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Getting It Right

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October 29, 2009

For some reason, a large number of people continue to rely on the advice of stock market prognosticators, long after those pundits have proven themselves unreliable, usually due to a string of erroneous predictions.  The best example of this phenomenon is Jim Cramer of CNBC.  On March 4, Jon Stewart featured a number of video clips wherein Cramer wasn’t just wrong — he was wildly wrong, often when due diligence on Cramer’s part would have resulted in a different forecast.  Nevertheless, some individuals still follow Cramer’s investment advice.

This summer’s stock market rally made many of us feel foolish.  John Carney of The Business Insider compiled a great presentation entitled “The Idiot-Maker Rally” which focused on 15 stock market gurus “who now look like fools” because they remained in denial about the rally, while those who ignored them made loads of money.

One guy who got it right was a gentleman named Jeremy Grantham.  His asset management firm, GMO, is responsible for investing over $85 billion of its clients’ funds.  On May 14, I discussed Mr. Grantham’s economic forecast from his Quarterly Letter, published at the end of this year’s first quarter.  At that time, he predicted that in late 2009 or early 2010, there would be a stock market rally, bringing the Standard and Poor’s 500 index near the 1100 range.  As you probably know, we saw that happen last week.  Unfortunately, he was not particularly optimistic about what would follow:

A large rally here is far more likely to prove a last hurrah — a codicil on the great bullishness we have had since the early 90s or, even in some respects, since the early 80s.  The rally, if it occurs, will set us up for a long, drawn-out disappointment not only in the economy, but also in the stock markets of the developed world.

Mr. Grantham’s Quarterly Letter for the third quarter of 2009 was recently published by his firm, GMO.  This document is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the outlook for the stock market and our economy.  Grantham is sticking with his prediction for “seven lean years” which he expects to commence at the conclusion of the current rally:

Price, however, does matter eventually, and what will stop this market (my blind guess is in the first few months of next year) is a combination of two factors.  First, the disappointing economic and financial data that will begin to show the intractably long-term nature of some of our problems, particularly pressure on profit margins as the quick fix of short-term labor cuts fades away.  Second, the slow gravitational pull of value as U.S. stocks reach +30-35% overpricing in the face of an extended difficult environment.

*   *   *

So, back to timing.  It is hard for me to see what will stop the charge to risk-taking this year. With the near universality of the feeling of being left behind in reinvesting, it is nerve-wracking for us prudent investors to contemplate the odds of the market rushing past my earlier prediction of 1100.  It can certainly happen.

Conversely, I have some modest hopes for a collective sensible resistance to the current Fed plot to have us all borrow and speculate again.  I would still guess (a well informed guess, I hope) that before next year is out, the market will drop painfully from current levels.  “Painfully” is arbitrarily deemed by me to start at -15%.  My guess, though, is that the U.S.market will drop below fair value, which is a 22% decline (from the S&P 500 level of 1098 on October 19).

Scary as that may sound, Mr. Grantham does not believe that the S&P 500 will reach a new low, surpassing the Hadean level of 666 reached last March.  On page 4 of the report, Grantham expressed his view that the current “fair value” of the S&P 500 “is now about 860”.

What I particularly enjoyed about the latest GMO Quarterly Letter was Grantham’s discussion of the factors that brought our economy to where it is today.  In doing so, he targeted some of my favorite culprits:  Alan Greenspan (who was pummeled on page 3), Larry Summers, Turbo Tim Geithner (who “sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks”), Goldman Sachs and finally: Ben Bernanke — whose nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman was treated with well-deserved outrage.

The report included a supplement (beginning at page 10) wherein Mr. Grantham discussed the imperative need to redesign our financial system:

A simpler, more manageable financial system is much more than a luxury.  Without it we shall surely fail again.

*   *   *

I have no idea why the current administration, which came in on a promise of change, for heaven’s sake, is so determined to protect the status quo of the financial system at the expense of already weary taxpayers who are promised only somewhat better lifeboats.  It is obvious to most that there was a more or less complete failure of our private financial system and its public overseers.  The regulatory leaders in particular were all far too captured and cozy in their dealings with reckless and greedy financial enterprises.

Grantham’s suggested changes include forcing banks to spin off their “proprietary trading” operations, wherein a bank trades investments on behalf of its own account, usually in breach of the fiduciary duties it owes its customers.  He also addressed the need to break up those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  (As an aside, the British government has now taken steps to break up its banks that pose a systemic risk to the entire financial structure.)  Grantham’s final point concerned the need for public oversight, to prevent the “regulatory capture” that has helped maintain this intolerable status quo.

Jeremy Grantham is a guy who gets it right.  Our leaders need to pay more serious attention to him.  If they don’t — we should vote them out of office.




Watching For Storm Clouds

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October 26, 2009

As the economy continues to flounder along, one need not look very far to find enthusiastic cheerleaders embracing any seemingly positive information to reinforce the belief that this catastrophic chapter in history is about to reach an end.  Meanwhile, others are watching out for signs of more trouble.  The recent celebrations over the return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 10,000 level gave some sensible commentators the opportunity to point out that this may simply be evidence that we are experiencing an “asset bubble” which could burst at any moment.

October 21 brought the latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP, the Special Investigator General for TARP, who is a gentleman named Neil Barofsky.  Since the report is 256 pages long, it made more sense for Mr. Barofsky to submit to a few television interviews and simply explain to us, the latest results of his investigatory work.  In a discussion with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on that date, Mr. Barofsky voiced his concern about the potential consequences that could arise because those bailed-out banks, considered “too big to fail” have continued to grow, due to government-approved mergers:

“These banks that were too big to fail are now bigger,” Barofsky said.  “Government has sponsored and supported several mergers that made them larger and that guarantee, that implicit guarantee of moral hazard, the idea that the government is not going to let these banks fail, which was implicit a year ago, is now explicit, we’ve said it.  So if anything, not only have there not been any meaningful regulatory reform to make it less likely, in a lot of ways, the government has made such problems more likely.

“Potentially we could be in more danger now than we were a year ago,” he added.

In comparing where the economy is now, as opposed to this time last year, we haven’t seen much in the way of increased lending by the oversized banks.  In fact, we’ve only seen more hubris and bullying on their part.  Julian Delasantellis expressed it this way in his October 22 essay for the Asia Times:

Now, a year later, things have turned out exactly as expected – except that the roles are reversed.  The rulemakers have not disciplined the corrupted; it’s more accurate to say that the corrupted have abased the rulemakers.  If the intention was that the big investment banks would settle down into a sort of quiet, reserved suburban lifestyle, the reality has been that they’ve acted more like former gangsters placed into the US government’s witness protection program, taking over the numbers racket on the Saturday pee-wee soccer fields.

*   *   *

Obviously, there can’t be any inflation, or any real long-term earnings growth for consumer and business-oriented banks for that matter, as long as the economic crisis continues to destroy capital faster than Obama can ask Bernanke to print it.

These issues are of little concern to operations such as Goldman and Morgan, with their trading strategies and profit profiles essentially divorced from the real economy.  But down here on planetary level, as the little league baseball fields don’t get maintained because the businesses who funded the work go out of business after having their loans called, after elderly people with chest pains have to wait longer for one of the few ambulances on station after rescue service cutbacks, life is changing, changing for the long term, and it sure isn’t pretty.

“Proprietary trading” by banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, forms an important part of their business model.  This practice involves trading by those banks, on their own accounts, rather than the accounts of customers.  The possibility of earning lavish bonus payments helps to incentivize risk taking by the traders working on the “prop desks” of those institutions.  Gillian Tett wrote a report for the Financial Times on October 22, wherein she discussed an e-mail she received from a recently-retired banker, who stays in touch with his former colleagues — all of whom remain actively trading the markets.  Ms. Tett observed that this man was “feeling deeply shocked” when he shared his observations with her:

“Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,” he wrote.  “Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits [real estate investment trusts] and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.

“Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,” he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free — or, at least, at 0.5 per cent — traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.

“Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window.  After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back [but] this time it has taken just a few months,” he added.  He finished with a despairing question:  “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?”

*   *   *

Yet, if you talk at length to traders — or senior bankers — it seems that few truly believe that fundamentals alone explain this pattern.  Instead, the real trigger is the amount of money that central bankers have poured into the system that is frantically seeking a home, because most banks simply do not want to use that cash to make loans.  Hence, the fact that the prices of almost all risk assets are rallying — even as non-risky assets such as Treasuries bounce too.

Now, some western policymakers like to argue — or hope –that this striking rally could be beneficial, in a way, even if it is not initially based on fundamentals.  After all, the argument goes, if markets rebound sharply, that should boost animal spirits in a way that could eventually seep through to the “real” economy.

On this interpretation, the current rally could turn out to be akin to the firelighter that one uses to start a blaze in a pile of damp wood.

*   *   *

So I, like my e-mail correspondent, am growing uneasy.  Perhaps, the optimistic “firelighter-igniting-the-damp-wood” scenario will yet come to play; but we will probably not really know whether the optimists are correct for at least another six months.

Gillian Tett’s “give it six months” approach seems much more sober and rational than what we hear from many of the exuberant commentators appearing on television.  Beyond that, she reminds us that our current situation involves a more important issue than the question of whether our economy can experience sustained growth:  The continued use of leveraged risk-taking by TARP beneficiaries invites the possibility of a return to last year’s crisis-level conditions.  As long as those banks know that the taxpayers will be back to bail them out again, there is every reason to assume that we are all headed for more trouble.




Offering Solutions

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October 22, 2009

Many of us are familiar with the old maxim asserting that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  During the past year we’ve been exposed to plenty of hand-wringing by info-tainers from various mainstream media outlets decrying the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Very few of these people ever seem to offer any significant insight on such interesting topics as:  what really caused the meltdown, how to prevent it from happening again, whether any laws were broken that caused this catastrophe, whether any prosecutions might be warranted or how to solve our nation’s continuing economic ills, which seem to be immune to all the attempted cures.  The painful thorn in the side of Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi, recently raised an important question, reminding people to again scrutinize the vapid media coverage of this pressing crisis:

It’s literally amazing to me that our press corps hasn’t yet managed to draw a distinction between good news on Wall Street for companies like Goldman, and good news in reality.

*   *   *

In fact the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional “market indicators” is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.

That quote inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to write a superb essay about how “access journalism” has created a controlled press.  What follows is just a small nugget of the great analysis in that piece:

So what do we have?  A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to.  Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story.  And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them.

*   *   *

The message, quite overly, is: if you are pissed, you are in a minority.  The country has moved on.  Things are getting better, get with the program. Now I saw the polar opposite today.  There is a group of varying sizes, depending on the topic, that e-mails among itself, mainly professional investors, analysts, economists (I’m usually on the periphery but sometimes chime in).  I never saw such an angry, active, and large thread about the Goldman BS fest today.  Now if people who have not suffered much, and are presumably benefitting from the market recovery are furious, it isn’t hard to imagine that what looks like complacency in the heartlands may simply be contained rage looking for an outlet.

Fortunately, one television news reporter has broken the silence concerning the impact on America’s middle class, caused by Wall Street’s massive Ponzi scam and our government’s response – which he calls “corporate communism”.  I’m talking about MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan.  On Wednesday’s edition of his program, Morning Meeting, he decried the fact that the taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the “parlor game” played by Goldman Sachs and other firms involved in proprietary trading on our coin.  Mr. Ratigan then proceeded to offer a number of solutions available to ordinary people, who would like to fight back against those pampered institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Some of these measures involve:  moving accounts from one of those enshrined banks to a local bank or credit union; paying with cash whenever possible and contacting your lawmakers to insist upon financial reform.

My favorite lawmaker in the battle for financial reform is Congressman Alan Grayson, whose district happens to include Disney World.  His fantastic interrogation of Federal Reserve general counsel, Scott Alvarez, about whether the Fed tries to manipulate the stock markets, was a great event.  Grayson has now co-sponsored a “Financial Autopsy” amendment to the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency bill.  This amendment is intended to accomplish the following:

- Requires the CFPA conduct a “Financial Autopsy” of each state’s bankruptcies and foreclosures (a scientific sampling), and identify financial products that systematically led to a large number of bankruptcies and foreclosures.
- Requires the CFPA report to Congress annually on the top financial products (the companies and individuals that originated the products) that caused consumer bankruptcies and foreclosures.
- Requires the CFPA take corrective action to eliminate or restrict those deceptive products to prevent future bankruptcies and corrections

– The bottom line is to highlight destructive products based on if they are making people “broke”.

From his website, The Market Ticker, Karl Denninger offered his own contributions to this amendment:

This sort of “feel good” legislative amendment will of course be resisted, but it simply isn’t enough.  The basic principle of equity (better said as “fairness under the law”) puts forward the premise that one cannot cheat and be allowed to keep the fruits of one’s outrageous behavior.

So while I like the direction of this amendment, I would put forward the premise that the entirety of the gains “earned” from such toxic products, when found, are clawed back and distributed to the consumers so harmed, and that to the extent this does not fully compensate for that harm such a finding should give rise to a private, civil cause of action for the consumers who are bankrupted or foreclosed.

It’s nice to know that bloggers are no longer the only voices insisting on financial reform.  Ed Wallace of Business Week recently warned against the consequences of unchecked speculation on oil futures:

Is today’s stock market divorced from economic reality?  Probably.  It is a certainty that oil is.  We know that because those in the market are still putting out the same tired and incorrect logic that they used successfully last year to push oil to $147 a barrel while demand was plummeting.

Because oil is not carrying a market price that fairly reflects economic conditions and demand inventories, overpriced energy is siphoning off funds that could be used for corporate expansion, increased consumerism and, in time, the recreation of jobs in America.

Did you think that the “Enron Loophole” was closed by the enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill?  It wasn’t.  The Farm Bill simply gave more authority to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate futures contracts that had been exempted by the loophole.  In case you’re wondering about the person placed in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by President Obama  –  his name is Gary Gensler and he used to work for  …  You guessed it:  Goldman Sachs.




Bait And Switch

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October 19, 2009

On Friday, October 16, Aaron Task interviewed Elizabeth Warren for his online TV show, Tech Ticker.  In case you don’t remember, Ms. Warren is the Harvard law professor, appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel which has attempted to trace the money thrown into the infamous slush fund known as TARP — the Troubled Assets Relief Program.  Mr. Task questioned Professor Warren as to whether, after all this time, we can expect a full accounting as to where the TARP money went.  Professor Warren responded:  “No.  I think there is no chance that we will get a full accounting of it.”  She explained the reason for this is because former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson never asked for an explanation “on the front end” (when the TARP bailout program began) concerning what the recipients planned to do with this money, nor was any documentation of expenditures requested.  As an aside, the folks at The New York Times were kind enough to put together this TARP scorecard, for keeping track of which institutions pay back the money they received.  Of course, these amounts do not include all the loans, “backstopping” and other largesse provided to Wall Street by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Treasury.  For that information, we can look to this Bailout Tally Report, prepared by Nomi Prins for her book:  It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses,and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.

During the interview with Aaron Task, Elizabeth Warren expressed particular concern over the fact that former Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to put any restrictions on the use of the TARP bailout funds prior to their dispersal, despite the explanation to the taxpayers that this money would be used to remove the “toxic assets” from the banks’ balance sheets.  Worse yet, as she explained:  “The toxic assets are still there, by and large” because the TARP money was used by the Wall Street banks to “make bets”.  The bait-and-switch tactic used by Secretary Paulson was exposed by Professor Warren when she criticized how the banks used that money:

My biggest complaint would be:  That was not how Secretary Paulsen described what was going to happen with American taxpayer dollars.   . . . He said we are going to put money into the banks to increase lending –  specifically to increase small business lending because that is the engine of our economy . . .  I have a real problem when we describe to taxpayers their money will be taken and used one way and in fact it’s used another way.

Professor Warren also noted that nothing had been done to contain “systemic risk” after the financial crisis because those institutions requiring bailouts as they were considered “too big to fail” have grown even larger.  This subject was addressed by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters, who questioned whether these institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, are really indispensable:

Many of us didn’t like it — we thought banks like Goldman should have been recapitalized the right way, by wiping out shareholders and forcing subordinated creditors to eat their share of losses.  But that ship has sailed.  We socialized the risk while privatizing the profit because we were told we had no other choice:  The government had to guarantee the biggest banks’ liabilities because they were too unstable to survive bankruptcy or FDIC receivership.

If that’s true, why haven’t we seen any substantial reforms to reduce systemic risk?  Congress is kicking around new resolution authority to help resolve failed systemically-important banks.  But the goal should be reducing systemic risk to begin with.  Yet serious reform of the derivatives market — something that would reduce its size significantly — is nowhere on the radar.

Indeed, Goldman’s trading results suggest that market is coming back with a vengeance.  It’s playing in very risky markets with a capital structure that remains vulnerable yet is guaranteed by taxpayers.

*   *   *

Wall Street and its protectors at the Fed and Treasury tell us the bailout was necessary to protect the financial system, to protect Main Street.  That may be.  But Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.

Elizabeth Warren’s reaction to the issue of what has been done with those profits — the huge, record-breaking bonuses paid to the people at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, was to describe the situation as so inappropriate as to leave her “speechless”.  Fortunately this sentiment is shared by a number of people who are already taking action in the absence of any responsible government activity.  The Gawker website has announced its initiation of what it calls the “Goldman Project” as a way of pushing back against this atrocity:

But what makes it eye-stabbingly, brain-searingly blood-boiling is the fact that Goldman’s employees are personally reaping the benefits of these subsidies to the tune of an average of $700,000 per staffer.  Being unjustifiably wealthy in boom times is not enough — when market forces of their own creation brought their company low, they turned to the taxpayers both to rescue the firm and prop up their obscenely acquisitive lifestyles.

*   *   *

.  .  .  we’re launching the Goldman Project, an ongoing attempt to track and publicize the multi-million second homes, $50,000 cars, $500 bottles of wine, and ostentatious living that we are subsidizing.  And we need your help: Are you Facebook friends with a Goldmanite who just posted photos of his lavish bachelor party?  Post them to our fancy new tag page, #GoldmanProject, or e-mail them to us.  Are you a realtor who just sold a $4 million duplex a Goldman banker?  Is your ex-boyfriend Goldman banker planning a year-end trip to Cabo to blow his bonus wad?  Shoot us an e-mail.  Likewise, if you catch any references to Goldman employees living large in the media, post them to #GoldmanProject to keep a running clipfile.

The folks at Gawker aren’t the only ones taking action.  When the American Bankers Association holds its annual meeting in Chicago on October 25-26, it will be confronted with a (hopefully) large protest led by a coalition of labor, community and consumer groups, called the “Showdown in Chicago”.  Visit their website and do whatever you can to help make this event a success.  The arrogant influence peddlers in Washington need to get the message:  Clean things up or get thrown out.




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Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

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October 15, 2009

Reading the news these days can cause so much aggravation, I’m surprised more people haven’t pulled out all of their hair.  Regardless of one’s political perspective, there is an inevitable degree of outrage experienced from revelations concerning the role of government malfeasnace in causing and reacting to the financial crisis.  We have come to rely on satire to soothe our anger.  (For a good laugh, be sure to read this.)  Fortunately, an increasing number of commentators are not only exposing the systemic problems that created this catastrophe – they’re actually suggesting some good solutions.

Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig, recently considered the idea that the debate over healthcare reform might just be a distraction from the more urgent need for financial reform:

The health care issue should never even have been brought up at a time when the economy is reeling and we are running such immense deficits to shore up the banks.  Instead of fixing the economy by saving Americans’ homes and jobs, we are preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric on a hot issue that should have been addressed in calmer times.  It came up now because, despite all the hoary partisan posturing, it is a safer subject than the more pressing issue of what to do with Citigroup, AIG and General Motors, which the taxpayers happen to own but do not control.  While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plots in secret with the top bankers who got us into this mess, we are focused on the perennial circus of so-called health care reform.

There is an odd disconnect between the furious public debate over health care reform, with its emphasis on the cost of an increased government role, and the nonexistent discussion about the far more expensive and largely secretive government program to bail out Wall Street.  Why the agitation over the government spending $83 billion a year on health care when at least 20 times that amount has been thrown at the creators of the ongoing financial crisis without any serious public accountability?  On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees of the financial industry that we taxpayers saved are slated to be paid a record $140 billion this year.

Remember, taxpayers:  That $140 billion is your money.  The bailed-out institutions may claim to have repaid their TARP obligations, but they also received trillions in loans from the Federal Reserve — and Ben Bernanke refuses to disclose which institutions received how much.

William Greider wrote a superb essay for the October 26 issue of The Nation, emphasizing the importance of the work undertaken by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by Phil Angelides, as well as the investigation being done by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Even if Congress manages to act this fall, the debate will not end.  Obama’s plan does not begin to get at the rot in the financial system.  Wall Street’s most notorious practices continue to flourish, and if unemployment rates keep rising through 2010, the public will not set aside its anger.  The Angelides investigators could put the story back on the front page.

*  *  *

Beyond Ponzi schemes and deceitful mortgage lending, a far larger crime may lurk at the center of the crisis — wholesale securities fraud.  “Risk models” reassured unwitting investors who bought millions of bundled mortgage securities and derivatives like credit-default swaps.  But as Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics has testified, many of the models lacked real-life markets where they could be tested and verified.  “Clearly, we have now many examples where a model or the pretense of a model was used as a vehicle for creating risk and hiding it,” Whalen said.  “More important, however, is the role of financial models for creating opportunities for deliberate acts of securities fraud.”  That’s what investigators can examine.  What did the Wall Street firms know about the reliability of these models when they sold the securities?  And what did they tell the buyers?

*  *  *

Surely the political system itself is a root cause of the financial crisis.  The swollen influence of financial interests pushed Congress and presidents to repeal regulation and look the other way as reckless excesses developed.  Efforts to restore a more reliable representative democracy can start with Congress.  The power of money could be curbed by new rules prohibiting members of key committees from accepting contributions from the sectors they oversee.  Regulatory agencies, likewise, need internal designs to protect them from capture by the industries they regulate.

The Federal Reserve, having failed in its obligations so profoundly, should be reconstituted as an accountable federal agency, shorn of the excessive secrecy and insider privileges accorded to bankers.  The Constitution gives Congress, not the executive branch, the responsibility for managing money and credit.  Congress must reassert this responsibility and learn how to provide adequate oversight and policy critique.

Reforming the financial system, in other words, can be the prelude to reviving representative democracy.

At The Huffington Post, Robert Borosage warned that the financial industry is waging a huge lobbying battle to derail any attempts at financial reform.  Beyond that, the banking lobbyists will re-write any legislation to make it more favorable to their own objectives:

The banking lobby is nothing if not shameless.  They hope to use the reforms to WEAKEN current law.  They are pushing to make the federal standard the ceiling on reform, stripping the power of states to have higher standards.  Basically, they are hoping to find a way to shut down the independent investigations of state attorneys general like New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo or Illinois’ Lisa Madigan.

*  *  *

Historically, the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin decried in disgust, “own the place.”  And they’ve succeeded thus far in frustrating reform, even while pocketing literally hundreds of billions in support from taxpayers.

*  *  *

But this time it could be different.  Backroom deals are no longer safe.  Americans have been fleeced of trillions in the value of their homes and their savings because of Wall Street’s reckless excesses.  Then as taxpayers, they were extorted to ante up literally trillions more to forestall economic collapse by bailing out the banking sector.  Insult was added to that injury when the Federal Reserve refused to tell the Congress who got the money and on what terms.

Legislators would be well advised to understand the cozy old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable.  Americans are livid and paying attention.  Legislators who rely on Wall Street to finance their campaigns and then lead the effort to block or dilute reforms will discover that their constituents know what they have been up to.  Organizations like my own Campaign for America’s Future, the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Financial Reform, Huffington Post bloggers will make certain the word gets out.  Legislators may discover that Wall Street’s money is a burden, not a blessing.

The most encouraging article I have seen came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.  His perspective matched my sentiments exactly.  Looking through President Obama’s empty rhetoric, Mr. Gerstein helped provide direction and encouragement to those of us who are losing hope that our dysfunctional government could do anything close to addressing our nation’s financial ills:

The Changer-in-Chief long ago gave up on the idea of dismantling and remaking the crazy-quilt regulatory system that Wall Street (along with its Washington enablers) rigged for its own enrichment at everyone else’s expense.

*  *  *

Instead, Team Obama opted to move around the deck chairs within the existing bureaucracy, daftly hoping this conformist approach would be enough to prevent another titanic meltdown.

*  *  *

In the end, though, the key to success will be countering Wall Street’s influence and putting the politicians’ feet to the ire.  Members of Congress need to know there will be consequences for sticking with the status quo.      . . .  Make clear to every incumbent: Endorse our plan and we’ll give you money and public support; back the banks, and we will run ads against you telling voters you are for corrupt capitalism.

As I have said before, this is all about power.  Right now, Wall Street has the political playing field to itself; it has the money, the access it buys and the fear it implies.  And the public is on the outside, looking incredulous that this rigged system is still in place more than a year after it was exposed.  But if the frustrated middle can organize and mobilize a focused, non-partisan revolt of the revolted — as opposed to the inchoate and polarizing tea party movement — that whole dynamic will quickly change.  And so too, I’m confident, will the voting habits of our elected officials.

Fortunately, individuals like Dan Gerstein are motivating people to stand up and let our elected officials know that they work for the people and not the lobbyists.  Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, has just written a new book:  Whores: Why And How I Came To Fight The Establishment.  The timing of the book’s release could not have been better.




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Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

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October 12, 2009

An ever-increasing number of people are paying close attention to a gentleman named Simon Johnson.  Mr. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now works at MIT as Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.  His Baseline Scenario website is focused on the financial and economic crises.  At the Washington Post website, he runs a blog with James Kwak called The Hearing.  Last spring, Johnson turned more than a few heads with his article from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Quiet Coup”, in which he explained that what happened in America during last year’s financial crisis and what is currently happening with our economic predicament is “shockingly reminiscent” of events experienced during financial crises in emerging market nations (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).

On October 9, Joe Nocera of The New York Times began his column by asking Professor Johnson what he thought the Wall Street banks owed America after receiving trillions of dollars in bailouts.  Johnson’s response turned to Wednesday’s upcoming fight before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the financial reforms proposed by the Obama administration:

“They can’t pay what they owe!” he began angrily.  Then he paused, collected his thoughts and started over:  “Tim Geithner saved them on terms extremely favorable to the banks.  They should support all of his proposed reforms.”

Mr. Johnson continued, “What gets me is that the banks have continued to oppose consumer protection.  How can they be opposed to consumer protection as defined by a man who is the most favorable Treasury Secretary they have had in a generation?  If he has decided that this is what they need, what moral right do they have to oppose it?  It is unconscionable.”

This week’s battle over financial reform has been brewing for quite a while.  Back on May 31, Gretchen Morgenson and Dan Van Natta wrote a piece for The New York Times entitled, “In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules”:

Hotly contested legislative wars are traditional fare in Washington, of course, and bills are often shaped by the push and pull of lobbyists — representing a cornucopia of special interests — working with politicians and government agencies.

What makes this fight different, say Wall Street critics and legislative leaders, is that financiers are aggressively seeking to fend off regulation of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In contrast, after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s, the clout of the financial lobby diminished significantly.

In case you might be looking for a handy scorecard to see which members of Congress are being “lobbied” by the financial industry and to what extent those palms are being greased, The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to provide us with an interactive chart.  Just slide the cursor next to the name of any member of the House Financial Services Committee and you will be able to see how much generosity that member received just during the first quarter of 2009 from an entity to be affected by this legislation.  The bars next to the committee members’ names are color-coded, with different colors used to identify specific sources, whose names are displayed as you pass over that section of the bar.  This thing is a wonderful invention.  I call it “The Graft Graph”.

On October 9, Simon Johnson appeared with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio) on the PBS program, Bill Moyers Journal.  At one point during the interview, Professor Johnson expressed grave doubts about our government’s ability to implement financial reform:

And yet, the opportunity for real reform has already passed. And there is not going to be — not only is there not going to be change, but I’ll go further.  I’ll say it’s going to be worse, what comes out of this, in terms of the financial system, its power, and what it can get away with.

*  *   *

BILL MOYERS:  Why have we not had the reform that we all knew was being — was needed and being demanded a year ago?

SIMON JOHNSON:  I think the opportunity — the short term opportunity was missed.  There was an opportunity that the Obama Administration had.  President Obama campaigned on a message of change.  I voted for him.  I supported him.  And I believed in this message.  And I thought that the time for change, for the financial sector, was absolutely upon us.  This was abundantly apparent by the inauguration in January of this year.

SIMON JOHNSON:  And Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff has a saying.  He’s widely known for saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Well, the crisis is over, Bill.  The crisis in the financial sector, not for people who own homes, but the crisis for the big banks is substantially over.  And it was completely wasted.  The Administration refused to break the power of the big banks, when they had the opportunity, earlier this year.  And the regulatory reforms they are now pursuing will turn out to be, in my opinion, and I do follow this day to day, you know.  These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.

Sound familiar?  If you change the topic to healthcare reform, you end up with the same bottom line:  “These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.”  The inevitable watering down of both legislative efforts can be blamed on weak, compromised leadership.  It’s one thing to make grand promises on the campaign trail — yet quite another to look a lobbyist in the eye and say:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Toward the end of the televised interview, Bill Moyers had this exchange with Representative Kaptur:

BILL MOYERS:   How do we get Congress back?  How do we get Congress to do what it’s supposed to do?  Oversight.  Real reform.  Challenge the powers that be.

MARCY KAPTUR:  We have to take the money out.  We have to get rid of the constant fundraising that happens inside the Congress.  Before political parties used to raise money; now individual members are raising money through the DCCC and the RCCC.  It is absolutely corrupt.

As we all know, our system of legalized graft goes beyond the halls of Congress.  During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama received nearly $995,000 in contributions from the people at Goldman Sachs.  The gang at 85 Broad Street is obviously getting its money’s worth.




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Kill The Whales

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October 8, 2009

Those whales are back in the news again — this time due to calls for their slaughter.  In case you’re wondering what kind of person would advocate the killing of whales, I would like to identify two people who recently spoke out in favor of such action.  The first of these individuals is one of my favorite columnists at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her “trenchant and incisive” coverage of Wall Street.  The second is the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair.  Two women want to have whales killed?  Yes.  However, the “whales” in question are those infamous financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  On October 3, Gretchen Morgenson wrote a piece for The New York Times, entitled:  “The Cost of Saving These Whales” in which she defined “to big to fail” institutions as “banks that are so big and interconnected that their very existence threatens the world”.   She discussed the problems caused by the continued existence of those whales with this explanation:

During the credit bust, our leaders embraced the too-big-to-fail policy, reluctantly bailing out large institutions to save the system from collapse, they said.  Yet even as the crisis has abated, these policy makers have shown little interest in cutting financial monsters down to size.  This is especially disturbing given that some institutions have grown even larger as a result of the mess.

It is perverse, of course, to reward big banks’ mistakes with bailouts financed by beleaguered taxpayers.  But the too-big-to-fail doctrine benefits the banks in other ways as well:  the implication that an institution will not be allowed to fall gives it significant cost advantages over smaller, perhaps more responsible competitors.

On October 4, Sheila Bair of the FDIC gave a speech before the International Institute of Finance at their annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.  At the outset, she pointed out that “the first task” in creating “a more resilient, transparent, and better-regulated financial system” would be to scrap the “too big to fail” doctrine.  She went on to explain how to go about killing those whales:

To do this we need a resolution regime that provides for the orderly wind-down of banking and other financial enterprises without imposing costs on the taxpayers.

The solution must involve a practical and effective mechanism for the orderly resolution of these institutions similar to that used for FDIC-insured banks.

This new regime would not permit taxpayer funds to be used to prop up a firm or its management.  Instead, senior management would be replaced, and losses would be borne by the stockholders and creditors.

On September 23, 2009 Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner testified before the House Financial Services Committee to explain his planned financial reform agenda.  Here’s what Turbo Tim had to say about the plan for dealing with the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to these institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  Geithner’s scheme of continued corporate welfare for the biggest financial institutions is consistent with what we learned about him from Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in their New York Times article back on April 26.  That essay gave us some great insight about Turbo Tim’s blindness to moral hazard:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack.  He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner.

Geithner’s objective of putting the prosperity of the banks ahead of any concern for the taxpayers was again demonstrated in this AFP report from October 6:

On proposed changes to the financial system, Geithner said it was “legitimate” for banks to be influential and admitted that reform could “pose risks to financial innovation.”

Nevertheless, he stressed that “the most important issue is that if stability (of financial institutions) is not guaranteed, it will become harder to raise capital.”

On October 6, Newsweek published an interview conducted by Nancy Cook with William Black, a former federal regulator during the Savings & Loan crisis and a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  The interview included a discussion of the government’s response to the financial crisis.  One remark made by Mr. Black reinforced my opinion about Turbo Tim:

“Some of the things Bernanke did were very bad, but he is in sharp contrast to Geithner who has been wrong about everything in his career.  When Geithner was once answering a question in response to Ron Paul, he said, ‘I’ve never been a regulator.’  He was then the President of the New York Federal Reserve, and he purports that he was never a regulator?  That is a demonstration of what is wrong with the Federal Reserve banks if the head of the unit doesn’t think he’s a regulator.  He’s a disaster.”

It should come as no surprise that Richard Carnell, a Professor at Fordham Law School and former Assistant Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, would have this to say about Geithner’s financial reform agenda, when asked for his comments by Kim Thai of Fortune:

The plan includes useful reforms.  But it’s also naive, timid, misguided, politically inept, and intellectually dishonest.

It places naive faith in regulation.  Yet regulation failed disastrously over the past decade.  Bank regulators had ample powers to keep banks safe but did too little, too late.  They let banks use $12-13 in borrowed money for every $1 in shareholders’ money.  The administration’s response?  Give regulators more powers.

[The plan] preserves a preposterous tangle of overlapping regulators.  And it didn’t arrive until June, seven months after the election.  By then the crisis had faded and special interest politics had come roaring back.

It entrenches bailouts for large financial institutions.  Voters know that’s rotten policy.  It makes firms like General Electric divest their banks.  That serves no purpose.  It’s like trying to ward off the Mexican Mafia by fortifying the Canadian border.  Small wonder voters remain skeptical.

It appears as though Turbo Tim is not up to the job of killing those whales.  Perhaps the President should find someone who is.




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More Heat For The Federal Reserve

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October 5, 2009

On Thursday, October 1, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the House Financial Services Committee.  That event demonstrated how the Fed has fallen into the crosshairs of critics from both ends of the political spectrum.  A report in Friday’s Los Angeles Times by Jim Puzzanghera began with the point that the Obama administration has proposed controversial legislation that would expand the Fed’s authority, despite bipartisan opposition in a Congress that is more interested in restricting the Fed’s influence:

Worried about the increased power of the complex and mysterious Fed, and upset it did not do more to prevent the deep recession, Capitol Hill has focused its anger over the financial crisis and its aftermath on the central bank.  The Fed finds itself at the center of a collision of traditional political concerns – conservatives’ fears of heavy-handed government intervention in free markets, and liberals’ complaints of regulators who favor corporate executives over average Americans.

More than two-thirds of the House of Representatives has signed on to a bill that would subject the central bank to increased congressional oversight through expanded audits.  A key senator wants to strip the Fed of its authority to regulate banks.  And the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee wants to rein in the Fed’s emergency lending power, which it used to help engineer the sale of Bear Stearns Cos. and bailout American International Group Inc.

The article noted the observation of Jaret Seiberg, a financial policy analyst with Concept Capital’s Washington Research Group:

“The Fed is running into unprecedented opposition on Capitol Hill,” he said.

“In the Senate, there’s open hostility toward any expansion of the Federal Reserve’s authority.  And in the House, you certainly have Republicans looking to focus the Fed solely on monetary policy and strip it of any larger role in financial regulation.”

Mr. Puzzanghera’s report underscored how the Fed’s interventions in the economy during the past year, which involved making loans (of unspecified amounts) and backing commercial transactions, have drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.  The idea of expanding the Fed’s authority to the extent that it would become a “systemic risk regulator” has been criticized both in Congress and by a former member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors:

House Republicans want to scale back the Fed’s power so the bank focuses on monetary policy.  And many have opposed the administration’s proposal to give the Fed the new role of supervising large financial institutions, such as AIG, that are not traditional banks but pose a risk to the economy if they fail.

“I’m not alone with my concerns about the Fed as a systemic regulator,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).  Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has similar concerns, as do others on his panel.  In fact, Dodd has proposed stripping the Fed of all of its bank oversight functions as part of his plan for creating a single banking regulatory agency.

Former Fed Gov. Alice M. Rivlin also said it would be a mistake to increase the Fed’s regulatory powers because it would distract from the central bank’s monetary policy role.

“Do we want to augment the regulatory authority of the Fed?      . . .  My answer is no,” said Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  “My sense is many people would be nervous about that augmentation.”

The colorful Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, recently published a report card on the committee’s website, criticizing the Fed’s poor record on consumer protection.  The report card contrasted what Congressional Democrats had done to address various issues (categorized under the heading:  “Democrats Act”) with what the Fed has or has or has not done in dealing with those same problems.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, is making the rounds, promoting his new book:  End The Fed.  A recent posting at The Daily Bail website includes a YouTube video of Ron Paul at a book signing in New York, which resulted in a small parade over to the New York Fed.  Although the Daily Bail piece reported that Paul’s book had broken into the top ten on Amazon’s list of bestsellers — as I write this, End The Fed is number 15.  I would like to see that book continue to gain popularity.  Perhaps next time Chairman Bernanke testifies before a committee, he will know that something more than his own job is on the line.  It would be nice to see him make history as the last Chairman of the Federal Reserve.




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The Next Big Fight

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October 1, 2009

On Tuesday September 29, H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.  On September 10, Mr. Kotz testified before the Senate Banking Committee.  You can find the prepared testimony here.  (I suggest starting at page 8.)  Having read that testimony, I wasn’t too shocked at what Mr. Kotz had to say in Tuesday’s reports.  Nevertheless, as Zachery Kouwe explained in The New York Times, the level of bureaucratic incompetence at the SEC was underestimated:

Many on Wall Street and in Washington were surprised that some of Mr. Kotz’s proposals, like recording interviews with witnesses and creating a database for tips and complaints, were not already part of the S.E.C.’s standard practice.

The extent of dysfunction at the SEC has been well-documented.  Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street”, expressing my hope that the incoming Obama administration might initiate some serious financial reforms.  I quoted from Steven Labaton’s New York Times report concerning other SEC scandals investigated by Mr. Kotz last year.  My posting also included a quote from a Times piece by Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker) and David Einhorn, which is particularly relevant to the recent disclosures by Inspector General Kotz:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.

This sentiment was echoed on Tuesday by Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture website:

The agency is supposed to be an investor’s advocate, the chief law enforcement agency for the markets.  But that has hardly been how they have been managed, funded and operated in recent years.

Essentially the largest prosecutor’s office in the country, the SEC has been undercut at every turn:  Their staffing was far too small to handle their jurisdiction — Wall Street and public Corporations.  Their budgets have been sliced, and they were unable to keep up with the explosion in corporate criminality.  Many key positions were left unfilled, and morale was severely damaged.  A series of disastrous SEC chairs were appointed — to be “kinder and gentler.”  Not only did they fail to maintain SEC funding (via fines), but they allowed the worst corporate offenders to go unpunished.

Gee, go figure that under those circumstances, they sucked at their jobs.

*   *   *

The bottom line of the SEC is this:  If we are serious about corporate fraud, about violations of the SEC laws, about a level playing field, then we fund the agency adequately, hire enough lawyers to prosecute the crimes, and prevent Congress critters from interfering with the SEC doing its job.

To be blunt:  So far, there is no evidence we are sincere about making the SEC a serious watchdog with teeth.

Congress sure hasn’t been.  Staffing levels have been ignored, budgeting has been cut over the years.  And it’s the sort of administrative issue that does not lend itself to bumper sticker aphorisms or tea party slogans.

Financial expert Janet Tavakoli explained in a presentation to the International Monetary Fund last week, that regulatory failures in the United States helped create an even larger Ponzi scam than the Madoff ruse — the massive racket involving the trading of residential mortgage-backed securities:

Wall Street disguised these toxic “investments” with new value-destroying securitizations and derivatives.

Meanwhile, collapsing mortgage lenders paid high dividends to shareholders (old investors) and interest on credit lines to Wall Street (old investors) with money raised from new investors in doomed securities.  New money allowed Wall Street to temporarily hide losses and pay enormous bonuses.  This is a classic Ponzi scheme.

*   *   *

Had regulators done their jobs, they would have shut down Wall Street’s financial meth labs, and the Ponzi scheme would have quickly choked to death from lack of monetary oxygen.

After the Savings and Loan crisis of the late 1980’s, there were more than 1,000 felony indictments of senior officers.  Recent fraud is much more widespread and costly.  The consequences are much greater.  Congress needs to fund investigations.  Regulators need to get tough on crime.

As Simon Johnson and James Kwak explained in The Washington Post, the upcoming battle over financial reform will be hard-fought by the banking industry and its lobbyists:

The next couple of months will be crucial in determining the shape of the financial system for decades to come.  And so far, the signs are not encouraging.

*   *   *

Even back in April, the industry was able to kill Obama’s request for legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages.  Five months of profits later, the big banks are only stronger.  Is Obama up for this fight?

Our new President must know by now, that sinking a three-point shot is much easier than the juggling act he has undertaken with health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his recent quest to help Chicago win the bid for the 2016 Olympics.  If Mr. Obama can’t beat the health insurance lobby with both the Senate and Congress under Democratic control — how will the voters feel if he drops another ball in the fight for financial reform?   Thanks to Harry Truman, the American public knows where “the buck stops”.  The previously-quoted Washington Post commentary looked even further back in history to explain this burden of leadership:

During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, “If only the king knew . . . .”  Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.  Now is the time for him to show what his priorities are and how hard he is willing to fight for them. Elections have consequences, people used to say.  This election brought in a popular Democratic president with reasonably large majorities in both houses of Congress.  The financial crisis exposed the worst side of the financial services industry to the bright light of day.  If we cannot get meaningful financial regulatory reform this year, we can’t blame it all on the banking lobby.

Let the games begin!




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