Commentary: Bank robbers in Oxxford suits and Mercedes limos

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2009 

This is a story of the greatest bank robbery in the history of the world, a tale that would have the James gang and John Dillinger and Willie Sutton green with envy.

In this story, no mobsters or Robin Hoods burst into a bank, guns drawn, shouting, "Hand over the money."

Oh no. This is the story of a reverse bank robbery, a tale of how the banks looted the national treasury and robbed the American taxpayer and corporate stockholders of billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

This was no carefully timed eight-minute holdup. This one happened in slow motion, and it's continuing as this column is written. The banks are holding guns to their heads as they empty our pockets, threatening to pull the trigger and fall down dead if we don’t give it up.

The first overt act of this holdup began at the end of 2007, when the five largest American securities firms paid their top people $66 billion in bonuses based on their "profits" the preceding year - profits that weren't profits at all, but huge, unimaginable losses.

In the following months, those same five firms took write-offs of more than $100 billion worth of worthless assets - the mortgage-based bundles of bad paper that were the foundations of their houses of cards.

Simple greed doesn't even begin to describe what was going on here. We're talking about people who by the end of 2007 had to know that their mortgage securities were cooked, their books were cooked, and their gooses were cooked. And still they pocketed those bonus checks for billions.

What we have here is larceny, grand theft, highway robbery, and it appears that the gang got away clean with their loot.

Then there are the big banks and big bankers whose vaults were likewise filled with worthless paper, those same mortgage derivatives. Here the bank robbery was definitely an inside job. The robbers may have worn $6,000 Italian suits and worked in executive suites with quarter-million dollar executive toilets high atop the granite and marble edifices in Manhattan, but they displayed far less honor and dignity than Dillinger or old Willie did.

Four months ago, the 10 largest banks in America had a market capitalization of $722.73 billion. This week, that figure had dropped by two-thirds, to $237.83 billion. Ka-ching! In four short months, the bankers robbed their stockholders of $484.9 billion, even as they were robbing the American taxpayer and the Treasury of another $250 billion in bailout money.

The very bosses who'd shaken the financial underpinnings of our country, who'd gambled away the "safe investments" of millions of stockholders and were now on public welfare, did what with their bailout billions?

Well, they paid themselves their usual astronomical salaries and their usual year-end bonuses, this time, apparently, for running their companies into the ground.

Congress and the taxpayers intended the bailout money to prime the pump, but the big 10 banks just sat on our billions and did nothing as the market, day by day, wrote down their toilet paper assets for them.

Oh, yes. They did spend some of the money to buy up smaller, better-run banks and bigger, poorly run brokerage houses. The big just got bigger, using our money to make themselves so large that no one dares let them fail. And now they're back, hands out, begging the Treasury for another handout of hundreds of billions.

This scenario is already painful enough to those people whose taxes paid for the useless bailout of 2008 and will pay for the useless bailout of 2009. Business and industry are laying off employees and workers at a rate of more than a half million a month. Foreclosures on their homes last year totaled more than 2 million.

Since we're already in considerable pain and in for much more of the same, how about we just let these bastards go belly up? Or better yet, earmark about $200 billion to buy all 10 of the biggest American bank companies, fire all their executives without severance and install new management teams composed of people who've run successful businesses. Who know how to meet a payroll and balance a checkbook; who know what bullshit looks like and smells like?

As it stands now, we couldn't be any worse off if we appointed Bernie Madoff as the banking czar.

In the movies, bank robbers always meet a bad end. John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde died in hails of gunfire. Willie Sutton and Alvin (Creepy) Karpis spent half their lives in prison.

What are we to do with the new generation of bank robbers? Close our eyes and let them ride off into the sunset at the head of wagon trains stuffed full of our money? Or turn them over to some new mad dog New York prosecutor out to make a name and a rep and prepared to let them rot on Rikers Island while he investigates?

There's a harsh wind blowing through the concrete canyons of New York's financial district this winter, and I hope it's blowing ice cold on the necks of the arrogant, incompetent, foolish bank robbers as they get in their limousines for the tedious trip home to their penthouse apartments or their suburban McMansions.

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