In November, the Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the first local case against Bank of America for fraud and deception, bringing home the foreclosure crisis and the fight against “too big to fail” banks. Fortunately, Montana hasn’t been as devastated as so many communities across the nation, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been impacted.
Bank of America is being sued by a Meagher County couple. According to the couple, the bank instructed them to “deliberately skip payments,” so that they could eventually lower their mortgage payment through a loan modification. Rather than receiving the modification, the couple was foreclosed on. This story is far from unique. Too many proactive homeowners, who worked with banks to avoid foreclosure before falling behind on their payments, were told to skip a payment to “show hardship.” Once a borrower became delinquent the bank began the process of foreclosure or sold the loan to another lender who proceeded to foreclose.
However, the tide may be turning on the era of bank impunity. Last week it was announced that the Department of Justice will levy the largest corporate settlement in history against JP Morgan Chase for similar fraud and abuse. This $13 billion settlement is noteworthy, because it does not negotiate away subsequent criminal charges, and it marks a stark shift in the way the DOJ has handled cases involving the biggest banks. In the five years since the Wall Street crash, there has been no single high-level banker prosecuted despite massive evidence of wrongdoing.
Truthfully, Attorney General Eric Holder was criticized for telling Congress in March “that it appears some institutions were in fact too big to prosecute,” making “too big to fail” banks in reality “too big to jail.” Looking back, we may see Holder’s testimony as the pivotal moment in the effort to rein in Wall Street and ensure accountability amongst the nations bankers. As important as it is to ensure that financial titans operate within the same legal framework as everyone else, it is necessary that risks borne by the big boys don’t have the ability to topple the broader economy.
Luckily, a bill was introduced this summer that could help do both. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain, Angus King and Maria Cantwell introduced the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act. It is a nod to the famed Depression-era law that is largely credited with limiting boom and bust cycles for over 50 years, and is designed to limit the size and scope of the nation’s largest financial firms.
One of the bill’s key functions is the separation of investment and commercial banking. Beginning in the 1980s, deregulation undermined this firewall, allowing the high octane trading we see on Wall Street today. If passed, it will reduce risk in the financial system and dial back the likelihood of future financial crises. It returns the wall between traditional banks that are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from riskier services, such as credit default swaps and investment banking. It makes banking boring, which is a good thing for everyone.
The 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act cannot end “too big to fail” by itself, but it is a giant step in the right direction by making financial institutions safer and smaller. Although some financial institutions might remain large, they would no longer be intertwined with traditional depository banks and, importantly, reduces the implicit (or explicit) government guarantee of a bailout. The time is now for Congress to bet on Main Street and pass a new Glass-Steagall for the 21st Century.
Bert Chessin of Missoula is board chair of the Montana Organizing Project.