Some Dems ready to loosen tough bank regulations passed after financial crisis

From today’s LA Times:

Before the 2008 financial crisis, BAC Community Bank in Stockton made about 100 mortgage loans a year. Now, after new regulations mandated in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the figure is down to about two dozen.

“We were never a big mortgage lender, but we did quite a bit more before Dodd-Frank,” said Bill Trezza, the bank’s chief executive. “It basically pushed us out of that to the point where we will do mortgages only for our customers if they request it.”

He and other small bankers hope that’s about to change. And a political shift is making that possible.

Nearly a decade after the financial crisis, some Democrats are ready to go along with a Republican push to significantly loosen the landmark law enacted to try to prevent the next one.

Senate legislation focused on easing new mortgage and other rules for small and mid-sized and regional banks has been co-sponsored by a dozen Democrats, several of them moderates up for re-election this year in states won by President Trump in the 2016 campaign.

The bipartisan support has the bill on track to be approved as soon as this week in what would be the first major overhaul of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The House, which has approved more extensive financial deregulation, is likely to go along with the Senate’s more modest changes. Trump, who has called Dodd-Frank “a very negative force” in the economy and vowed during the campaign to dismantle it, would be expected to sign any bill that reduces its authority.

“The tone has shifted in D.C. from where regulation was necessary to protect the economy to the concern where regulation has gone too far and might be a drag on the economy,” said Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for financial services firm Raymond James. “Where that shift has occurred, it gave an opening to the smaller and medium-size banks to pursue these changes.”

But while there’s broad support for easing unintentional burdens in the law for small banks, many liberal Democrats are fighting the bill from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). They say it goes too far by also providing significant benefits for some larger financial institutions.

The legislation would exempt about 30 banks and other firms from the stricter oversight put in place by Dodd-Frank after the 2008 financial crisis. That 2010 law was an attempt to prevent a repeat of the bailouts and damage to the economy.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

Individual Mandate Now Gone, G.O.P. Targets the One for Employers

From the New York Times:

Having wiped out the requirement for people to have health insurance, Republicans in Congress are taking aim at a new target: the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that employers offer coverage to employees.

And many employers are cheering the effort.

While large companies have long offered health benefits, many have chafed at the detailed requirements under the health law, including its reporting rules, which they see as onerous and expensive. Now that relief has been extended to individuals, some companies believe they should be next in line.

The individual mandate and the employer mandate are “inextricably entwined,” said James A. Klein, the president of the American Benefits Council, an influential lobby for large companies like Dow Chemical, Microsoft and BP, the oil and gas producer.

“It is inequitable to leave the employer mandate in place when its purpose — to support the individual mandate — no longer exists,” Mr. Klein said. “We are urging Congress to repeal the employer mandate.”

Opposition to the employer mandate could increase as more employers are fined for not offering coverage or for not meeting federal standards for adequate, affordable coverage. Since October, the Internal Revenue Service has notified thousands of businesses that they owe money because they failed to offer coverage in 2015, when the mandate took effect.

Representatives Devin Nunes of California and Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, recently introduced a bill, supported by party leaders, to suspend the mandate, canceling any penalties that would be imposed for any year from 2015 to 2018.

“The employer mandate is a job-killer, a wage-killer and a business-killer,” Mr. Kelly said.

But Tom Leibfried, a health care lobbyist at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., called the proposals to repeal or weaken the employer mandate “a very bad idea.”

“The Affordable Care Act was built on a framework of shared responsibility,” Mr. Leibfried said. “If you get rid of the employer mandate, you will see people lose coverage from their employers.”

Such a move could also increase costs for the federal government. Even though Congress has eliminated the penalties for people who go without insurance, millions of consumers are still eligible for financial aid in the form of tax credits to help them pay insurance premiums. These subsidies increase with the rapidly rising cost of insurance. If fewer people receive coverage from employers, more will qualify for subsidized coverage in the public marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act.

“The employer mandate holds down the cost of premium tax credits for the federal government,” said Catherine E. Livingston, a tax lawyer at the law firm Jones Day who was the health care counsel at the I.R.S. from 2010 to 2013. “Any employee who receives an offer of affordable coverage from an employer is not eligible for the tax credit. And the employer mandate provides a strong incentive for employers to offer affordable coverage.”

Read the complete article here.

MLK Day 2018, A Time to Reflect on Socio-Economic Injustice In All Forms

In honor of MLK Day, we post a short educational video here with excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin that draw the connection between racial injustice and economic inequality in the United States. Their insights are as true today as they were fifty years ago, showing just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If we want peace, we must work for justice in all its forms.

Automation Could Displace 800 Million Workers Worldwide By 2030, Study Says

From today’s National Public Radio:

A coming wave of job automation could force between 400 million and 800 million people worldwide out of a job in the next 13 years, according to a new study.

A report released this week from the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company forecasts scenarios in which 3 percent to 14 percent of workers around the world — in 75 million to 375 million jobs — will have to acquire new skills and switch occupations by 2030.

“There are few precedents” to the challenge of retraining hundreds of millions of workers in the middle of their careers, the report’s authors say.

The impact will vary between countries, depending on their wealth and types of jobs that currently exist in each. In 60 percent of jobs worldwide, “at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated,” McKinsey says, which would mean a big change in what people do day-to-day.

McKinsey looked at 46 countries and more than 800 different jobs in its research.

In the year 2030 in countries with “advanced economies,” a greater proportion of workers will need to learn new skills than in developing economies, researchers say. As many as a third of workers in the U.S. and Germany could need to learn new skills. For Japan, the number is almost 50 percent of the workforce, while in China it’s 12 percent.

Jobs that involve predictable, repetitive tasks are more easily automated, “such as operating machinery and preparing fast food,” and data processing, like paralegal work and accounting. However, McKinsey estimates less than 5 percent of jobs can be fully automated.

Jobs that pay “relatively lower wages” and aren’t as predictable are less likely to face full automation, because businesses don’t have as much incentive to spend on the technology. This applies to jobs like gardening, plumbing and child care, according to the authors.

Occupations that pay more but involve managing people and social interactions face less risk of automation due to the inherent difficulty in programming machines to do those types of tasks.

Read the complete article here.

Is it responsible government spending? GOP tax plan gives billions back to billionaires, adds trillions to the deficit

From today’s New York Times:

A Republican requirement that Congress consider the full cost of major legislation threatened to derail the party’s $1.5 trillion tax rewrite last week. So lawmakers went on the offensive to discredit the agency performing the analysis.

In 2015, Republicans changed the budget rules in Congress so that official scorekeepers would be required to analyze the potential economic impact of major legislation when determining how it would affect federal revenues.

But on Thursday, hours before they were set to vote on the largest tax cut Congress has considered in years, Senate Republicans opened an assault on that scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and its analysis, which showed the Senate plan would not, as lawmakers contended, pay for itself but would add $1 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised. Party leaders circulated two pages of “response points” that declared “the substance, timing and growth assumptions of J.C.T.’s ‘dynamic’ score are suspect.” Among their arguments was that the joint committee was using “consistently wrong” growth models to assess the effect the tax cuts would have on hiring, wages and investment.

The Republican response points go after revenue analyses by the committee and by the Congressional Budget Office, which scores other legislation, saying their findings “can be off to the tune of more than $1.5 trillion over ten years.”

The swift backlash helped defuse concerns about the deficit impact long enough for the bill to pass by a vote of 51 to 49. Some deficit hawks in the Senate caucus were sufficiently concerned about the report on Thursday night to delay the tax vote by a day, but the only Republican lawmaker to vote no was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whose last-minute efforts to cut the size of the package or otherwise offset the deficit impact were unsuccessful.

Instead, Senate Republicans questioned the timing of the analysis’ release on Thursday, and a spokeswoman for the Senate Finance Committee released a statement saying the findings are “curious and deserve further scrutiny.”

That sentiment was repeated over and over, before and after the vote. “We think they lowballed it,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip, told reporters on Thursday. On Sunday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said on CNN that “there’s no doubt that the J.C.T. has been consistently underestimating the activity in our economy.”

In the final hours before and after the bill passed, party leaders insisted that the tax plan would produce enough economic growth to pay for themselves with additional tax revenue from growing businesses and higher-paid workers. “I’m totally confident this is a revenue-neutral bill,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters early Saturday morning after the vote. “Actually a revenue producer.”

Yet there was no data to support those claims, despite promises by the Trump administration that such an analysis would be forthcoming. The Treasury, whose secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said repeatedly that his department was working on an analysis to show how the tax cuts would not add to the deficit, has not produced any studies that back up those claims. Last week, the Treasury’s inspector general said it was opening an inquiry into the department’s analysis of the tax plan.

The attack on the joint committee and its analysis is a change from the praise Republicans have long heaped on the body, which is staffed with economists and other career bureaucrats who analyze legislation in depth.

“The people who prepare our cost estimates are the best in the business,” Republicans on the House Budget Committee said on a page that has since been removed from their website, “and they’ve been working on this issue for years.”

The critique is the latest example of Republican lawmakers muddying the waters on empirical research in an effort to boost their policy agendas. During the debate over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers lashed out preemptively at the Congressional Budget Office over how many people would lose health insurance.

Read the entire article here.

WeWork and the Death of Leisure

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” by Ginia Bellafante

This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.

The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.

On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.

The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”

Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.

Read the entire article here.

Ralph Nader: Trump’s Anti-Consumer Agenda Hurts His Voters

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Ralph Nader;

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised regular people, “I will be your voice,” and attacked the drug industry for “getting away with murder” in setting high prices for lifesaving medications. But as president, he has declared war on regulatory programs protecting the health, safety and economic rights of consumers. He has done so in disregard of evidence that such protections help the economy and financial well-being of the working-class voters he claims to champion.

Already his aggressive actions exceed those of the Reagan administration in returning the country to the “Let the buyer beware” days of the 1950s.

Though Mr. Trump is brazen in his opposition to consumer protections, many of his most damaging attacks are occurring in corners of the bureaucracy that receive minimal news coverage. His administration, for instance, wants to strip the elderly of their right to challenge nursing home abuses in court by allowing arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced that it is canceling a proposed rule intended to reduce the risk of sleep apnea-related accidents among truck drivers and railway workers.

And the Environmental Protection Agency is busy weakening, repealing and under-enforcing protections, including for children, from toxic exposure. Scott Pruitt, the director, went against his agency’s scientists to jettison an imminent ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide widely used on vegetables and fruits. Long-accumulated evidence shows that the chemical is poisoning the drinking water of farm workers and their families.

This assault began with Mr. Trump choosing agency chiefs who are tested corporate loyalists driven to undermine the lifesaving, income-protecting institutions whose laws they have sworn to uphold.

At the Food and Drug Administration, Mr. Trump has installed Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former pharmaceutical industry consultant, who supports weakening drug and medical device safety standards and has shown no real commitment to reducing sky-high drug prices. At the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire investor in for-profit colleges, has weakened enforcement policy on that predatory industry, hiring industry insiders and abandoning protections for students and taxpayers.

Mr. Pruitt, as the attorney general of Oklahoma, filed suits against the E.P.A. He has hired former lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Mr. Trump’s aides and Republicans in Congress are pushing to restrict access to state courts by plaintiffs who seek to hold polluters accountable.

The administration is even threatening to dismantlethe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fire its director, Richard Cordray, who was installed after Wall Street’s 2008 crash. Their sins: They returned over $12 billion to defrauded consumers and plan to issue regulations dealing with payday debt traps and compulsory arbitration clauses that deny aggrieved consumers their day in court. (The Senate is now considering legislation to gut the arbitration rule.)

Draconian budget cuts, new restrictions on health insurance, diminished privacy protections and denying climate change while putting off fuel-efficiency deadlines and auto safety standards will hurt all Americans, including Mr. Trump’s most die-hard supporters.

Read the complete article here.

In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.

American households finally earn more than they did in 1999, but poverty and inequality are on the rise

From today’s Los Angeles Times “Business” section by Don Lee:

Income inequality

After a long period of plodding economic growth, significant earnings gains over the past two years have finally enabled the average American household to surpass the peak income level it reached in 1999.

The median household income in the U.S. climbed to $59,039 last year, up 3.2% from 2015 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

That comes on the heels of a 5.2% jump in income in 2015, the highest annual percentage increase on record.

The back-to-back increases brought the median income — in which half of households earn more and half less — above the previous peak of $58,665 in 1999.

The median household income in California rose 3.4% last year to $66,637, surpassing the earlier high of $65,852 in 2006.

The national measure of poor people in America also improved significantly for the second year in a row: The poverty rate fell last year to 12.7%, from 13.5% in 2015 and 14.8% in 2014.

That translates into a decline of about 6 million people in poverty over the last two years.

The latest poverty rate is comparable to 2007, the year before the Great Recession took hold. But there were still 40.6 million poor people in the nation last year. A household with two adults and two children is considered poor if their total income was less than $24,339.

“We consider 2015 and 2016 to be the turning point on the real median household income front, as employment and wage gains, combined with modest consumer price inflation, have boosted the well-being of many American households,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., executive director of IHS Markit, an economic research firm.

“Real median household income has finally completed its nine-year slog of digging out of the ditch,” he said.

But the annual Census report was not as glowing beneath the surface, and economists are concerned that budget proposals curtailing things like food stamps could thwart continuing progress.

The impact of Trump’s promised tax reform could also change trends for the poor and middle class.

While the latest data showed solid gains for blacks and Latinos and younger adults, median incomes for full-time, year-round workers, men and women, were essentially flat in 2016, reflecting sluggish wage growth that has persisted into this year.

What’s more, a key measure of income disparity remains at the highest level in at least a half century.

And although the median income for urban dwellers jumped 5.4% last year to $61,521, households in rural areas saw their earnings basically stagnate at less than $46,000.

Read the entire article here.