Obama steps up campaign against Wall Street banks


Barack Obama, Paul Volcker
Barack Obama, Paul Volcker

Economic Recovery Advisory Board Chair Paul Volcker looks on at left as President Barack Obama speaks about financial reform, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, at the White House in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 2:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 2:02 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama stepped up his campaign against Wall Street on Thursday with a far-reaching proposal for tougher regulation of the biggest U.S. banks.

"We have to get this done," Obama said at the White House. "If these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have."

It was a stern, populist lecture from the president to Wall Street for what he perceives as its abandonment of Main Street. Obama said the government should have the power to limit the size and complexity of large financial institutions as well as their ability to make high-risk trades.

He said it was not appropriate that banks have been able to run these trading operations with the protections afforded to regular banking services.

"We have to enact commonsense reforms that will protect American taxpayers and the American economy from future crises," Obama said. "For, while the financial system is far stronger today than it was one year ago, it's still operating under the same rules that led to its near-collapse."

Joining Obama for the announcement were former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who heads the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and William Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Republican President George W. Bush. Volcker and Donaldson have advocated stronger restrictions on banks.

Overhauling financial rules is the one issue on Obama's legislative agenda that appears still alive after Democrats' devastating loss Tuesday in the Massachusetts Senate race. The White House is renewing Obama's demand for an independent consumer financial protection agency as part of any overhaul. That is one of the major sticking points in the Senate; the House of Representatives has passed its version already.

The new proposal from Obama intends to limit speculation by commercial banks and to keep financial institutions from growing so big that they pose a risk to the economic system.

"When you see more and more of the financial sector basically churning transactions and engaging in reckless speculation and obscuring underlying risks in a way that makes a few people obscene amounts of money but doesn't add value to the economy — and in fact puts the entire economy at enormous risk — then something's got to change," Obama said in an interview released Thursday by Time magazine.

Obama has branded bank executives as "fat cats" and proposed a fee on large banks to cover shortfalls in the government's $700 billion financial rescue fund.

Expanding on earlier measures, Obama endorsed Volcker's proposal to restrict proprietary trading by commercial banks. That would separate commercial banks from investment banks, a line blurred a decade ago by the repeal of the 1930s Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act.

This restriction would affect some of the biggest banks, including Bank of America Corp., Goldman Sachs and Citigroup Inc.

"The better answer is to modernize the regulatory framework and not take the industry and the economy back to the 1930s," said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group that represents large Wall Street institutions.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said Thursday it earned $4.79 billion in the fourth quarter as its trading business again outdistanced the rest of the industry. The company rewarded its employees with $16.2 billion in salaries and bonuses for 2009, 47 percent more than the previous year but still lower than many had expected.

There was a new urgency in the Senate to respond to the voter anger at Wall Street and bank bailouts that helped propel Republican Scott Brown to victory in Massachusetts for the seat long held by Democeatic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August.

Brown's victory gave Republicans 41 votes in the 100-member Senate, enough to mount parliamentary blocking moves and prevent Democratic legislation on health care or climate change from getting final votes.

But financial regulations could survive.

Administration officials believe that while Republicans may seek to block other aspects of the president's agenda, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is considering making financial regulations an exception.

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