Here's a shocker: As lawmakers in Washington continue crafting a bill to crack down on Wall Street, their efforts to rake in donations from the financial services industry show no sign of stopping. Bloomberg News reports today that, in looking at fundraising calendars for House Democrats and Republicans and Senate Republicans, there have been at least 20 scheduled fundraisers for politicians held by finance lobbyists or organized with financial industry donors in mind. Lawmakers, then, are walking the finest of lines, claiming to support new financial reforms while wooing representatives of an industry fighting many of those same new rules.
Bloomberg cites the case of Rep. John Adler, (D-NJ). Last month, Adler said in a statement, "Our families demand accountability for Wall Street's actions and Congress must stand up to special interests and deliver." But this week, Adler will host a "financial services dinner" with a minimum contribution of $1,000. In a similar conflict, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a leading GOP figure on financial reform for months and member of the Senate banking committee, is scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner tomorrow that is co-hosted by Bank of America, the country's largest bank and a major lobbying force on financial reform.
These kinds of events, of course, part and parcel of the finance industry's efforts to blunt new reforms. To wit: In 2010, finance, real estate, and other business sectors have contributed $70 million to members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those same interests have spent more than $260 million on lobbying Congress. All told, that's $330 million—or 6,600 times more than the real median household income in the US—to sway Washington lawmakers and see things their way.
While several spokespeople for congressmen said these types of events don't "color" the way they vote on bills and amendments, there's no denying the obvious conflict of interest with lawmakers taking Wall Street's money at the same time they're rewriting how the financial markets function. "How hard are you going to be on somebody who’s handing you money?” Bill Allison with the Sunlight Foundation told Bloomberg.
Late Sunday afternoon, the well-heeled residents of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a bucolic suburb northwest of Washington, DC, witnessed a commotion rare for their neighborhood. Toting signs and megaphones, fired up and chanting at the top of their lungs, some 700 demonstrators from around the nation paid a visit to two residents who work as powerful lobbyists for the United States' biggest banks: Gregory Baer, a deputy counsel for Bank of America, and Peter Scher, a high-ranking executive and lobbyist for JPMorgan Chase.
Bussed into Washington by the Service International Employees Union (SEIU) and National People’s Action (NPA), a community organzing network, the protesters visited Baer's and Scher’s homes as part of a multi-day stand in Washington. On Monday, SEIU and NPA will lead a series of protests on K Street in Washington—a street synonymous with influence and lobbying. The groups are pushing for strong new financial reforms (as teh Senate continues debating legislation to bolster the rules governing Wall Street) and urging banks to stop foreclosures and to promote job creation.
But before Main Street arrives on K Street, a fleet of yellow school buses and motor coaches delivered the demonstrators, clad in red, blue, and purple t-shirts, to a park in Chevy Chase near the home of Bank of America’s Baer. After a quick briefing, the throngs of protesters, hailing from Chicago, San Francisco, Staten Island, and other locales, gathered on Baer’s front lawn and marched to his front door. Members of NPA delivered a letter to a family member who opened the door. Baer, this family member said, wasn’t home. The letter, addressed to Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, asks Moynihan to meet with groups "to address the critical problems facing our neighborhoods and our country—problems that were caused in part by Bank of America and that continue to fester due to Bank of America’s inaction."
Here's a video, courtesy of National People's Action, of the scene at Baer's home:
Undeterred by Baer’s absence, the boisterous group chanted—"Bank of America, Bad for America," "Take It Back," "Fired Up, Can’t Take It No More"—and, via megaphone, blasted Bank of America for foreclosing on homeowners and lobbying against financial reform. One woman who took the mic explained how she’d called Bank of America dozens of times to fight off foreclosure but hadn’t had any success with the bank’s unresponsive and unhelpful employees. People in the crowd booed references to the bank. Many hoisted signs that read, "People First Economy”"and "Hold Wall Street Accountable."
In late March, I wrote about how Wall Street powerhouse JPMorgan Chase continues to fund coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal mining (MTR), a dangerous, environmentally devastating type of strip mining in which the peaks of mountains are literally blown off, exposing the seams of coal that run underneath. Problem is, the rubble and waste from MTR mining usually ends up in nearby rivers and water sources, contaminating them, killing local wildife, and often violating federal laws like the Clean Water Act. As I reported, "over the past 17 years, JPMorgan Chase has helped to underwrite nearly 20 bond or loan deals, worth a combined $8.5 trillion, for some of the biggest players in the MTR mining business, according to data from Bloomberg."
Today, Rainforest Action Network, a leading environmental group pressuring banks to end MTR financing, released a new report card, in conjunction with the Sierra Club and Banktrack, grading the world's big banks on their MTR policies. JPMorgan, which has yet to cut its MTR ties (and repeatedly refused to tell Mother Jones why), received an "F"; so, too, did PNC, the world’s largest MTR financier, and UBS, which finances one-third of the Appalachian region's MTR mining.
Credit Suisse ranked highest among the world’s biggest banks with an "A-," a grade it received for its policy—first reported by Mother Jones—of refusing to finance any coal mined using MTR.
The report card's authors say they showed the banks their grades before releasing the report, in an effort to get the banks to change their policies. In one case, Morgan Stanley issued a public statement on its MTR policy after learning of its failing grade from RAN and the Sierra Club; that grade was bumped up to a "C" after the public announcement.
The latest sign that China is in the midst of a raging housing bubble: Chinese couples are intentionally divorcing each other to dodge the country's strict second-home ownership rules and save some yuan in the process. China's autocratic government, China Daily reports, has sought to curb rampant property speculation (sound familiar?) by hiking the down payment costs and interest rates for married couples looking to buy a second house—in April, the government raised the minimum down payment for families to 50 percent of the home's value (up from 40 percent) and made mortgage interest rates for married couples at least 1.1 percent of the standard rate.
To avoid those new rules, perfectly happy husbands and wives are now entering into "fake" divorces in order to boost their property portfolios. "After we get divorced, my wife will claim our house, so that I can apply for a mortgage as a first-home buyer since I don't have a house under my name," 41-year-old Li Guoliang said. "And we will remarry after that."
Here's more from the story:
Li and his wife are among many couples planning on getting a divorce to circumvent the government's restrictions on second-home purchases.
"Such a 'fake' divorce may save the second-home buyer hundreds of thousands of yuan. So, why not do it?" said Chen Ping, a real estate agent in Changsha.
Chen said he had helped many couples apply for the preferential mortgage for the first-home buyer through a "fake divorce," which was "legitimate and viable, just like reasonable tax avoidance."
"In the two weeks after the new rules were introduced, I received 16 clients hoping to get a favorable loan by getting a divorce," said Li Yi, a lawyer with Tenghui Law Office in Chongqing Municipality.
In China, though, divorce for economics' sake contradicts the traditional Chinese view of marriage, and a poll by Chongqing Evening News in early May suggests the idea isn't that popular: 78 percent of people polled said they didn't support "fake" marriages to cash in on cheap housing rules. Still, consider fake divorces alongside the other signs of excess and speculation characteristic of a housing bubble. When you look at the small but telling details—the luxurious Shanghai condos with bronze doors inlaid with Swarovski crystals, the crocodile skin-wrapped bed posts—and the big picture statistics, too—an 80 percent spike in real estate sales between 2008 and 2009, an investor buying 54 apartments in a single day—China starts to like the next US circa 2004, except on a far, far larger scale.
You've heard of subprime mortgages—the risky, high-interest-rate, often toxic home loans doled out like candy to borrowers who lacked the ability to repay them. In the Senate's financial reform overhaul, a new consumer protection bureau would crack down on these shady loans and the predatory brokers who peddled them. But the Senate is poised to give a big pass to another form of subprime lending on the rise—high-risk student loans, a corner of the financial industry New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo branded the "Wild West" of lending.
As tuition prices have soared, private student loans have become big business. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of students with private loans climbed from 5 percent in 2003-04 (about 935,000 borrowers) to 14 percent in 2007-08 (almost 3 million). The dollar amount of private loans swelled from $7.2 billion to $15 billion over that same period.
These loans, like other non-federal lending, are largely unregulated. Like subprime mortgages, many have uncapped, variable interest rates that are sky-high for low-income borrowers, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt (pdf). But there's one key difference that sets them apart from shady mortgages: Unlike other debts, it's nearly impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. And although precise data on private student loan defaults is elusive, "The volume of people in trouble is definitely increasing," Deanne Loonin, a staff attorney at the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, told the Wall Street Journal.