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Bank risk-taking 'unfinished piece of business': Obama

Marketplace host and senior editor Kai Ryssdal interviews President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House on July 2, 2014. Obama told Ryssdal that big risks being taken by banks are an "unfinished piece of business" from financial regulations.

In a wide-ranging interview covering the economy, President Obama on Wednesday said that despite financial reforms, Wall Street continues to take big risks, and for his administration, "that is an unfinished piece of business."

Obama also said that despite the fact that the economy has seen recovery and the unemployment rate has improved since the Great Recession, many Americans still feel like they haven't shared in those gains, particularly middle-class Americans. The President said gains have been made during his administration and said middle-class issues drive much of his agenda: 

"Although the economy has been growing, wages and incomes continue to be relatively stagnant, and that's been a 20- to 30-year trend, and that involves some structural issues that we've really got to work on. But, having said all that, what is indisputable is that the economy is much better now than it was when I took office and than it was the last time we spoke, and that does make a difference. It makes a difference that we've created 9.4 million new jobs, it makes a difference that manufacturing continues to strengthen for the first since the 90s, it makes a difference that we've been able to slow the rise of healthcare costs, it makes a difference that we have seen housing recover in many communities so that people are finally getting their houses back above water. So all these things add to confidence, add some momentum to the economy, but that underlying trend for middle-class families  that they don't feel like no matter how hard they work, they're able to get ahead in the same way that their parents were able to get ahead  that's something that we continue to tackle and drives a lot of my agenda now."

The President also criticized Wall Street  large banks in particular  for practices he said are aimed at generating revenue through "trading bets" instead of through investments that grow American businesses. Obama said that the United States has made significant economic reforms since the financial crisis in 2008, but there is still more work to be done:

The problem is that for 60 years, we've seen the financial sector grow massively. Now, it's a great strength of our economies that we've got the deepest, strongest capital markets in the world, but what has also happened is that as the financial sector has grown, more and more of the revenue generated on Wall Street is based on arbitrage -- trading bets -- as opposed to investing in companies that actually make something and hire people. And so, what I've said to my economic team, is that we have to continue to see how can we rebalance the economy sensibly, so that we have a banking system that is doing what it is supposed to be doing to grow the real economy, but not a situation in which we continue to see a lot of these banks take big risks because the profit incentive and the bonus incentive is there for them. That is an unfinished piece of business, but that doesn't detract from the important stabilization functions that Dodd-Frank were designed to address.

President Obama also took aim at the Republican majority in the House of Representatives for pushing back against policies he said would help the middle class, including immigration reform. The president spoke of House Republicans' "ideological predispositions," saying that they are "captive of a small ideological band inside their caucus."

I don't think this is a permanent state of affairs; I think over time the Republican Party will move back to the center, mainly because if they don't, they'll never win the presidency again. And at a certain point people are just going to get fed up. But in the mean time, what I have to make sure I'm doing is looking for every opportunity to go ahead and help the married couple that is struggling, working hard, paying their bills, but at the end of the month still don't have any savings and still don't feel like they're getting ahead. If I can help them on childcare costs, if I can help them boost their wages a little bit, if I can help them save for their kid's college education and keep college cost down, if I can do those things, then I will at least have the satisfaction of helping some people. And in the meantime I'm going to continue to reach out to Republicans wherever and whenever they're willing.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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