Strictly Business: Learning lessons not the Wall Street way

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor



Five years out from the Great Recession’s curtain-raiser on Wall Street, when the titans of banking and finance unashamedly left Americans to bail themselves out from their greedy deeds, the foreclosure counselors at Vancouver’s Community Housing Resource Center are catching their breath.

Fewer people are showing up for foreclosure classes, so what were once-weekly classes are now offered just twice a month, with fewer takers. The center is adding more homeownership classes for first-time buyers and former homeowners who have healed their credit and are ready to try again.

After years of drowning in the misery of those faced with losing their homes, the center’s counselors are more than ready for an emotionally uplifting change, says the center’s executive director, Kevin Gillette.

It’s been a long spell since September 2008, when the dark clouds over Wall Street burst open and unleashed the collapse of the Lehman Brothers securities firm and a desperate government bailout of American International Group Inc.

That was only the beginning of a long, scary slide.

Look today at any long-term barometer of economic health and the fall of 2008 stands out. Jobs, household wealth, home values — all washed away by the storm that Wall Street wrought.

In the early years of the slide, Gillette acknowledges, the center saw some struggling homeowners who’d set themselves up for a fall by swallowing Wall Street’s false promises of endless easy money. But as the years rolled by, many who’d lived more cautiously were swept away. The center’s mortgage default classes were filled with people who’d never imagined being in such a jam.

As the storm recedes, Washington and Wall Street want us to believe that what we’ve just gone through could never happen again. They point to the new rules regulating banking and other investment vehicles, encompassed in the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation.

A teleconference for journalists hosted last week by the U.S. Treasury outlined the government’s talking points. It’s hardly reassuring that, even in defending their work, the three officials were not to be publicly identified. It’s downright unnerving to hear that, three years after Dodd-Frank made it through the political gauntlet, that “we are much closer to the end than the beginning” in implementing the law, as one official said. Over three-fourths of the law’s implementing rules, we were told, have been “finalized or proposed.”

No one, it seems, is racing to reform the financial system that was too lacking in self-control.

Nevertheless, Gillette, who worked decades in the banking industry, sees reason for optimism. The government’s loans to banks, which have largely been repaid, headed off what would have been a much worse crisis, he believes. Even as new rules are debated, Gillette thinks there are more safeguards in the financial system. Whether the wily financial services industry will find a new way around those safeguards, he says, remains to be seen.

Yes, the government did some things right, and individuals and families have shown remarkable resilience. But if there’s any lesson to be learned from this mess, it’s that we shouldn’t count on Wall Street to learn any lesson.