WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama tried on Monday to revive a stalled push for stricter oversight of Wall Street, using the anniversary of Lehman Brothers collapse to argue for sweeping regulatory changes.
Here is the text of his speech as prepared for delivery:
Thank you all for being here and for your warm welcome. It’s a privilege to be in historic Federal Hall. It was here more than two centuries ago that our first Congress served and our first President was inaugurated. It was here, in the early days of our Republic, that Hamilton and Jefferson debated how best to administer a young economy and to ensure that our nation rewarded the talents and drive of its people. Two centuries later, we still grapple with these questions - questions made more acute in moments of crisis.
It was one year ago that we experienced just such a crisis. 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, either bankrupt, bought, or bailed out: Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, Washington Mutual, Wachovia. A week before this began, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had been taken over by the government. 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. Five trillion dollars of Americans’ household wealth evaporated in the span of just three months.
Congress and the previous administration took difficult but necessary action in the days and months that followed. Nevertheless, when this administration walked through the door in January, the situation remained urgent. The markets had fallen sharply; credit was not flowing. It was feared that the largest banks - those that remained standing - had too little capital and far too much exposure to risky loans. And the consequences had spread far beyond the streets of lower Manhattan. This was no longer just a financial crisis; it had become a full-blown economic crisis, with home prices sinking, businesses struggling to access affordable credit, and the economy shedding an average of 700,000 jobs each month.
We could not separate what was happening in the corridors of our financial institutions from what was happening on factory floors and around kitchen tables. Home foreclosures linked those who took out home loans and those who repackaged those loans as securities. A lack of access to affordable credit threatened the health of large firms and small businesses, as well as all those whose jobs depended on them. And a weakened financial system weakened the broader economy, which in turn further weakened the financial system.
The only way to address successfully any of these challenges was to address them together, and so this administration - with terrific leadership by my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, as well the Chair of my Council of Economic Advisers, Christy Romer, and the Chair of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers - moved quickly on all fronts, initializing a financial stability plan to rescue the system from the crisis and restart lending for all those affected by the crisis. By opening and examining the books of large financial firms, we helped restore the availability of two things that had been in short supply: capital and confidence. By taking aggressive and innovative steps in credit markets, we spurred lending not just to banks, but to folks looking to buy homes or cars, take out student loans, or finance small businesses. Our home ownership plan has helped responsible homeowners refinance to stem the tide of lost homes and lost home values.
And the recovery plan is providing help to the unemployed and tax relief for working families, all while spurring consumer spending. It’s prevented layoffs of tens of thousands of teachers, police officers, and other essential public servants. And thousands of recovery projects are underway all across America, putting people to work building wind turbines and solar panels, renovating schools and hospitals, and repairing our nation’s roads and bridges.
Eight months later, the work of recovery continues. And although I will never be satisfied while people are out of work and our financial system is weakened, we can be confident that the storms of the past two years are beginning to break.
In fact, while there continues to be a need for government involvement to stabilize the financial system, that necessity is waning. After months in which public dollars were flowing into our financial system, we are finally beginning to see money flowing back to the taxpayers. This doesn’t mean taxpayers will escape the worst financial crisis in decades unscathed. But banks have repaid more than $70 billion, and in those cases where the government’s stake has been sold completely, taxpayers have actually earned a 17-percent return on their investment. Just a few months ago, many experts from across the ideological spectrum feared that ensuring financial stability would require even more tax dollars. Instead, we’ve been able to eliminate a $250 billion reserve included in our budget because that fear has not been realized.
While full recovery of the financial system will take a great deal more time and work, the growing stability resulting from these interventions means we are beginning to return to normalcy. But what I want to emphasize is this: normalcy cannot lead to complacency.
Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them. They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation‘s. So I want them to hear my words: We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess at the heart of this crisis, where too many were motivated only by the appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses. 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.