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The New Welfare Queens

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February 26, 2009

In 1999, UCLA Professor Franklin D. Gilliam wrote a report for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.  That paper concerned a study he had done regarding public perception of the “welfare queen” stereotype and how that perception had been shaped by the media.  He discussed how the term had been introduced by Ronald Reagan during the 1976 Presidential campaign.  Reagan told the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side, who had been arrested for welfare fraud.  The term became widely used in reference to a racist (and sexist) stereotype of an iconic African-American woman, enjoying a lavish lifestyle and driving a Cadillac while cheating the welfare system.

Ten years after the publication of Gilliam’s paper, we have a new group of “welfare queens”:  the banks.  The banks have already soaked over a trillion dollars from the federal government to remedy their self-inflicted wounds.  Shortly after receiving their first $350,000,000,000 in payments under the TARP program (which had no mechanism of documenting where the money went) their collective reputation as “welfare queens” was firmly established.  In the most widely-reported example of “corporate welfare” abuse by a bank, public outcry resulted in Citigroup’s refusal of delivery on its lavishly-appointed, French-made, Falcon 50 private jet.  Had the sale gone through, Citi would have purchased the jet with fifty million dollars of TARP funds.  Now, as they seek even more money from us, the banks chafe at the idea that American taxpayers, economists and political leaders are suggesting that insolvent (or “zombie”) banks should be placed into temporary receivership until their “toxic assets” are sold off and their balance sheets are cleaned up.  This has been referred to as “nationalization” of those banks.

Despite all the bad publicity and public outrage, banks still persist in their welfare abuse.  After all, they have habits to support.  Their “drug” of choice seems to be the lavish golf outing at a posh resort.  The most recent example of this resulted in Maureen Dowd’s amusing article in The New York Times, about a public relations misstep by Sheryl Crow.

The New Welfare Queens have their defenders.  CNBC’s wildly-animated Jim Cramer has all but pulled out his remaining strands of hair during his numerous rants about how nationalization of banks “would crush America”.  A number of investment advisors, such as Bill Gross, co-chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Company, have also voiced objections to the idea of bank nationalization.

Another defender of these welfare queens appears to be Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.   In his latest explanation of Turbo Tim Geithner’s “stress test” agenda, Bernanke attempted to assure investors that the Obama administration does not consider the nationalization of banks as a viable option for improving their financial health.  As Craig Torres and Bradley Keoun reported for Bloomberg News on February 25, the latest word from Bernanke suggests that nationalization is not on the table:

. . .  while the U.S. government may take “substantial” stakes in Citigroup Inc. and other banks, it doesn’t plan a full- scale nationalization that wipes out stockholders.

Nationalization is when the government “seizes” a company, “zeroes out the shareholders and begins to manage and run the bank, and we don’t plan anything like that,” Bernanke told lawmakers in Washington today.

The only way to deal with The New Welfare Queens is to replace their directors and managers.  The Obama administration appears unwilling to do that.  During his February 25 appearance on MSNBC’s Countdown, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) expressed his dread about the Administration’s plan to rehabilitate the banks:

I’ve got a bad feeling about this, as do a number of people.  I was just reading testimony from Adam Posen, who is our leading expert on Japan.  He says we are moving right on the track of the Japanese during the 1990s:  propping up zombie banks — just not doing resolution.

. . .  The actual implementation of policy looks like a kind of failure of nerve.

*   *   *

On the banks — I really can’t see  — there really seems to be — we’re going to put in some money, as we’re going to say some stern things to the bankers about how they should behave better.  But if there is a strategy there, it’s continuing to be a mystery to me and to everybody I’ve talked to.

You can read Adam Posen’s paper:  “Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System” here.  Another Economics professor, Matthew Richardson, wrote an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of bank nationalization for the RGE Monitor.  After discussing both sides of this case, he reached the following conclusion:

We are definitely caught between a rock and a hard place.  But the question is what can we do if a major bank is insolvent?  Sometimes the best way to repair a severely dilapidated house is to knock it down and rebuild it.  Ironically, the best hope of maintaining a private banking system may be to nationalize some of its banks.  Yes, it is risky.  It could go wrong. But it is the surest path to avoid a “lost decade” like Japan.

As the experts report on their scrutiny of the “stress testing” methodology, I get the impression that it’s all a big farce.  Eric Falkenstein received a PhD in Economics from Northwestern University.  His analysis of Geithner’s testing regimen (posted on the Seeking Alpha website) revealed it to be nothing more than what is often referred to as “junk science”:

Geithner noted he will wrap this up by April.  Given the absurdity of this exercise, they should shoot for Friday and save everyone a lot of time.  It won’t be any more accurate by taking two months.

On a similar note, Ari Levy wrote an illuminating piece for Bloomberg News, wherein he discussed the stress testing with Nancy Bush, bank analyst and founder of Annandale, New Jersey-based NAB Research LLC and Richard Bove of Rochdale Securities.  Here’s what Mr. Levy learned:

Rather than checking the ability of banks to withstand losses, the tests outlined yesterday are designed to convince investors that the firms don’t need to be nationalized, said analysts including (Nancy) Bush and Richard Bove from Rochdale Securities.

*   *   *

“I’ve always thought that this stress-testing was a politically motivated approach to try to defuse the argument that the banks didn’t have enough capital,” said Bove, in an interview from Lutz, Florida.  “They’re trying to prove that the banks are well-funded.”

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

The Stupid War Against The Stimulus

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February 23, 2009

We keep hearing rants against President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.  The final version of the bill was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on February 13.  On February 17, it was signed into law by our new President.  It is now called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Nevertheless, there are people out there (nearly all of them Republicans) fuming about the stimulus bill, despite the fact that the debate is now over.  The bill has already gone into effect.  So what’s the point?  Many commentators feel that currently, there is fierce competition to stand out as the new leader of the Republican Party.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal apparently believes he can advance his career by complaining about the stimulus and refusing to accept money allocated under the stimulus bill to expand eligibility for unemployment compensation because it would increase taxes on employers.  As Robert Pear and J. David Goodman reported for The New York Times, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that he, too, would reject the money for expanding unemployment insurance:

“There is some we will not take in Mississippi,” Governor Barbour told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.  “We want more jobs.  You don’t get more jobs by putting an extra tax on creating jobs.”

The article noted that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (also a Republican) would be happy to take any money from the stimulus bill that had been rejected by any other governor.

The hostility against the stimulus just doesn’t make sense.  A few Republicans may think they might look like heroes to the traditional Republican “base” right now, but as the stimulus plan begins to bear fruit, they are going to look like fools.

Tom Friedman discussed one intriguing conversation he had with a true American capitalist (the sort of voter Republicans always have taken for granted) in the February 21 New York Times:

The wind and solar industries in America “were dead in the fourth quarter,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert.  Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.

“All of these projects will now go ahead,” said Woolard.  “You are talking about thousands of jobs  …  We really got something right in this legislation.”

These jobs will be in engineering, constructing and operating huge solar systems and wind farms and manufacturing new photovoltaics.  Together they will drive innovation in all these areas — and move wind and solar technology down the cost-volume learning curve so they can compete against fossil fuels and become export industries at the “ChinIndia price,” that is the price at which they can scale in China and India.

Mr. Wollard “gets it” but the usual Republican spokesmen don’t.  As Jonathan Alter points out in the March 2 edition of Newsweek:

Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the $787 billion stimulus package “a legislative abomination,” and Karl Rove wrote that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.”

Polls say otherwise.  The public likes the signs of action, respects that the new president is willing to admit error and appreciates his constant reminders that there are no easy cures to what ails us.

*   *   *

The GOP did a good job trivializing the stimulus, but Obama may have the last laugh.  The package is so big, and stretches across so many states, that it provides him at least four years of photo ops as Daddy O on tour, bringing home the jobs right in your local media market.  It was hardly a coincidence that video of bridge repair in Missouri began airing only moments after the president signed the bill.

As Walter Alarkon explained in his February 21 posting on The Hill website, there is a split among Republican governors as to whether the party’s next leader will be a centrist or a traditional conservative.  As his piece demonstrated, there are some Republicans who “get it”:

One possible White House hopeful, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), wouldn’t criticize the stimulus despite his red state bona fides.  He said that the federal money would fund infrastructure projects that could help the Beehive State’s economy.

“You have to have a party that is results oriented, that actually develops solutions to some of our nagging problems of today,” he said.

He said that Republicans who turn to “gratuitous rhetoric” will continue to lose.

Another Republican who “gets it” is Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  During his February 22 appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory asked Governor Crist whether he thought it was a mistake for the Republican Party to define itself by opposition to the stimulus.  Governor Crist gave this response:

Well, it may be.  All I know is I have to do what I think is in the best interest of the people of Florida.  And from my perspective, it’s to try and help them.  Help them every single day in every way that I can in education, in infrastructure, in health care; do the kinds of things that keep us from having to raise taxes.  You know, another part that people don’t talk about in the stimulus bill is that it cuts taxes.  About a third of it cuts taxes.   . . .   At the same time, because of the stimulus we’ll be able to pay our teachers more next year than we were this past year.  So I think it works, it works well, it helps people, it does what’s right.

How does one argue with that?  The current moot debate over the stimulus bill simply underscores one of the reasons why the Republicans suffered such huge losses in 2006 and 2008.  They need to abandon the failed strategy of focusing on the preferences of their so-called “base” and start representing the rest of America.  If they don’t learn this lesson, they will never win a majority in the Senate or the House and they will have to abandon their dreams of another Republican President.

A Wake-up Call From Dennis Blair

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February 19, 2009

Although President Obama has been criticized for many of his appointments, the selection of retired Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence appears to have been a wise choice.  Blair graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968.  He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar contemporaneously with Bill Clinton.  (However, I doubt that Blair was standing next to Bill when the former President “didn’t inhale”.)  Blair retired from the Navy in 2002.

On Thursday, February 12, Blair appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and surprised his audience with his new threat assessment.  As Tom Gjelten reported for National Public Radio:

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair’s dramatic report last week — that the economic crisis is now the United States’ top “near-term security concern” — caught some members of Congress by surprise.  But it makes sense.

The global economic downturn could easily change the world. Previously stable countries could become unstable.  The geopolitical lineup could shift sharply, some countries becoming more powerful while others get weaker.  Allies could turn into adversaries.

Pamela Hess of the Associated Press provided this account of the hearing:

Blair’s 49-page statement opened with a detailed description of the economic crisis.  It was a marked departure from threat briefings of years past, which focused first on traditional threats and battlefields like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” he said in a written statement for the committee.

Blair cited the inability of other nations to meet their humanitarian obligations and hostility toward the United States for causing this crisis as potential causes for unrest, as this AFP report disclosed:

“Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period,” Blair said.

“Besides increased economic nationalism, the most likely political fallout for US interests will involve allies and friends not being able to fully meet their defense and humanitarian obligations.”

*   *   *

“It already has increased questioning of US stewardship of the global economy and the international financial structure,” Blair said, with trading partners already upset over a “Buy American” provision in a US stimulus bill.

Rosalie Westenskow of UPI noted Blair’s concern that the impact of climate change, coinciding with the economic crisis, could provide a troublesome combination to facilitate government instability:

“The impacts (of climate change) will worsen existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions,” Blair told senators last week.

As temperatures rise, scientists predict natural disasters like floods and drought will also increase and government instability worldwide is likely to follow, he said.

On February 17, during an interview in Tokyo with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratified Blair’s concern about the security threat posed by the global economic crisis:

“Yes, we have to look at this as part of our threat matrix,” the secretary of state said.  “I know some people have criticized him and said, ‘what does the economy have to do with terrorism.’ That’s a very short-sighted view.  I think what director Blair was saying is that we get fixated sometimes on the headlines of dangers, and that is not in any way to underestimate the continuing threat from terrorism, the instability in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere.”

“But this economic crisis, left unresolved, will create massive unemployment,” she said.  “It will upend governments, it will unfortunately breed instability, and I appreciated his putting that into the context of the threat matrix.”

It’s nice to know that we have an intelligence director who is not wedded to the Bush administration’s fixation on September 11 -style attacks.  As this February 16 editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out:

The new threat isn’t as easy to identify – or vilify – as al Queda, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious.

*    *    *

No one knows what form the next wave of instability will take. The United States must start making preparations now – by shoring up our own flailing economy and supporting our allies as much as we possibly can.  Blair’s warning shows how dangerous it will be for Washington to continue battling along the same tired ideological lines that it has for the last several weeks.  This economic crisis could be putting more than our wallets at risk.

Of course, we don’t really need another reason to stay awake at night and worry.  Fortunately, we now have someone in a crucial position, capable of identifying and focusing on new threats.  Thanks for the “heads up” Admiral Blair!

It’s Time For Obama And Geithner To Blink

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February 16, 2009

On Tuesday, February 10, our newly-appointed Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, rolled out a vague description of his new “Financial Stability Plan”.  Most commentators were shocked at the lack of information Geithner provided about this proposal.

This was in stark contrast with President Obama’s description of what we would hear from Geithner, as the President explained during his February 9 press conference.  In response to a question by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, concerning his earlier statements about the worsening recession, Obama stated:

And so tomorrow my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.

Later in the conference, Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News asked the President how he could expect the remaining $350 billion in available in TARP funds to solve the problems with the financial system when individuals, such as economist Nouriel Roubini, have explained that the price tag for such a fix could exceed a trillion dollars.  Again, the President explained:

We also have to deal with the housing issue in a clear and consistent way.  I don’t want to preempt my Secretary of the Treasury; he’s going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow.

Yet again, in response to a question from Helene Cooper of The New York Times as to whether financial institutions receiving federal bailout money would be required to resume lending again, the President responded:

Again, Helene — and I’m trying to avoid preempting my Secretary of the Treasury, I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well; he’s going to be terrific.

Despite this hype, the following day’s presentation by Tim Geithner offered neither “clear and specific plans” nor “great detail” about the principles involved.  Nearly all of the editorials dealing with this strange event voiced a negative appraisal of Geithner’s discourse, particularly due to the complete absence of any discussion of specific measures to be employed by the Department of the Treasury.  Did something change between Monday night and Tuesday’s event?  Recent developments suggest that disagreements over the details of this plan, particularly those related to the possible “nationalization” of insolvent banks, forced the entire project into a state of flux.

Prior to last Tuesday’s fiasco, Geithner admitted to David Brooks of The New York Times that he was averse to the idea of nationalizing insolvent banks, even on a temporary basis:

Therefore, Geithner argues, the government doesn’t need to go in and nationalize the banks.  “It’s very important that we don’t look like there’s any intent of taking over or managing banks.  Governments are terrible managers of bad assets.  There’s no good history of governments doing that well.”

Geithner’s throwaway argument was disputed by Joe Nocera in the February 13 New York Times:

But that’s a canard.  The government did a terrific job managing banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.  It took over banks — “we called them bridge banks,” recalled William Seidman, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with a chuckle — replaced their top managers and directors, stripped out bad assets that the government then managed brilliantly, and sold the newly healthy banks to private buyers.  It turned out not to be all that hard to find actual bankers who could run these S.& L.’s for the federal government.

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.   So I think it’s a bad idea.   It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News:

Sweden, on the other hand, had a problem like this.  They took over the banks, nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks and, a couple years later, they were going again.  So you’d think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model.  Here’s the problem; Sweden had like five banks.  [LAUGHS] We’ve got thousands of banks.  You know, the scale of the U.S. economy and the capital markets are so vast and the problems in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale,  I think, would — our assessment was that it wouldn’t make sense.  And we also have different traditions in this country.

Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets and America’s different.  And we want to retain a strong sense of that private capital fulfilling the core — core investment needs of this country.

Obama’s strident resistance to the Swedish approach could force him into an embarrassing situation, in the event that he changes his view of that strategy.  This may happen once Geithner begins applying his “stress tests” this week, to measure the solvency of individual banks.  On the ABC News program “This Week”, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed his opinion that the option of nationalizing these unhealthy banks should remain open:

GRAHAM:  Yes, this idea of nationalizing banks is not comfortable, but I think we have gotten so many toxic assets spread throughout the banking and financial community throughout the world that we’re going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes, but, to me, banking and housing are the root cause of this problem.  And I’m very much afraid that any program to salvage the bank is going to require the government…

STEPHANOPOULOS:  So what would you do now?

GRAHAM:  I — I would not take off the idea of nationalizing the banks.

President Obama and Turbo Tim need to keep similarly open minds about the nationalization option.  They wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the “moral hazard” argument, forcing taxpayers to eat the losses risked by investors — especially with a prominent Republican wagging his finger at them.  This situation calls for only one response by the new administration:  Blink.

In Pursuit Of The TARP Thieves

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February 12, 2009

On Wednesday, February 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a subject of concern to many taxpayers: “The Need for Increased Fraud Enforcement in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”.  With trillions of dollars being expended in bailouts while the corporate beneficiaries of this government largesse allow their executives to line their pockets with those very dollars, the outrage felt by the working (or unemployed) public has found its way to Capitol Hill.  What we learned from this hearing is that there is plenty of fraud taking place while the FBI and other branches of law enforcement are understaffed to cope with the immense rise in reported fraud cases.

The Committee heard testimony from John Pistole, Deputy Director of the FBI.  Pistole explained how the current economic crisis resulted in numerous areas of FBI scrutiny, only one of which is the overwhelming subject of mortgage fraud:

For example, current market conditions have helped reveal numerous mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and investment frauds, such as the Bernard Madoff alleged scam. These schemes highlight the need for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to be ever vigilant of White Collar Crime both in boom and bust years.

The FBI has experienced and continues to experience an exponential rise in mortgage fraud investigations. The number of open FBI mortgage fraud investigations has risen from 881 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1,600 in fiscal year 2008. In addition, the FBI has more than 530 open corporate fraud investigations, including 38 corporate fraud and financial institution matters directly related to the current financial crisis. These corporate and financial institution failure investigations involve financial statement manipulation, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increasing mortgage, corporate fraud, and financial institution failure case inventory is straining the FBI’s limited White Collar Crime resources.

The most disgusting activity covered during this hearing concerned fraud related to the ongoing $700 billion TARP bailout.  Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) provided testimony concerning his plans to establish a mechanism for bringing TARP thieves to justice:

The SIGTARP Hotline is operational and can be accessed through the SIGTARP website at www.SIGTARP.gov by telephone at (877) SIG-2009, as well as through email. Plans are being formulated to develop a “fraud awareness program” with the objective of informing potential whistleblowers of the many ways available to them to provide key information to SIGTARP on fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds, and explaining how they will be protected.

Mr. Barofsky’s testimony was largely a plea for passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as well as the SAFE Markets Act, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).  The latter bill would authorize hiring of the following personnel to investigate and prosecute “fraud relating to the financial markets”:  500 FBI agents, 50 Assistant United States Attorneys and 100 additional Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement staff members.  Mr. Barofsky’s explanation of the need for this legislation was an illustration of using “experience as our guide”:

Now, with $700 billion going out the door under TARP, additional hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of credit being provided through the Federal Reserve, and additional hundreds of billions through the proposed stimulus bill, we stand on the precipice of the largest infusion of Government funds over the shortest period of time in our Nation’s history.  Unfortunately, history teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally.  One need not look further than the recent outlay for Hurricane relief, Iraq reconstruction, or the not-so-distant efforts of the RTC as important lessons.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (S 386) addresses TARP fraud, fraud related to economic stimulus funds, mortgage fraud and fraudulent activities in the commodities markets.  The measure will:

  • Amend the definition of “financial institution” to extend federal fraud laws to mortgage lending business not directly regulated or insured by the Federal government.
  • Amend the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic stimulus package.
  • Authorize funding to hire fraud prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, and authorize funding for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to help staff FBI mortgage fraud task forces.
  • Amend the federal securities statute to cover fraud schemes involving commodities futures and options.
  • Amend the criminal money laundering statute to make clear that the proceeds of specified unlawful activity include the gross receipts of the illegal activity, and not just the profits of the activity.
  • Improve the False Claims Act to clarify that the Act was intended to extend to any false or fraudulent claim for government money or property, whether or not the claim is presented to a government official or employee, whether or not the government has physical custody of the money, and whether or not the defendant specifically intended to defraud the government.

Once these new measures are implemented, I would love to see the Feds bust those miscreants whom I (and others) suspect were manipulating the equities markets with TARP money in the month after Thanksgiving.  During that time, we saw an almost-daily spate of “late day rallies” when stock prices would be run up during the last fifteen minutes of the trading day, before those numbers could have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them. The inflated “closing prices” for the day were then perceived as the market value of the stocks.  This process was taking place despite the constant flow of dire news reports, which would normally have sent stock prices tumbling.  News services covering the action on Wall Street were using the same three words to start each day’s headline:  “Stocks rally despite …”  This pattern ceased as legislators and commentators demanded to know what was being done with the first $360 billion of TARP money.  Hmmm . . .

At this point, we can only speculate as to who has been pilfering TARP money and what could have been done with a few billion here and a few billion there.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be watching movies about the sleazoids who stole money intended to save the world economic system from ruin.

We’re All Headed Into The Hudson

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February 9, 2009

It’s Monday, February 9 and Change Airlines flight 2008 is just taking off from Senate Airport.  In the cockpit are:  Captain “Barry” Barackburger, Co-pilot “Turbo” Geithner, and Flight Engineer Larry Summers.  During its takeoff roll, the plane came dangerously close to an open container belonging to the Bad Paper Company.  The Bad Paper was to be loaded onto a Xeng Airlines flight, bound for Beijing.  As the Change airplane passed the open container, a large amount of the Bad Paper was sucked into the plane’s jet engines.  Just after takeoff, the airliner’s Captain radioed the tower:

Captain Barry:  Senate tower this is Change twenty-zero-eight.  That paper container was too close to the runway and our engines sucked most of it in.  We’re losing thrust and we need to come back around.

Senate tower:  Change twenty-zero-eight you are clear to land on runway 18.

Captain Barry:  We can’t make it back.  That’s too far for us.  Do you have anything closer?

Senate tower:  Can you make it to Taxcut International?

Captain Barry:  Are you kidding?  Taxcut doesn’t have enough runway.  C’mon!  Help me out here!  We’re running out of time!

Senate tower:  I have our navigation technician here to come up with something.  What do you have, Irene?

Nav Tech I. Newton:  Your best option looks like runway 27-Left at States Field.

Larry Summers:  What the hell do you know about math or physics, Missy?  This plane has a much higher “sink rate” than your estimate.  Save your science fair project for those broads on The View.  I’m sure they’ll be impressed.

Captain Barry:  Larry!  Chill!

Captain Barry:  Senate tower, we’re going to be making a hard landing and I don’t want to try it on a runway.  There’s no time for that, anyway.  We’re going to have to set down in the river.

Senate tower:  That sounds awfully wasteful!  Do you know how much that plane costs?

Captain Barry:  At least we can get some salvage value out of the plane this way.  Besides, I can’t gamble with the health and welfare of my passengers.

Senate tower:  But first, you should at least try   .  .  .

Captain Barry:  Hey!  I’m the Captain.  Remember?  Okay, Turbo!  Throw the “ditch switch” and alert the passengers for a water landing!

Will Captain Barry be able to make a “soft landing” in the river?  Will Senate tower delay this attempt long enough to make that impossible?  Stay tuned.

In the mean time Steven Mufson and Lori Montgomery have reported in the Washington Post, that conservative-minded economists are in agreement with liberal economists that an economic stimulus bill should be enacted as quickly as possible:

While economists remain divided on the role of government generally, an overwhelming number from both parties are saying that a government stimulus package — even a flawed one — is urgently needed to help prevent a steeper slide in the economy.

Many economists say the precise size and shape of the package developing in Congress matter less than the timing, and that any delay is damaging.

There is no doubt that the fight over the stimulus bill has turned into a partisan political battle.  This was best exemplified by the fact that no Republican in the House of Representatives voted in favor of the House version of that legislation.  Battle lines have also been drawn by many commentators.  In his February 5 op-ed column for the New York Times, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) complained about Republican efforts to downsize the spending provisions in the bill and to add more tax cuts.  He was particularly upset about President Obama’s willingness to make compromises in those areas:

So what should Mr. Obama do?  Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive.  Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk.  The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.

The very characteristics of President Obama’s behavior that are causing so much anxiety for Mr. Krugman would seem to make it unlikely that Obama will follow Krugman’s advice.  The President has done plenty of talking about his bringing us into an era of “post-partisanship”.  As David Brooks pointed out on February 5, there are many in Congress headed in that same direction.  For Obama to abandon them would not only be unlikely, it would be political suicide:

The big news here is that there are many Democrats who don’t want to move in a conventional liberal direction and there some Republicans willing to work with them to create a functioning center.  These moderates — who are not a party, but a gang — seemed willing to seize control of legislation from the party leaders.  They separated themselves from both the left and right.

*   *   *

The liberals already are mobilizing against the Moderate Gangs. On Thursday, the liberal interest groups were intensively lobbying against the stimulus cuts.  But there’s no way that Obama, who spent two years campaigning on postpartisan politics, can reject the single biggest manifestation of postpartisanship in the country today.  If he does that, his credibility will be shot.

One reason why Barack Obama is the President is because many voters are impressed by his willingness to sit down and work out solutions with his opponents.  Now is his chance to show them that he can deliver results by using that strategy.

Another Troubling Appointment By Obama

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February 5, 2009

It all started with Bill Richardson.  On January 4, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he was withdrawing as nominee for the position of Commerce Secretary, due to an investigation into allegations of influence peddling.

Then there was a brief moment of concern over the fact that Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner, was a little late with some self-employment tax payments.  Since his new position would put him in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, many people found this shocking.  Even more shocking was his admission that he prepared his income taxes using the TurboTax software program.  That entire controversy was overlooked because Geithner has been regarded as the only person in Washington who fully understands the TARP bailout bill (as Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter once said).

On February 3, two more Obama appointees had to step aside.  The first was Nancy Killefer, who had been selected to become “Chief Performance Officer”, in which role she would have been tasked with cleaning up waste in government programs.  Her situation didn’t sound all that scandalous.  The Wall Street Journal explained that she “… had a $946.69 tax lien imposed on her home by the District of Columbia for unpaid taxes on household help, a debt she had satisfied long ago.”  Later that day, Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.  It seemed that his failure to timely pay over $100,000 in taxes was just part of the problem.  As the previously-mentioned Wall Street Journal article pointed out, the Daschle nomination provided additional embarrassment for President Obama:

Beyond the tax issue, Mr. Daschle was increasingly being portrayed as a Washington insider who made a fortune by trading on his Beltway connections — an example of the kind of culture Mr. Obama had pledged to change.

Meanwhile, many Democrats were expressing dismay over the February 2 announcement that Republican Senator Judd Gregg had been tapped to become Commerce Secretary.  Back in 1995, as United States Senator representing New Hampshire, he voted in favor of a budget measure that would have abolished the Commerce Department.  To many, this seemed too much like the George W. Bush tactic of putting a saboteur in charge of an administrative agency.  Nevertheless, Senator Gregg was ready to address those concerns.  As Liz Sidoti reported for the Associated Press:

In a conference call with reporters, Gregg dismissed questions about the vote.

“I say those were my wild and crazy days,” he said.  “My record on supporting Commerce far exceeds any one vote that was cast early on in the context of an overall budget.”

Gregg said he’s strongly supported the agency, particularly its scientific initiatives, including at the agency’s largest department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, on Wednesday February 5, those who concurred with President Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had good reason to feel anxious.  That day brought us the long-awaited testimony of independent financial fraud investigator, Harry Markopolos, before the House Financial Services Committee.  Back in May of 2000, Mr. Markopolos tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  As Markopolos explained in his testimony, he repeatedly attempted to get the SEC to investigate this scam, only to be rebuffed on every occasion.  Although his testimony included some good advice directed to Ms. Schapiro about “cleaning up” the SEC, this portion of his testimony, as discussed by Marcy Gordon of the Associated Press, deserves some serious attention:

While the SEC is incompetent, the securities industry’s self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is “very corrupt,” Markopolos charged.  That organization was headed until December by Schapiro, who has said Madoff carried out the scheme through his investment business and FINRA was empowered to inspect only the brokerage operation.

So Schapiro’s defense is that FINRA was empowered to inspect only brokerages and Madoff Investments was not a brokerage.  This doesn’t address Markopolos’ testimony that FINRA is “very corrupt”.  Mary Schapiro was the Chair and CEO of that “very corrupt” entity from 2006 until December of 2008.  Let’s not forget that during her tenure in that position she appointed Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council.  The Mark Madoff appointment was discussed back on December 18 by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell, in The Wall Street Journal.  At that time, they provided an informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record, which should have discouraged the new President from appointing her as he did on his second day in office:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.

*   *   *

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

I would be much more comfortable with a small-time tax cheat in charge of the SEC, than I am with Mary Schapiro in that position.  As his testimony demonstrates, Harry Markopolos is the person who should be running the SEC.

A Love–Hate Situation For The Stimulus Bill

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February 2, 2009

As the Senate focuses its attention on the economic stimulus bill, Republicans are putting up a good fight, after the measure sailed through the House of Representatives, despite unanimous Republican opposition.  Time magazine reports that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell believes that the bill will fail in the Senate because it does not provide enough tax cuts.  The Republican insistence on tax cuts has already been addressed by President Obama, who included more tax cuts into the measure.  In an editorial for Bloomberg News, Michael R. Sesit complained:

Obama’s proposed cuts are politically motivated — a bone thrown to Republicans, who embrace lower taxes.  The president’s desire to promote bipartisanship is a laudable goal.  Yet pursuing it at the expense of sound economic policy is a high price to pay.  Obama has enormous public support and doesn’t need Republican cooperation to pass his stimulus program.

Tax cuts are also politically hard to reverse, which will eventually be necessary once the economy is back on its feet and inflation picks up.

The Time article quoted Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank’s response to the cry for even more tax cuts:

“I never saw a tax cut fix a bridge. I never saw a tax cut give us more public transportation.  The fact is, we need a mix,” Frank said.

In his January 29 op-ed column for the New York Times, David Brooks reflected on what Larry Summers (the newly-appointed head of the National Economic Council) had to say throughout 2008 about the nature of a large-scale stimulus package, such as the one under consideration.  Brooks noted “three clear guidelines” established by Summers for developing a plan such as this:

First, the stimulus should be timely.  The money should go out “almost immediately.”  Second, it should be targeted.  It should help low- and middle-income people.  Third, it should be temporary.  Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

In criticizing this bill, Brooks argued that these parameters have been abandoned.  Among his suggested “fixes” would be the removal of the permanent programs built into the proposal.

Meanwhile, E. J. Dionne has written about how progressive Democrats are split into two camps, expressing different priorities for the measure:

One camp favors using the stimulus to focus on the needs of Americans of modest means.  The $819 billion stimulus bill that passed the House Wednesday night on a party-line vote, as well as the proposal being developed in the Senate, includes substantial new spending for the unemployed, for food stamps and for advances in health-care coverage.  The tax cuts in both versions tilt toward Americans with lower incomes.  Education programs also fare well.

But another group of progressives sees the bills as shorting investments for infrastructure:  roads, bridges and particularly mass transit.  This camp was buoyed by a report released Wednesday by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluding that it would take $2.2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into good repair.

Many sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have criticized this bill as being laden with “pork” projects, unlikely to spur economic growth or to create jobs.  Beyond that, Jeanne Cummings provided an interesting report on the Politico website, revealing how the business sector sees this “oversized legislation” as a “golden opportunity”.  The Democrats do not seem averse to this interest:

Senate Democrats, hoping to draw more bipartisan support, have already signaled they’re going to beef up the business provisions.  Versions of some of the most coveted tax breaks are already in the proposal by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But business leaders and their trade representatives would like to see even more love in the stimulus.  And they’ve commissioned special studies, blanketed the committee with letters and recruited industry bigwigs to make their case.

In the face of this expanding government largesse, an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post called upon President Obama to remind those in Congress “including leaders of his own party, who are cluttering his fiscal stimulus plan with extraneous and counterproductive provisions” of the admonition he gave to the bad actors on Wall Street.  In his disgust with the misappropriation of over $18 billion in TARP money for bonuses, the President said:  “show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility.”  In a passage reminiscent of David Brooks’ emphasis on the “three clear guidelines” established by Larry Summers, the Washington Post editorial noted that:

Instead of giving the economy a “targeted, timely and temporary” injection, the plan has been larded with spending on existing social programs or hastily designed new ones, much of it permanent or probably permanent — and not enough of it likely to create new jobs.

Former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin fears that “money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted.”  Former Reagan administration economist Martin Feldstein writes that “it delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit.”  Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs labels the plan “an astounding mishmash of tax cuts, public investments, transfer payments and special treats for insiders.”

Let’s face it:  the Republicans aren’t the only ones who are upset about the excesses in this stimulus plan.  In fact, most Republican governors favor this bill.  Last week the National Governors Association called on Congress to pass the plan.  Beth Fouhy reported for the Associated Press that Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Vermont Governor Jim Douglas are pushing Republican Senators to pass the bill.  Although such a measure may be distasteful to Republican ideals, these hard times demand that Republican governors follow the procedure described by Rush Limbaugh as “bending over and grabbing your ankles”:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential contender in 2012, said governors have little choice but to accept the relief being offered.  “States have to balance their budgets,” he said.  “So if we’re going to go down this path, we are entitled to ask for our share of the money.”

As the stimulus bill makes its way through the Senate, it will be interesting to see whether the final version involves dispersal of more than or less than $826 billion.  Don’t be surprised if it hits the One Trillion mark.