Bernie Sanders has done an excellent job in this presidential primary of summarizing what he thinks is wrong with our economy and politics and offering a few big proposals to correct those problems. A big part of his focus has been on the power of Wall Street and their practices that led to the Great Recession nine years ago.
There has been a lot of discussion about his proposal to reinstate the depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which put a firewall between commercial and investment banking. But his plans to break up the big banks and criminally prosecute them for the activities that led to the Great Recession haven’t received as much scrutiny.
In a recent interview with the Daily News, the editorial board asked for more detail on those proposals. Here is the discussion about breaking up the big banks:
Daily News: Now, switching to the financial sector, to Wall Street. Speaking broadly, you said that within the first 100 days of your administration you’d be drawing up…your Treasury Department would be drawing up a too-big-to-fail list. Would you expect that that’s essentially the list that already exists under Dodd-Frank? Under the Financial Stability Oversight Council?
Sanders: Yeah. I mean these are the largest financial institutions in the world….
Daily News: And then, you further said that you expect to break them up within the first year of your administration. What authority do you have to do that? And how would that work? How would you break up JPMorgan Chase?…
Sanders: How you go about doing it is having legislation passed, or giving the authority to the secretary of treasury to determine, under Dodd-Frank, that these banks are a danger to the economy over the problem of too-big-to-fail.
Daily News: But do you think that the Fed, now, has that authority?
Sanders: Well, I don’t know if the Fed has it. But I think the administration can have it.
Daily News: How? How does a President turn to JPMorgan Chase, or have the Treasury turn to any of those banks and say, “Now you must do X, Y and Z?”
Sanders: Well, you do have authority under the Dodd-Frank legislation to do that, make that determination.
Daily News: You do, just by Federal Reserve fiat, you do?
Sanders: Yeah. Well, I believe you do…
Daily News: Well, it does depend on how you do it, I believe. And, I’m a little bit confused because just a few minutes ago you said the U.S. President would have authority to order…
Sanders: No, I did not say we would order. I did not say that we would order. The President is not a dictator.
Daily News: Okay. You would then leave it to JPMorgan Chase or the others to figure out how to break it, themselves up. I’m not quite…
Sanders: You would determine is that, if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. And then you have the secretary of treasury and some people who know a lot about this, making that determination. If the determination is that Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase is too big to fail, yes, they will be broken up.
Daily News: Okay. You saw, I guess, what happened with Metropolitan Life. There was an attempt to bring them under the financial regulatory scheme, and the court said no. And what does that presage for your program?
Sanders: It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.
Well…that’s as clear as mud, isn’t it? Senator Sanders seems unaware of the fact that Dodd-Frank set up criteria under which a “Systemically Important Financial Institution” (SISI) can be broken up. It doesn’t just happen because a president decides to do so. He also demonstrates no understanding of the complexity that would be involved or the potential for chaos in the economy. For example, here is what Paula Dwyer wrote about just a few of the questions that would emerge.
It’s unclear how regulators would split up, say, JPMorgan Chase, which got bigger after the crisis because the U.S. implored it to absorb Bear Stearns (ditto for Bank of America, which acquired Merrill Lynch and Countrywide). If regulators divided the bank into commercial and investment banking halves, how would they disentangle the interwoven asset and liability threads around the globe? Millions of contracts would have to be renegotiated. Lines of credit might have to be terminated because smaller banks can’t afford to finance them.
Here is the exchange about prosecution of Wall Street:
Daily News: Okay. Staying with Wall Street, you’ve pointed out, that “not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy.” Why was that? Why did that happen? Why was there no prosecution?
Sanders: I would suspect that the answer that some would give you is that while what they did was horrific, and greedy and had a huge impact on our economy, that some suggest that…that those activities were not illegal. I disagree. And I think an aggressive attorney general would have found illegal activity.
Daily News: So do you think that President Obama’s Justice Department essentially was either in the tank or not as…
Sanders: No, I wouldn’t say they were in the tank. I’m saying, a Sanders administration would have a much more aggressive attorney general looking at all of the legal implications…
Daily News: Okay. But do you have a sense that there is a particular statute or statutes that a prosecutor could have or should have invoked to bring indictments?
Sanders: I suspect that there are. Yes.
Daily News: You believe that? But do you know?
Sanders: I believe that that is the case. Do I have them in front of me, now, legal statutes? No, I don’t. But if I would…yeah, that’s what I believe, yes. When a company pays a $5 billion fine for doing something that’s illegal, yeah, I think we can bring charges against the executives.
For almost nine years now, people have been talking about the need to prosecute Wall Street firms and executives for their practices that led to the Great Recession. And yet a presidential candidate who makes it a central plank of his proposed agenda doesn’t seem to have spent any time looking into what laws were broken and simply believes that, because they paid big fines, an “aggressive attorney general” would have found something to prosecute.
I have to admit that I was rather stunned by this whole interview. Over the course of the last few months, I have been asking questions about the details of many of Sanders’ proposals. He doesn’t need to provide those in his stump speech. But when these kinds of bold structural changes are the cornerstone of your agenda, I assumed that a great deal of inquiry and thought had gone into reaching the conclusion that they were necessary. Throughout this interview I saw none of that. Here is what Bill Palmer had to say about it:
In other words, despite so many months of promising to break up the big banks, Sanders doesn’t appear to have ever stopped and asked an economic advisor how it would legally or functionally work or if it’s even possible.
The interview is long. But I encourage everyone to read it and develop your own conclusions.