Obama on the Record: Financial Reform

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.

Since taking office, my administration has mounted what I think has to be acknowledged as an extraordinary response to a historic economic crisis. But even as we take decisive action to repair the damage to our economy, we’re working hard to build a new foundation for sustained economic growth. This will not be easy. We know that this recession is not the result of one failure, but of many. And many of the toughest challenges we face are the product of a cascade of mistakes and missed opportunities which took place over the course of decades.

That’s why, as part of this new foundation, we’re seeking to build an energy economy that creates new jobs and new businesses to free us from our dependence on foreign oil. We want to foster an education system that instills in each generation the capacity to turn ideas into innovations, and innovations into industries and jobs. And as I discussed on Monday at the American Medical Association, we want to reform our health care system so that we can remain healthy and competitive.

This new foundation also requires strong, vibrant financial markets, operating under transparent, fairly-administered rules of the road that protect America’s consumers and our economy from the devastating breakdown that we’ve witnessed in recent years.

It is an indisputable fact that one of the most significant contributors to our economic downturn was a unraveling of major financial institutions and the lack of adequate regulatory structures to prevent abuse and excess. A culture of irresponsibility took root from Wall Street to Washington to Main Street. And a regulatory regime basically crafted in the wake of a 20th century economic crisis — the Great Depression — was overwhelmed by the speed, scope, and sophistication of a 21st century global economy.

In recent years, financial innovators, seeking an edge in the marketplace, produced a huge variety of new and complex financial instruments. And these products, such as asset-based securities, were designed to spread risk, but unfortunately ended up concentrating risk. Loans were sold to banks, banks packaged these loans into securities, investors bought these securities often with little insight into the risks to which they were exposed. And it was easy money — while it lasted. But these schemes were built on a pile of sand. And as the appetite for these products grew, lenders lowered standards to attract new borrowers. Many Americans bought homes and borrowed money without being adequately informed of the terms, and often without accepting the responsibilities.

Meanwhile, executive compensation — unmoored from long-term performance or even reality — rewarded recklessness rather than responsibility. And this wasn’t just the failure of individuals; this was a failure of the entire system. The actions of many firms escaped scrutiny. In some cases, the dealings of these institutions were so complex and opaque that few inside or outside these companies understood what was happening. Where there were gaps in the rules, regulators lacked the authority to take action. Where there were overlaps, regulators lacked accountability for their inaction.

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