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"Stop Ignoring The Lesson"

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President Obama today accused some on Wall Street of returning to the reckless ways that caused the recent financial crisis.

Obama warned against overconfidence at Federal Hall in New York, in a speech about the recent financial crisis.

A year ago, “as investors and pension-holders watched with dread and dismay, and after a series of emergency meetings, often conducted in the dead of the night, several of the world’s largest and oldest financial institutions had fallen,” Obama said. “Other large firms teetered on the brink of insolvency. Credit markets froze as banks refused to lend not only to families and businesses, but to one another.” Congress and the previous administration took difficult but necessary actions to cope with the crisis, but, “when this administration walked through the door in January, the situation remained urgent”

Obama said his economic team helped turn things around by taking aggressive steps to open the books of the large financial firms and get loans flowing again.

Today, the banks that the government helped have repaid about $70 billion, and, in cases in which the government has sold its stakes completely, “taxpayers have actually earned a 17% return on their investment,” Obama reported. Because of the increasing stability, the government has been able to eliminate a $250 billion emergency budget reserve, he added.

“We’re beginning to return to normalcy,” Obama said. “But here’s what I want to emphasize today: Normalcy cannot lead to complacency.”

Some are ignoring the lessons of the recent financial crisis, Obama said.

“I want everybody here to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses,” Obama said. “Those on Wall Street cannot resume taking risks without regard for consequences, and expect that next time, American taxpayers will be there to break their fall.”

Obama made no direct references to his administration’s insurance industry reform proposals, and a U.S. Treasury Department report mentioned the insurance industry only in passing.

But Obama seemed to have insurance industry, along with others, in mind when he talked about what he believes to be lingering flaws in the U.S. financial services regulatory system.

“We’ve got to close the loopholes that were at the heart of the crisis,” Obama said. “Where there were gaps in the rules, regulators lacked the authority to take action. Where there were overlaps, regulators often lacked accountability for inaction. Under existing rules, some companies can actually shop for the regulator of their choice.”

Obama discussed his administration’s proposal to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, and he said he will work to coordinate financial regulation with other countries when the G20 group of finance ministers and central banks convenes in Pittsburgh next week.

But Obama put the most emphasis on the need to establish “clear accountability and responsibility for regulating large financial firms that pose a systemic risk.”

“While holding the Federal Reserve fully accountable for regulation of the largest, most interconnected firms, we’ll create an oversight council to bring together regulators from across markets to share information, to identify gaps in regulation, and to tackle issues that don’t fit neatly into an organizational chart,” Obama said. “We’ll also require these financial firms to meet stronger capital and liquidity requirements and observe greater constraints on their risky behavior.”

The United States needs a “resolution authority” to handle failures of large, interconnected firms, Obama said.

Because of the current lack of a resolution authority, he said, “when this crisis began, crucial decisions about what would happen to some of the world’s biggest companies — companies employing tens of thousands of people and holding trillions of dollars of assets — took place in hurried discussions in the middle of the night.”

Obama said some of the important players in reforming the financial system will be Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee; Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.

But Obama said the Wall Street executives are also key players.

“The most important ways to rebuild the system stronger than it was before is to rebuild trust stronger than before — and you don’t have to wait for a new law to do that,” Obama said. “You don’t have to wait to use plain language in your dealings with consumers. You don’t have to wait for legislation to put the 2009 bonuses of your senior executives up for a shareholder vote. You don’t have to wait for a law to overhaul your pay system so that folks are rewarded for long-term performance instead of short-term gains.”


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