that their moaning about profitability rings hollow. The second is that to say the industry has a credibility problem would be the understatement of the decade: according to the Wall Street Journal and a trade publication called CFA Magazine, “one out of every ten people working on Wall Street are psychopaths.”

Not wanting to disappoint, the executive evidenced a delusional mendacity again in White’s article, when he said that “Elizabeth warren and [Texas Republican Senator] Ted Cruz are dueling for the title of ‘most extreme fringe freshman senator.’”

To this empty suit, it’s not just as if the financial crisis never happened. It’s as if Wall Street firms haven’t been mired in scandal after scandal since: foreclosure fraud, LIBOR, JP Morgan London Whale, FHA loan fraud, and MF Global to name a few. According to our faceless executive, wanting regulators to hold these well groomed pickpockets to account — for both crimes and reckless legal practices — is equal to slandering Chuck Hagel for having fictitious ties to North Korea or a blatantly made-up Hamas linked booster group (and certain publications continue to push this false equivalency in their fact-free devil-may-care attempts to be “objective” stenographers).

Fortunately for Wall Street, Warren might not have done herself any favors through her line of questioning. As Yves Smith, author of the the indispensable blog “Naked Capitalism” pointed out, the freshman Senator could have played a more subtle cat-and-mouse game to “tease out” information she claimed to have wanted – about why regulators never take cases to trial, namely, or why the fines they issue amount to a paltry “cost of doing business” amount. I suspect, however, that Warren was just trying to make a point – that whether regulators are scared of losing cases, or not wanting to find themselves shunned by Wall Street when they decide that they’ve had enough of Washington, they haven’t been doing the public any favors through inaction.

What’s important about this exchange, though, is that Warren demonstrated why she was elected. She might, thus far, be known as a one-issue kind of expert, but that issue is of massive importance to her constituents (and the American people). Her banking committee membership, I suspect, will be significantly more valuable the next time financier psychopaths pay a visit to one of the Senate office buildings to testify.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.