As a result of the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street, the American people have experienced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs, homes, life savings, and ability to send their kids to college. Small businesses have been unable to get the credit they need to expand their businesses, and credit is still extremely tight. Wages as a share of national income are now at the lowest level since the Great Depression, and the number of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high.
Meanwhile, when small-business owners were being turned down for loans at private banks and millions of Americans were being kicked out of their homes, the Federal Reserve provided the largest taxpayer-financed bailout in the history of the world to Wall Street and too-big-to-fail institutions, with virtually no strings attached.
Over two years ago, I asked Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, a few simple questions that I thought the American people had a right to know: Who got money through the Fed bailout? How much did they receive? What were the terms of this assistance?
Incredibly, the chairman of the Fed refused to answer these fundamental questions about how trillions of taxpayer dollars were being spent.
The American people are finally getting answers to these questions thanks to an amendment I included in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill which required the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit and investigate conflicts of interest at the Fed. Those answers raise grave questions about the Federal Reserve and how it operates — and whose interests it serves.
As a result of these GAO reports, we learned that the Federal Reserve provided a jaw-dropping $16 trillion in total financial assistance to every major financial institution in the country as well as a number of corporations, wealthy individuals and central banks throughout the world.
The GAO also revealed that many of the people who serve as directors of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks come from the exact same financial institutions that the Fed is in charge of regulating. Further, the GAO found that at least 18 current and former Fed board members were affiliated with banks and companies that received emergency loans from the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis. In other words, the people "regulating" the banks were the exact same people who were being "regulated." Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!
The emergency response from the Fed appears to have created two systems of government in America: one for Wall Street, and another for everyone else. While the rich and powerful were "too big to fail" and were given an endless supply of cheap credit, ordinary Americans, by the tens of millions, were allowed to fail. They lost their homes. They lost their jobs. They lost their life savings. And, they lost their hope for the future. This is not what American democracy is supposed to look like. It is time for change at the Fed — real change.
Among the GAO's key findings is that the Fed lacks a comprehensive system to deal with conflicts of interest, despite the serious potential for abuse. In fact, according to the GAO, the Fed actually provided conflict of interest waivers to employees and private contractors so they could keep investments in the same financial institutions and corporations that were given emergency loans.
The GAO has detailed instance after instance of top executives of corporations and financial institutions using their influence as Federal Reserve directors to financially benefit their firms, and, in at least one instance, themselves.
For example, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase served on the New York Fed's board of directors at the same time that his bank received more than $390 billion in financial assistance from the Fed. Moreover, JP Morgan Chase served as one of the clearing banks for the Fed's emergency lending programs.
Getting this type of disclosure was not easy. Wall Street and the Federal Reserve fought it every step of the way. But, as difficult as it was to lift the veil of secrecy at the Fed, it will be even harder to reform the Fed so that it serves the needs of all Americans, and not just Wall Street. But, that is exactly what we have to do.
To get this process started, I have asked some of the leading economists in this country to serve on an advisory committee to provide Congress with legislative options to reform the Federal Reserve.
Here are some of the questions that I have asked this advisory committee to explore:
1. How can we structurally reform the Fed to make our nation's central bank a more democratic institution responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans, end conflicts of interest, and increase transparency? What are the best practices that central banks in other countries have developed that we can learn from? Compared with central banks in Europe, Canada, and Australia, the GAO found that the Federal Reserve does not do a good job in disclosing potential conflicts of interest and other essential elements of transparency.
2. At a time when 16.5 percent of our people are unemployed or under-employed, how can we strengthen the Federal Reserve's full-employment mandate and ensure that the Fed conducts monetary policy to achieve maximum employment? When Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the Federal Reserve acted with a fierce sense of urgency to save the financial system. We need the Fed to act with the same boldness to combat the unemployment crisis.
3. The Federal Reserve has a responsibility to ensure the safety and soundness of financial institutions and to contain systemic risks in financial markets. Given that the top six financial institutions in the country now have assets equivalent to 65 percent of our GDP, more than $9 trillion, is there any reason why this extraordinary concentration of ownership should not be broken up? Should a bank that is "too big to fail" be allowed to exist?
4. The Federal Reserve has the responsibility to protect the credit rights of consumers. At a time when credit card issuers are charging millions of Americans interest rates of 25 percent or more, should policy options be established to ensure that the Federal Reserve and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau protect consumers against predatory lending, usury, and exorbitant fees in the financial services industry?
5. At a time when the dream of homeownership has turned into the nightmare of foreclosure for too many Americans, what role should the Federal Reserve be playing in providing relief to homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages, combating the foreclosure crisis, and making housing more affordable?
6. At a time when the United States has the most inequitable distribution of wealth and income of any major country, and the greatest gap between the very rich and everyone else since 1928, what policies can be established at the Federal Reserve which reduces income and wealth inequality in the U.S?
Given the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement and given the concerns of millions of Americans about Wall Street, we now have a unique opportunity to make significant changes to one of the most powerful and secretive agencies of the federal government. One thing is abundantly clear: Americans deserve a Federal Reserve that works for them, not just the CEOs on Wall Street.