It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. O.K., maybe not literally the worst, but definitely bad. And the contrast between the immense good fortune of a few and the continuing suffering of all too many boded ill for the future.
I’m talking, of course, about the state of the banks.
But it’s not a simple case of flourishing banks versus ailing workers: banks that are actually in the business of lending, as opposed to trading, are still in trouble. Most notably, Citigroup and Bank of America, which silenced talk of nationalization earlier this year by claiming that they had returned to profitability, are now — you guessed it — back to reporting losses.
But there’s an even bigger problem: while the wheeler-dealer side of the financial industry, a k a trading operations, is highly profitable again, the part of banking that really matters — lending, which fuels investment and job creation — is not. Key banks remain financially weak, and their weakness is hurting the economy as a whole.
You may recall that earlier this year there was a big debate about how to get the banks lending again. Some analysts, myself included, argued that at least some major banks needed a large injection of capital from taxpayers, and that the only way to do this was to temporarily nationalize the most troubled banks. The debate faded out, however, after Citigroup and Bank of America, the banking system’s weakest links, announced surprise profits. All was well, we were told, now that the banks were profitable again.
But a funny thing happened on the way back to a sound banking system: last week both Citi and BofA announced losses in the third quarter. What happened?
Part of the answer is that those earlier profits were in part a figment of the accountants’ imaginations. More broadly, however, we’re looking at payback from the real economy. In the first phase of the crisis, Main Street was punished for Wall Street’s misdeeds; now broad economic distress, especially persistent high unemployment, is leading to big losses on mortgage loans and credit cards.
And here’s the thing: The continuing weakness of many banks is helping to perpetuate that economic distress. Banks remain reluctant to lend, and tight credit, especially for small businesses, stands in the way of the strong recovery we need.
[W]e desperately need to pass effective financial reform. For if we don’t, bankers will soon be taking even bigger risks than they did in the run-up to this crisis. After all, the lesson from the last few months has been very clear: When bankers gamble with other people’s money, it’s heads they win, tails the rest of us lose.
So, Mr. President, how's about listening to a fellow Nobel laureate instead of the stable of assclowns currently advising you on economic policy? Before, y'know, it's too late.