Later today, President Barack Obama will lay out his second-term vision for growing the economy, creating jobs and restoring prosperity, particularly for beleaguered middle-class Americans. His State of the Union address also is expected to focus on immigration reform, gun control and the need for Congress to end the brinkmanship on spending cuts that threatens to shove the economy back into a recession.
But amid all of the forward-thinking, the nation could still use a little vision in the rearview mirror — as in ensuring the institutional failures that led to the Great Recession are not repeated.
Structural reforms in the aftermath of the economic collapse have been relatively few. Nonetheless, we're encouraged by the Justice Department's recent decision to file suit against Standard & Poor's Ratings Services. The lawsuit alleges what investors have been contending for years, that the firm failed to abide by its own standards in giving its stamp of approval to mortgage bonds that were at the heart of America's economic collapse.
Remarkably, the 119-page case, filed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last week, marks the first federal enforcement action against a credit-rating firm over the crisis that cost investors billions.
For a while, there were hints that the Securities and Exchange Commission might take action. More than a year ago, Standard & Poor's revealed that it was under investigation by the SEC for the high ratings it gave to a complex mortgage security that was issued in 2007 just as the housing market was starting to collapse. But nothing has come of it.
The SEC has brought cases against banks including Goldman Sachs for marketing these risky mortgage deals. But it has taken no action on the remarkably positive mortgage ratings made by the nation's major ratings firms, including Moody's Investors Service and Fitch Ratings.
The Department of Justice lawsuit alleges that from 2004 to 2007, S&P "knowingly and with the intent to defraud, devised, participated in, and executed a scheme to defraud investors" in packages of mortgages known as collateralized debt obligations and similar securities.
These were high-risk investments. And all the evidence suggests that the firms that were supposed to be sounding the alarm were, at best, asleep at the switch, or, at worst, too focused on making money for themselves to worry about the best interests of investors.
The Justice Department is late in seeking answers and penalties on the public's behalf. But it's evidence that government hasn't given up the quest for accountability. At the least this should shed some light on an otherwise shady chapter in the nation's history.