By Matt Taibbi, 29 March 12
There are two things every American needs to know about Bank of America.
The first is that it's corrupt. This bank has systematically defrauded almost everyone with whom it has a significant business relationship, cheating investors, insurers, homeowners, shareholders, depositors, and the state. It is a giant, raging hurricane of theft and fraud, spinning its way through America and leaving a massive trail of wiped-out retirees and foreclosed-upon families in its wake.
The second is that all of us, as taxpayers, are keeping that hurricane raging. Bank of America is not just a private company that systematically steals from American citizens: it's a de facto ward of the state that depends heavily upon public support to stay in business. In fact, without the continued generosity of us taxpayers, and the extraordinary indulgence of our regulators and elected officials, this company long ago would have been swallowed up by scandal, mismanagement, prosecution and litigation, and gone out of business. It would have been liquidated and its component parts sold off, perhaps into a series of smaller regional businesses that would have more respect for the law, and be more responsive to their customers.
But Bank of America hasn't gone out of business, for the simple reason that our government has decided to make it the poster child for the "Too Big To Fail" concept. Because it is considered a "systemically important institution" whose collapse would have a major, Lehman-Brothers-style impact on the economy, two consecutive presidential administrations have taken extraordinary measures to keep Bank of America in business, despite a staggering recent legacy of corruption schemes, many of which were simply overlooked by regulators.
This is why the question of whether or not Bank of America should remain on public life support is so critical to all Americans, and not just those millions who have the misfortune to be customers of the bank, or own shares in the firm, or hold mortgages serviced by the company. This gigantic financial institution is the ultimate symbol of a new kind of corruption at the highest levels of American society: a tendency to marry the near-limitless power of the federal government with increasingly concentrated, increasingly unaccountable private financial interests.
The inevitable result of that new form of corruption is this bank, whose continued, state-supported existence should naturally outrage all Americans, be they conservative or progressive.
Conservatives should be outraged by Bank of America because it is perhaps the biggest welfare dependent in American history, with the $45 billion in bailout money and the $118 billion in state guarantees it's received since 2008 representing just the crest of a veritable mountain of federal bailout support, most of it doled out by the Obama administration.
For instance, with its own credit rating hovering just above junk status, Bank of America has been allowed to borrow tens of billions of dollars against the government's credit rating using little-known bailout programs with names like the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. Since the crash of 2008, it's also borrowed billions if not trillions in emergency, near-zero interest rate loans from the Federal Reserve - it took out $91 million in rolling low-interest financing from the Fed on just one day in January, 2009.
Conservatives believe that a commitment to free market principles and limited government will lead us out of our economic troubles, but Bank of America represents the opposite dynamic: a company that is kept protected from the judgments of the free market, and forces the state to expand to take on its debts.
Last summer, for instance, the Bank - in order to satisfy creditors who were nervous about the enormous quantity of risky assets on its balance sheet - decided to move some $73 trillion (that's trillion, with a T) in exotic derivative bets from one end of the company into the federally-insured, depository side of the bank.
This move, encouraged by the Obama administration, put the American taxpayer on the hook for an entire generation of irresponsible gambles made by another failed investment firm that should have gone out of business, but was instead acquired by Bank of America with $25 billion in taxpayer help - Merrill Lynch.
When did we make it the job of the taxpayer to buy failed companies, and rescue companies from their own bad decisions? How is that conservative?
Meanwhile, if you're a progressive, Bank of America is the ultimate symbol of modern predatory capitalism. This company has knowingly sold hundreds of billions of worthless securities to unions and pension funds (New York state filed two different lawsuits against Bank of America and its subsidiaries on behalf of its pension fund, one of which was settled for $624 million) brazenly overcharged its depositors (it was forced to pay customers $410 million in restitution for bogus overdraft charges), and repeatedly lied to its shareholders (most notoriously, it lied about billions in losses on Merrill Lynch's books before asking shareholders to approve its merger with the firm).
Moreover, Bank of America has ruthlessly preyed upon millions of homeowners, throwing them out on the street on the strength of doctored, "robosigned" paperwork created through brazenly illegal practices they helped pioneer - the firm sped struggling families to foreclosure court using perjured affidavits produced in factory-like fashion by the hundreds or thousands every day, with full knowledge of management. Through the firm's improper use of an unaccountable private electronic mortgage registry system called MERS, it also systematically evaded millions of dollars in local fees, forcing some communities to cut services and raise property taxes.
Even when caught and punished for its crimes by the authorities, Bank of America has repeatedly ignored court orders. It was one of five companies identified in two separate investigations earlier this year that were caught continuing the practice of robosigning, even after promising to stop in a legally binding consent decree. Last summer, the state of Nevada sought to terminate a settlement over mortgage abuses it had entered into with Bank of America after it found the company was brazenly violating the agreement, among other things raising payments and interest rates on mortgage customers, despite the fact that the settlement only allowed them to modify loans downward.
Over and over again, we see that leveling fines and punishments at this bank is not enough: it simply ignores them. It is the very definition of an unaccountable corporate villain.
Companies like Bank of America are a direct threat to national security, for many reasons. For one thing, they drive smaller, more honest banks out of business: since the market knows the federal government will never let Bank of America fail, it charges less to lend the bank money. That gives Bank of America, despite its near-junk credit rating, a competitive advantage over a smaller, regional bank that might have a better credit rating, but doesn't have the implicit support of the federal government.
Worse still, stock market investor dollars that normally would go to more customer-friendly, more creative, and more commercially dependable firms will instead continue to flow to Too-Big-To-Fail behemoths like Bank of America, as buying stock in a company with implicit state support will be considered almost a safe-haven investment, like buying gold or Treasury bills.
This robs more deserving and ingenious entrepreneurs of scarce capital, and also encourages existing companies to pour resources not into better performance and increased productivity, but into lobbying and government influence. The result will be fewer Googles and Apples, more bad banks, and more campaign contributions for politicians.
Moreover, we've seen throughout our history that when criminal organizations are not punished, they tend to be encouraged to commit more crimes. Five years from now, our government's decision to avoid jailing Bank of America executives for their roles in the vast robosigning program may result in a situation where no court document of any kind can be trusted, as companies will realize that it is cheaper and easier to simply invent legal affidavits than to draw them up properly and accurately.
What will your defense be against a future lawsuit for a credit card debt or a foreclosure, when your bank walks into court with a pile of invented documents? Will you wish then that you'd fought harder for Bank of America to be punished now?
And the state's decision to allow Bank of America to pay a middling, $137 million fine for the rigging of bids for five years of municipal bond issues - a very serious crime that robbed taxpayers of millions in revenue, and incidentally is exactly the sort of thing we used to put mobsters in jail for, when the rigged contracts were for cement instead of bonds - may mean that down the road, all municipal bond issues will be rigged.
In recent years, Too-Big-To-Fail banks like Bank of America and Chase and Wells Fargo have been caught rigging the bids for financial services in dozens of municipalities nationwide. Worse, these same banks have repeatedly been let off the hook by regulators, who rarely seek jail sentences for the offenders, and more often simply apply fractional fines to the companies caught. This behavior, if left unchecked, will ultimately mean that we will all have to pay more for our roads, our traffic lights, our sewers, in fact all public services, as the banker's secret bonus will soon become an institutionalized part of the invoice. And it'll be our fault, because we didn't do anything about it now.
The only way to prevent this kind of slide to total lawlessness is to break this unhealthy relationship between bank and government. It would be a great sign of America's return to healthier capitalism if we could allow one of the worst of public-private monsters, Bank of America, to sink or swim on its own, in the free market.
We don't want Bank of America to fail. Our position is, it already is insolvent, and already has failed - and only our tax dollars, and our government's continued protection, is keeping that failure from becoming more common knowledge. There are many opinions about the nature of modern American capitalism. Some think the system is no longer able to meet the needs of ordinary people and needs to be radically overhauled, while others like it just the way it is.
But one thing that everyone on this spectrum of beliefs can agree upon is that our system doesn't work when corrupt companies, companies that should fail in the free market, are kept alive by the government. When we allow that, what we get is a system that is neither capitalism nor socialist, but somewhere more miserably in between - a bureaucratic state in which profit is not tied to performance, but political power.
We have to break that cycle, and we can. Even with the enormous levels of state support, Bank of America has been teetering on the edge of collapse for years now. In December of 2011, its share price briefly dipped below $5, a near-fatal event in the firm's history. The market has reacted violently to bad news about the bank on multiple occasions in the last year - after news of layoffs, after hints that the government might not bail the bank out completely in the event of a collapse, and after significant new lawsuits were filed. Each of these corrections nearly sent the company into a tailspin, but it was always rescued in the end by the widespread belief that Uncle Sam would bail it out in the event of a collapse.
We need to put a dent in that belief. We need to convince politicians and investors alike to allow failure to fail.