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2009 Jackass Of The Year Award

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December 31, 2009

Well, it’s that time once again!  The 2008 competition brought us a robust field of candidates, probably because it was an election year.  This year, I’ve decided to ignore the one-event wonders and stick with nominees demonstrating a consistent pattern of jackass behavior.  The isolated exhibitions of foolishness illustrated by Richard Heene’s “balloon boy” hoax and Janet Napolitano’s “the system worked” gaffe, just don’t rise to the level of an award-winning honor.  I’m also avoiding individuals categorized as “the usual suspects” — the media darlings who are already getting beaten-up in the 2009 retrospective shows.  That list includes such notables as Tiger Woods, Carrie Prejean and “The Undiebomber” (Umar Mutallab).

This year I have narrowed the competition down to two people.

In just a few short weeks, our first nominee will be celebrating the anniversary of his inauguration as President of the United States.  During his early days in office, he enjoyed an approval rating as high as 69 percent, according to Gallup.  By early December, Gallup reported that his approval rating had taken a 22-point drop to 47 percent.  At that time, Rasmussen Reports revealed that not only had the President’s approval rating dropped to 48 percent — his disapproval rating actually reached 52 percent! On December 9, Quinnipiac University published the results of a poll conducted during December 1 – 6.  The results gave the President a job approval rating of only 46 percent, and those disapproving Obama’s performance amounted to 44 percent.  The Ipsos/McClatchy Poll taken during that period, disclosed that the President received his highest “unsatisfactory” rating on the issue of “jobs and the economy” with 45 percent giving the President an unsatisfactory grade (D or F) while only 36 percent gave him a satisfactory grade (A or B) and 19 percent gave him a C.

Many commentators have pondered over the reasons for President Obama’s decreasing approval ratings.  I have previously discussed the subject here, here and here.  In doing so, I found the criticism of Obama’s performance as expressed by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns, to be particularly insightful.  In his December 27 posting, Mr. Harrison posed a question that has obviously been on the minds of many disappointed Obama supporters:

The question is this:

  • Did President Obama sell out (i.e. he was a good guy but has been corrupted in short order) or;
  • Did Obama find out he couldn’t change the status quo so easily (i.e. he was a good guy who was naive about the President’s real power)or;
  • Did the President simply bamboozle us (i.e. he was a bad guy who tricked the electorate with his silver tongue)?

Mr. Harrison contended that the foregoing inquiry is actually irrelevant because it involves ascribing an intent behind the President’s behavior, when we should be looking at either motive or outcome.  Mr. Harrison eventually focused on a recent op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times entitled:  “The Obama Way”.  Obama’s track record of broken campaign promises, including “no more trickle-down economics” and those documented on The Obameter, is something that obviously weighs on the minds of dispirited Obama supporters.  Ross Douthat explained how the President’s leadership style is itself a broken campaign promise:

He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf.  He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

*   *   *

It’s also puzzling because Obama promised exactly the opposite approach while running for the presidency.  He campaigned as a postpartisan healer who would change the cynical ways of Washington — as a foe of both back-room deals and ideology-as-usual.  But he’s governed as a conventional liberal who believes in the existing system, knows how to work it and accepts the limitations it imposes on him.

*   *   *

The upside of this approach is obvious:  It gets things done.

*   *   *

The downside, though, is that sometimes what gets done isn’t worth doing.  The assumption that a compromised victory is better than no victory at all can produce phony achievements — like last week’s “global agreement” on climate change — and bloated, ugly legislation.  And using cynical means to progressive ends (think of the pork-laden stimulus bill or the frantic vote-buying that preceded this week’s Senate health care votes) tends to confirm independent voters’ worst fears about liberal government:  that it’s a racket rigged to benefit privileged insiders and a corrupt marketplace floated by our tax dollars.

Ross Douthat’s conclusion implied that it’s still too early determine whether Obama’s political approach will ultimately result in success or failure.  By this time next year, the mid-term elections will be over.  If the careers of many Democratic politicians are over at that point, we will then have to assess whether President Obama’s leadership style helped to bring them down.  As a result, we will have to defer to next year’s competition before deciding whether our new President rates the title “Jackass of the Year”.

Our second nominee is the so-called “Supreme Leader” of Iran, Ali Khamenei.  Khamenei decided to rig the June elections to ensure that his tool, the equally crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be re-elected.  The resulting public outrage was escalated by Khamenei into a bloodbath.  Since that time, Khamenei’s ham-handed tactics in attempting to squelch opposition have only made things worse.  A recent New York Times editorial entitled “Iran’s War on Its People” put it this way:

Iran’s leaders are so desperate to repel a rising tide of popular unrest that even Ashura — which marks the death of Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr — is no longer sacred.

The anniversary, which fell on Sunday, is supposed to be a time of peaceful commemoration.  Even during war, Iranian governments have honored the prohibitions against violence during a two-month period surrounding Ashura.  Tehran’s current rulers have proved again that their only belief is in their own survival.

On Sunday, the police opened fire on a crowd of protesters, reportedly killing at least 10 people, and arrested hundreds more.  Government forces are also believed to be behind the assassination of Ali Moussavi, nephew of the opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi, the leading candidate in June’s fraudulent presidential election.

*   *   *

The government still appears to have firm control of the main levers of power, including the brutish Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia.  But Ayatollah Khamenei — who helped lead the 1979 revolution against the shah — should not ignore the echoes of history when protesters defy the death blows of security forces and chant “Death to the dictator” on the streets of Tehran.

Al Jazeera’s Teymoor Nabili reported that Baqer Moin, London-based analyst and Ayatollah Khomeini biographer, explained that Iran’s opposition party, the Greens, would still settle for modest reform, if the regime would compromise.  Nevertheless, Mr. Nabili’s report quoted other sources who expressed concern that the upcoming anniversary of the revolution could be “the next potential spark”.  Will the Supreme Leader negotiate?  Based on his record over the past six months, there is no reason to believe that he will.  His strategy of cracking down on the Greens with more deadly repression is exactly the approach that could lead to the regime’s demise.  Mr. Nabili added this insight to an already gloomy picture:

A contact in Iran tells me that, given the arrests over the past two days, the trend points to the possibility that the regime is slowly tightening the screws, and that before then we might see martial law and the arrest of Mousavi and/or Karroubi/Khatami/Rafsanjani’s daughter (Rafsanjani himself is still beyond the pale, it would seem.)

Brilliant plan, huh?  Another Al Jazeera report revealed that the Iranian government’s desperate actions are a sign of weakness that could ultimately lead to the end of Khamenei’s days as “Supreme Leader”:

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of the Iranian parliament, told Al Jazeera that the government faced a fundamental crisis.

“They can’t control the events so they made the Ashoura incidents as a scenario that could give [them] enough confidence to crack down on the [Green] Movement,” she said from Massachusetts in the United States.

“They think that if they could use more violence, they can stop the movement … if this strategy continues I think we could see the collapse of the government.”

After George W. Bush overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, many commentators expressed concern that this development could bring about an era of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, Iran’s relentless efforts to create a nuclear arsenal and the craziness of its Supreme Leader, who would likely detonate an atomic bomb in Israel if he had such a weapon, have apparently made the Iranian people more than a little uncomfortable with their government.  The events since June could only serve to underscore fears that the Khamenei regime would attempt a nuclear strike on Israel, resulting in a retaliatory move that would wipe Tehran off the map.  The Iranian people are obviously not going to sit on their hands and wait for that to happen.  Al Jazeera’s Teymoor Nabili provided us with some insight on the current mood of the Iranian protesters:

To outside observers, though, the protestors have defied expectations.  Their continued willingness to make themselves targets has been a surprise; now it seems as if they are willing to take it even further, protesting not only against the election result but against the very essence of the regime.

Although it may be too early to celebrate the demise of the Khamenei regime, the time is certainly right to honor Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, with TheCenterLane.com‘s Jackass of the Year Award.   Congratulations, Jackass!



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A Closer Look

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December 28, 2009

As the year and the decade come to a close, we are being bombarded with a slew of retrospectives about what was “important” during this crazy time.  Those of us who are capable of directing our attention to intellectually stimulating subjects, have found the increasing availability of information from internet-based sources to be life-changing.  Now that we are no longer stuck with a focus on the handful of news stories deemed “important” by mainstream media outlets, we have familiarized ourselves with the ever-expanding marketplace of ideas to be found online.  We all have our favorite websites, where we go first when we want to find out the latest and most attention-grabbing news events of the day.  From there, many of us take a closer look at a particular topic by going to a more specialized, subject-oriented website.  I keep a blogroll at the left side of this page, which is offered as a diverse aggregation of sources and perspectives on subjects usually covered in this blog.  Lately, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reading the great material by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns.  As a result, I’ve added a link to that site on my blogroll.

Edward Harrison explained the reason why he chose such a gloomy name for his website:

I named my blog “Credit Writedowns” because I anticipated an historic wave of credit writedowns in the global banking system which would lead to a wave of deleveraging, systemic risk, and bank failures — in short, a massive financial and economic bust to rival the Great Depression.

Mr.  Harrison has an MBA degree in Finance from Columbia University and he works as a banking and finance specialist for Global Macro Advisors.  One of his noteworthy efforts from the first year of Credit Writedowns came about on September 24, 2008, when he published “The Dummy’s Guide to the US Banking Crisis”.

I have been particularly impressed by the “year in review” series, presently underway at Credit Writedowns.  On December 23, Mr. Harrison published a great essay about how “kleptocracy” (rule by thieves) has become the status quo.  The premise for this piece was originally included in one of Harrison’s early postings on Credit Writedowns, from March 24, 2008.  At that time, he explained the subject this way:

First, let’s use a theory from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond as the center-piece for this little theory.  In Chapter 14, entitled “From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy,” Diamond postulates that more stratified societies are by definition less egalitarian, but more efficient and are, thus, able to eradicate or conquer more egalitarian, less stratified societies.  Thus, all “advanced” societies with high levels of GDP are complex and hierarchical.

The problem is:  these more stratified, more complex societies are in essence Kleptocracies, where those in power re-distribute societal wealth to themselves.  Those at the bottom of the society’s pyramid accept this unequal, non-egalitarian state of affairs because they too benefit from their society’s relative advancement. It’s a case of a rising tide lifting all boats.

Back in March of 2008, Edward Harrison was one of just a small handful of thinkers capable of facing up to the ugly reality of where the credit bubble brought us:

The United States has been living beyond its means for some time.  Since the 1960s, we have run up a massive federal debt and current account deficit, while debt levels have doubled on a percentage of GDP basis.  Our present levels of consumption are simply not justified by our current levels of productivity, if we want to maintain our present standard of living in the future.

*   *   *

The fact is our day of reckoning is upon us.  We will soon realize that our massive debt and an outsized credit bubble have not only saddled us with debt, but it has also misallocated capital so that we are less productive than we believed.  We have built miles and miles of telecom dark fibre when we could have invested in schools.  We have built massive numbers of new homes, when we could have repaired our bridges and roads. The last 35 years have been an illusion of extreme productivity and wealth because we have artificially pulled forward demand by misallocating resources in order to consume today, what could have been consumed tomorrow.  In essence, we are consuming today, while unwittingly making it more difficult to consume tomorrow because we believe we are wealthier than we truly are.

The recent sneaky move by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner on Christmas Eve, lifting the $400 billion restriction on bailouts to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (sidestepping the need for Congressional approval because it was done before the end of the year) is drawing attention to the kleptocracy’s strategy of relying on distraction of public attention in order to get away with skullduggery.  Harrison’s point from the December 23 posting:  that the kleptocracy anesthetizes the public with television, which has become “our own modern-day agent of mental anesthesia”, struck a chord with me.

The latest entry in the “year in review” series at Credit Writedowns concerns the subject of crony capitalism.  Here’s how Edward Harrison described the piece:

In this post, I want to talk about Obama’s economic policies in the context of what I perceive as a crony capitalism which is now endemic in Washington.  As I see it, Americans are angry because the economy is still quite fragile and the personal financial situation for many ordinary Americans is still quite dire.  Yet, the so-called fat cats seem more pigs eating at the trough of government largesse.  This juxtaposition is galling and undermines any success that the Obama Administration has achieved.

A key theme of that essay is expressed in this passage:

The evidence, therefore, tends to demonstrate that we have witnessed an orchestrated campaign by the Bush and Obama Administrations to recapitalize too big to fail institutions by hook or by crook, bypassing Congressional approval if necessary.  And when it comes to healthcare, both Congress and the White House have bent over backwards to keep the lobbyists onside.  As I see it, our government has favored special interests in the past year of Obama’s tenure to our detriment.

As more economists voice agreement with the opinion expressed by Joseph Stiglitz, that there will likely be further economic contraction in the second half of 2010, the inevitability of a dreaded “double-dip” recession will become more apparent.  Mr. Harrison pointed out that this scenario could result in some disdain for President Obama, which might impact the 2010 election results.  Perhaps President Obama should start reading Credit Writedowns — and stop listening to Larry Summers.



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This Fight Is Far From Over

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December 24, 2009

On November 26, I mentioned how apologists for controversial Wall Street giant, Goldman Sachs, were attempting to characterize Goldman’s critics as “conspiracy theorists” in the apparent hope that the use of such a term would discourage continued scrutiny of that firm’s role in causing the financial crisis.  The name-calling tactic didn’t work.  Since that time, my favorite reporter for The New York Times — Pulitzer Prize winner, Gretchen Morgenson — has continued to dig down into a dirty, sickening story about how Goldman Sachs (as well as some other firms) through their deliberate bets against their own financial products, known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) caused the financial crisis and ruined the lives of most Americans.  Ms. Morgenson had previously discussed the opinion of derivatives expert, Janet Tavakoli, who argued that Goldman Sachs “should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books”.  Although the Goldman apologists have been quick to point out that the firm repaid the bailout money it received under TARP, the $13 billion received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, has not been repaid.

On December 23, The New York Times published the latest report written by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story revealing how Goldman and other firms created those Collateralized Debt Obligations, sold them to their own customers and then used a new Wall Street index, called the ABX (a way to invest in the direction of mortgage securities) to bet that those same CDOs would fail.  Here’s a passage from the beginning of that superb Morgenson/Story article:

Goldman was not the only firm that peddled these complex securities — known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s — and then made financial bets against them, called selling short in Wall Street parlance.  Others that created similar securities and then bet they would fail, according to Wall Street traders, include Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, as well as smaller firms like Tricadia Inc., an investment company whose parent firm was overseen by Lewis A. Sachs, who this year became a special counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

Wait a minute!  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner has retained a “special counselor” whose responsibilities included oversight of Tricadia’s parent company.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Our President apparently sees nothing wrong with it.  At this point, that’s not too surprising.

Anyway  . . .  Let’s get back to the Times article:

How these disastrously performing securities were devised is now the subject of scrutiny by investigators in Congress, at the Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, according to people briefed on the investigations.  Those involved with the inquiries declined to comment.

While the investigations are in the early phases, authorities appear to be looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them, people briefed on the matter say.

We can only hope that the investigations by Congress, the SEC and FINRA might result in some type of sanctions.  At this juncture, that sort of accountability just seems like a wild fantasy.

Janet Tavakoli did a follow-up piece of her own for The Huffington Post on December 22.  She is now more critical of the November 17 report prepared by the Special Inspector General of Tarp (SIGTARP) and she continues to demand that Goldman should pay back the billions it received as an AIG counterparty:

The TARP Inspector General’s November 17 report missed the most damaging facts.  Intentionally or otherwise, it was evasive action or just plain whitewash.  The report failed to clarify Goldman’s role in AIG’s near collapse, and that of all the settlement deals, the U.S.taxpayers’ was by far the worst.

*   *   *

Goldman paid mega bonuses in past years subsidized by selling hot air.  Now it proposes to again pay billions in bonuses based on earnings made possible by taxpayer dollars.

Now that the crisis is over, we should ask Goldman Sachs — and all of AIG’s other trading partners involved in these trades — to buy back these mortgage assets at full price.  Alternatively, we can impose a special tax.  Instead of calling it a windfall profits tax, we might label it a “hot air” profits tax.

It was refreshing to read the opinion of someone who felt that Janet Tavakoli was holding back on her criticism of Goldman Sachs in the above-quoted piece.  Thomas Adams is a banking law attorney at Paykin, Kreig and Adams, LLP as well a former managing director of Ambac Financial Group, a bond insurer that is managing to crawl its way out from under the rubble of the CDO catastrophe.  Mr. Adams obviously has no warm spot in his heart for Goldman Sachs.  I continue to take delight in the visual image of a Goldman apologist, blue-faced with smoke coming out of his ears while reading the essay Mr. Adams wrote for Naked Capitalism:

. . .  Ms. Tavakoli stops short of telling the whole story.  While she is very knowledgeable of this market, perhaps she is unaware of the full extent of the wrongdoings Goldman committed by getting themselves paid on the AIG bailout.  The Federal Reserve and the Treasury aided and abetted Goldman Sachs in committing financial and ethical crimes at an astounding level.

*   *   *

But Ms. Tavakoli fails to note that the collapse of the CDO bonds and the collapse of AIG were a deliberate strategy by Goldman.  To realize on their bet against the housing market, Goldman needed the CDO bonds to collapse in value, which would cause AIG to be downgraded and lead to AIG posting collateral and Goldman getting paid for their bet.  I am confident that Goldman Sachs did not reveal to AIG that they were betting on the housing market collapse.

*   *   *

Goldman goes quite a few steps further into despicable territory with their other actions and the body count from Goldman’s actions is so enormous that it crosses over into criminal territory, morally and legally, by getting taxpayer money for their predation.

Goldman made a huge bet that the housing market would collapse.  They profited, on paper, from the tremendous pain suffered by homeowners, investors and taxpayers across the country, they helped make it worse.  Their bet only succeeded because they were able to force the government into bailing out AIG.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, by helping Goldman Sachs to profit from homeowner and investor losses, conceal their misrepresentations to shareholders, destroy insurers by stuffing them with toxic bonds that they marketed as AAA, and escape from the consequences of making a risky bet, committed a grave injustice and, very likely, financial crimes.  Since the bailout, they have actively concealed their actions and mislead the public.  Goldman, the Fed and the Treasury should be investigated for fraud, securities law violations and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.  Based on what I have laid out here, I am confident that they will find ample evidence.

The backlash against the repugnant activities of Goldman Sachs has come a long way from Matt Taibbi’s metaphor describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  With three investigations underway, the widely-despised icon of Wall Street greed might have more to worry about than its public image.





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Turning Up The Heat

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December 21, 2009

By now you should be aware of the fact that for his 56th birthday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Were the folks at Time so arrogant as to believe that this honor would insure the confirmation of Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve?  More than a few commentators expressed the view that Time’s “Person of the Year” award might actually jeopardize Bernanke’s chance at confirmation.  For example, take a look at what Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) had to say:

That Bernanke is on the cover of Time Magazine means one thing “Bernanke’s Time Is Limited” He is on his way out.  And that is good news.

*   *   *

The quicker this blows up, the quicker we can recover.  And knowing what we know about Time Magazine, Central Banking will blow up sooner rather than later.  Moreover, Bernanke will not be part of the solution, and that is a good thing.

I thank Time Magazine for the information and their kiss of death warning. However, I must also remind readers that Stalin made the cover twice, so immediate results just might be expecting too much.

When Bernanke was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee during the confirmation hearing on December 3, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky gave him a magnificent pummeling, most notable for the assertion:  “You are the definition of a moral hazard!”  My only criticism of Bunning’s diatribe was that he should have said:  “You are the personification of a moral hazard” or “You are the epitome of a moral hazard”  —  otherwise, it was perfect.  If that weren’t enough, Senator Bunning demanded that Bernanke answer seventy written questions submitted by Bunning himself.  Those of you who have ever been a party to a lawsuit might recall having to provide signed answers to written interrogatories.  Most jurisdictions place a limit on the number of such interrogatories to the extent of approximately 35.  Senator Bunning propounded twice that many to Bernanke and the nominee answered all of them.  Don Luskin of Smart Money analyzed one of these answers in a way that underscored the necessity of removing Bernanke from the Fed chairmanship.

On December 18, Victoria McGrane reported for Politico that the Bernanke nomination “could be in more trouble than previously thought”.  Although the Senate Banking Committee voted to confirm the nomination, ultimately the entire Seante must vote on the matter.  The fact that six Republicans and one Democrat from the Banking Committee voted against the nomination was portrayed as an ominous signal, casting doubt on the likelihood of confirmation.  Ms. McGrane discussed the reaction to the confirmation hearings expressed by Brian Gardner, a bank analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods:

Two aspects of the two-hour debate that preceded the committee vote struck Gardner as worrisome for Bernanke:  the unenthusiastic — even apologetic — tone from some of the senators who voted yes and a dispute over the Fed’s refusal to release documents about the bailout of insurance giant American International Group to senators on the committee.

The article explained that the AIG bailout documents were available for review by “some banking committee staffers” although the documents have been withheld by the Fed from individual senators and the public, based on the Fed’s claim that the documents are “protected”.

This is apparently an assertion by the Fed that there is some sort of privilege protecting the AIG bailout documents from disclosure.  Nevertheless, if the fight over these records ever gets before a court, it is likely that production of the documents would be compelled, since any claim of privilege was waived once the Fed allowed the “banking committee staffers” to review the items.

The Politico report noted the significance of this matter:

That spat could have legs, Gardner said, and if it resonates with a public already fuming at the Fed, it could sway the votes of yes-leaning senators.

The battle over the AIG bailout documents was also the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

No doubt, some of the e-mail messages contain privileged conversations among lawyers.  Others probably include private information that is irrelevant to A.I.G.’s role in the crisis. But the vast majority of these documents could be made public without legal concern.  So why haven’t the Treasury and the Federal Reserve already made sure the public could see this information?  Do they want to protect A.I.G., or do they worry about shining too much sunlight on their own performance leading up to and during the crisis?

What will these e-mails reveal about the actions of Ben Bernanke and “Turbo” Tim Geithner during the AIG bailout phase of the financial crisis?  Were laws violated or do they simply exhibit some poor decision-making and cronyism?

Most of us are now getting ready for the coldest month of the year – but for Ben Bernanke, the heat is being turned up  —  full blast.



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Damage Control

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December 17, 2009

Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  It was another classic work in his unique style.  The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign:  promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis.  The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case:  Taibbi himself).  It didn’t work.  The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of  Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong.  A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi.  The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read.  At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:

It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy.  In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises.  If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.

Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode.  Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks.  The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”.  On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend.  Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers.  After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:

.  .  . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.

*   *   *

Said one CEO who attended:  “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”

Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt.   . . .  He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”

Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis.  As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:

And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks.  They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone).  Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.

At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”.  Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:

By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own.  While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults.  And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.

The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless.  With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate.  The President’s critics have been quick to pounce.  George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”.  The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.”  However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com.  Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt:  Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.”  While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country.  The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:

For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough.  They question whether he has what it takes to get results:  to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth.  It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.

*   *   *

But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader.  Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office?  He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?

Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging.  But I would not give up hope for growth.

It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”.  This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.



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No Free Pass For The Disappointer-In-Chief

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December 14, 2009

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency was hailed by many as an event that “transcended race”.  Ever since Obama’s primary election victory in lily-white Iowa, the pundits couldn’t stop talking about the candidate’s unique ability to vault the racial barrier before Hillary Clinton could break through the glass ceiling.  As we approach the conclusion of Obama’s first year in the White House, it has become apparent that the Disappointer-in-Chief has not only alienated the Democratic Party’s liberal base, but he has also let down a demographic he thought he could take for granted:  the African-American voters.  At this point, Obama has “transcended race” with his ability to dishearten loyal black voters just as deftly as he has chagrined loyal supporters from all ethnic groups.

Charles Blow’s recent opinion piece for the December 4 edition of The New York Times, entitled:  “Black in the Age of Obama” shed some light on the racist backlash against the black population as a result of the election of our nation’s first African-American President.  Mr. Blow then focused on Obama’s approach to his sinking poll numbers:

This means that Obama can get away with doing almost nothing to specifically address issues important to African-Americans and instead focus on the white voters he’s losing in droves. This has not gone unnoticed.  In the Nov. 9 Gallup poll, the number of blacks who felt that Obama would not go far enough in promoting efforts to aid the black community jumped 60 percent from last summer to now.

*   *   *

The Age of Obama, so far at least, seems less about Obama as a black community game-changer than as a White House gamesman.  It’s unclear if there will be a positive Obama Effect, but an Obama Backlash is increasingly apparent.  Meanwhile, black people are also living a tale of two actions:  grin and bear it.

As Silla Brush reported for The Hill on December 2, ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus had threatened to withhold their votes on the financial reform bill, because the President had not been “doing enough to help African-Americans through the bleak economy”.

It has been easy to understand the dissatisfaction with Obama expressed by the Democratic Party’s liberal base.  In a piece entitled “The Winter of Liberal Discontent”, Louis Proyect incorporated the umbrage expressed by such notables as Tom Hayden and Michael Moore, while providing a thorough assessment of Obama’s abandonment of the Left.  He concluded the piece with a quoted passage from an essay written for The Huffington Post by Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional TARP Oversight Panel.  Mr. Proyect quoted Ms. Warren’s reference to some brutally unpleasant statistics, raising the question of whether America will continue to have a middle class.  The theme of Mr. Proyect’s discussion was based on this point:

The chorus of disapproval is louder than any I have heard from liberal quarters since 1967 when another very popular Democrat did an about-face once he was in office.  When LBJ ran as a peace candidate, very few people — except unrepentant Marxists — would have anticipated a massive escalation in Vietnam.  It was well understood a year ago that Obama was committed to escalating the war in Afghanistan, but the liberal base of the Democratic Party was too mesmerized by the mantras of “hope” and “change” to believe that their candidate would actually carry out his promise.

There is a tendency to regard right-wing Republican presidents being replaced by idealistic-appearing Democrats who betray their supporters, thus enabling a new Republican candidate to take over the White House, as a kind of Western version of karma.  We are compelled by universal law in some way to undergo an endless cycle of suffering without hope of redemption short of Enlightenment.

The criticism of Obama expressed by African-American commentators underscores the President’s unique ability to alienate those who might support him on the basis of ethnic solidarity, just as thoroughly as he can antagonize the melanin-deficient “limousine liberals” of Park Avenue.  On December 11, Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns made a point of letting us know that the complete text of Matt Taibbi’s recent Rolling Stone article, “Obama’s Big Sellout” is now available online.  Before quoting some of the discussion in Matt Taibbi’s essay, Mr. Harrison provided some hard-hitting criticism of the Obama administration’s financial and economic policy shortcomings.  You may note that the administration’s abandonment of the African-American base was not discussed.  It wouldn’t do justice to Mr. Harrison’s great work to quote a snippet of this because it’s too good.  I have to give you the whole thing:

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform.  While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis.

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement.

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests.  It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions.  But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform.  Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place.  What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firm’s demise. The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda.  It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party.  I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings.  While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

The magic of the Obama candidacy has vanished with the disappointments of the Obama Presidency.  His supporters have learned, the hard way, that talk is cheap.  The President’s actions during the next three years will not only impact the viability of his administration — they could undermine the careers of his fellow Democrats.



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That Sinking Feeling

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December 10, 2009

President Obama must have thought that a regimen of constant speechifying on television would maintain his popularity.  While enduring criticism from his fellow Democrats after his most recent speech on December 8, Obama must be aware that the poll numbers show how his continuous oration strategy is not working.  During these desperate economic times, the voters — even Obama’s own supporters — want more than speeches.  On December 1, poll results released by Rasmussen Reports not only revealed that the President’s approval rating sank to 48 percent — his disapproval rating actually reached 52 percent!  On December 9, Quinnipiac University published the results of a poll conducted during December 1 – 6.  The results gave the Preisdent a job approval rating of only 46 percent, and those disapproving Obama’s performance amounted to 44 percent.  Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, discussed the results:

“President Barack Obama’s job approval rating continues to slide and it’s evident the deterioration stems from voter unhappiness over domestic policy matters,” Brown added.

American voters disapprove 54 – 41 percent of Obama’s handling of the economy, down from a 52 – 43 percent disapproval November 18 and his worst score ever on this issue.  The biggest shift is among Democrats who approve 71 – 24 percent, down from 77 – 18 percent three weeks ago.

The biggest drop in Obama’s overall approval is among independent voters, who disapprove 51 – 37 percent, down from 46 – 43 percent disapproval.

Although the health care issue had an impact on the poll’s results, the Quinnipiac team found that the deterioration in support for Obama resulted from those favoring the public option, despite the spin effort in many quarters to suggest that the poll revealed dissatisfaction with the public option itself:

Voters disapprove 52 – 38 percent of the health care reform proposal under consideration in Congress, and they disapprove 56 – 38 percent of President Obama’s handling of health care, down from 53 – 41 percent in a November 19 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh- pe-ack) University.

But voters support 56 – 38 percent giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan, compared to 57 -35 percent November 19.

The Ipsos/McClatchy Poll, taken during December 3 – 6, gave the President an even 49 – 49 percent split on his approval rating.  The interesting segment of these results was the breakdown on voter satisfaction concerning particular issues.  That section of the poll revealed that Obama received his highest “unsatisfactory” rating on the issue of  “jobs and the economy” with 45 percent giving the President an unsatisfactory grade (D or F) while only 36 percent gave him a satisfactory grade (A or B) and 19 percent gave him a C.

The disappointment expressed by Obama’s supporters concerning his handling of the economy was not limited to polling results.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, wrote a piece for his blog on December 8 entitled:  “The Preisdent’s Job Initiative Doesn’t Measure Up”.  Reich was not alone in his assessment of Obama’s performance to date:

No president in modern times walks a tightrope as exquisitely as this one.  His balance is a thing of beauty.  But when it comes to this economy right now — an economy fundamentally out of balance — we need a federal government that moves boldly and swiftly to counter-balance the huge recessionary forces still at large.

Reich implied that the time for the “balancing act” is over.  It is now time to solve problems:

The word in Washington is we’re out of the woods.  The rate of unemployment dipped from 10.2 percent in September to 10 percent in October.  In our nation’s capital, a one-month trend marks a turnaround.  Don’t believe it for a moment.  The real story of October was the increasing number of Americans who dropped out of the labor force, too discouraged even to look for work.

Whether or not one agrees with Reich’s proposal of spending $400 billion over a two-year period to put people back to work, even Reich’s opponents would likely agree with his assessment of Obama’s initiative:

We don’t know exactly how much the President is proposing to spend, but sources tell me it’s in the range of $70 billion, redirected from the $200 billion in TARP savings.  The President’s small, calibrated attempt to balance a stimulus with deficit reduction will in fact make the deficit worse over the long haul.  It postpones the day when we’re back to near full employment, when almost all Americans who need a job get paychecks on which they pay taxes.  This isn’t really balance at all.   It prolongs the economic imbalance.

At The New Republic, William Galston wrote a piece entitled “Obama Has a Problem Prioritizing his Agenda” which he began by discussing the importance of timing:

Timing is to politics what location is to real estate.  Good policy ideas are useless if the time is not right.

*   *   *

But the larger point is that the president is beginning to realign his agenda.

But he’s just beginning.  To complete the pivot and make 2010 the year of jobs, two other things must happen.  First, the White House must fully integrate the jobs focus into the president’s schedule.

*   *   *

Second, the legislative agenda for 2010 must reflect and reinforce the renewed focus on job creation.  That means postponing items that the American people are bound to regard as diversionary as long as unemployment remains high.

*   *   *

Great presidents from Lincoln to FDR have understood that “now or never” is the ultimate false choice in politics.  All too often, now means never.  The “fierce urgency of now” should be reserved for what is truly urgent.  As for the rest, patience is more than a virtue; it is a necessity.

On of my favorite centrist commentators, Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com, wrote a piece on Wednesday entitled:  “Obama Not Cutting It On The Economy”.  Although Gerstein began by complimenting Obama on his “balancing act”, he moved on to focus on the absence of “hope and change” promised during the election campaign.  As we have seen, Gerstein was not alone in emphasizing the need to immediately address this problem:

Indeed, we’re confronting an unprecedented combination of grave economic challenges that, while not as immediate as the financial collapse we avoided last fall, may be more consequential.

Gerstein explained how Obama’s initiative is a step in the right direction, but just a step, nonetheless:

The modest job-creation proposals the administration unveiled Tuesday individually have their merits, and they seem much more mission-focused than the mish-mashed stimulus bill that Congressional Democrats constructed.

*   *   *

That’s because the new jobs plan was not designed to be a policy game-changer but a political stopgap, to tide the public over and buy the White House time for the second half of the stimulus plan to kick in.  They are betting the national farm — soy beans to servers — that the old stimulus combined with the new “stimulus lite” will provide enough demand to spur enough new hiring to calm the country.

Gerstein provided a good explanation of the core difficulty the President faces in tackling the multitude of problems arising from the economic crisis:

This unwillingness to make tough decisions strikes me as arguably the worst leadership failure of the Obama presidency.  That’s in large part because cutting outlays and shifting resources would be such a relatively easy lift in this environment.  For starters the federal government is filled with programs and set-asides that are either outdated, wasteful, largely symbolic or designed to serve narrow interest groups.  And the administration (not to mention many think tanks) has already identified dozens of suitable targets in budget hit lists.  No one would be better positioned than Obama, given his baseline support on the left, to call for the elimination and reduction of programs that we can’t defend as national priorities at this moment.

*   *   *

This was the great missed opportunity of the president’s speech — the watchdog that didn’t bark.  He could have done more than repackage his economic policy; he could have helped restore public confidence in his leadership and our shared future.  Instead, the juggler-in-chief did the opposite of his Afghanistan speech — he settled for the safe play and in doing so dropped the most important ball.

That’s great advice!  If only the President would listen to it.



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A Look Ahead

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December 7, 2009

As 2010 approaches, expect the usual bombardment of prognostications from the stars of the info-tainment industry, concerning everything from celebrity divorces to the nuclear ambitions of Iran.   Meanwhile, those of us preferring quality news reporting must increasingly rely on internet-based venues to seek out the views of more trustworthy sources on the many serious subjects confronting the world.  On October 29, I discussed the most recent GMO Quarterly Newsletter from financial wizard Jeremy Grantham and his expectation that the stock market will undergo a

“correction” or drop of approximately 20 percent next year.   Grantham’s paper inspired others to ponder the future of the troubled American economy and the overheated stock market.  Mark Hulbert, editor of The Hulbert Financial Digest, wrote a piece for the December 5 edition of The New York Times, picking up on Jeremy Grantham’s stock performance expectations.  Hulbert noted Grantham’s continuing emphasis on “high-quality, blue chip” stocks as the most likely to perform well in the coming year.  Grantham’s rationale is based on the fact that the recent stock market rally was excessively biased in favor of junk stocks, rather than the higher-quality “blue chips”, such as Wal-Mart.  Hulbert noted how Wal-mart shares gained only 14 percent since March 9, while the shares of the debt-laden electronics services firm, Sanmina-SCI, have risen more than 600 percent during that same period.  Hulbert pointed out that the conclusion to be reached from this information should be pretty obvious:

As an unintended consequence, Mr. Grantham said, high-quality stocks today are about as cheap as they have ever been relative to shares of firms with weaker finances.

It’s almost a certain bet that high-quality blue chips will outperform lower-quality stocks over the longer term,” he said.

My favorite reaction to Jeremy Grantham’s newsletter came from Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, who emphasized Grantham’s broader view for the economy as a whole, rather than taking a limited focus on stock performance.  Farrell targeted President Obama’s “predictably irrational” economic policies by presenting us with a handy outline of Grantham’s criticism of those policies.  Farrell prefaced his outline with this statement:

So please listen closely to his 14-point analysis of the rampant irrationality at the highest level of American government today, because what he is also predicting is another catastrophic meltdown dead ahead.

At the first point in the outline, Farrell made this observation:

If Grantham ever was a fan, he’s clearly disillusioned with the president.   His 14 points expose the extremely irrational behavior of Obama breaking promises by turning Washington over to Wall Street, a blunder that will trigger the Great Depression 2.

Farrell’s discussion included a reference to the latest article by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone, entitled “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  The Rolling Stone website described Taibbi’s latest essay in these terms:

In “Obama’s Big Sellout”, Matt Taibbi argues that President Obama has packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders intent on turning the bailout into an all-out giveaway.  Rather than keeping his progressive campaign advisers on board, Taibbi says Obama gave key economic positions in the White House to the very people who caused the economic crisis in the first place.  Taibbi also points to the ties Obama’s appointees have to one main in particular:  Bob Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs co-chairman who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton.

Since the article is not available online yet, you will have to purchase the latest issue of Rolling Stone or wait patiently for the release of their next issue, at which time “Obama’s Big Sellout” should be online.  In the mean time, they have provided this brief video of Matt Taibbi’s discussion of the piece.

The new year will also bring us a new book by Danny Schecter, entitled The Crime of Our Time.  Mr. Schecter recently discussed this book in a live interview with Max Keiser.  (The interview begins at 16:55 into the video.)  In discussing the book, Schecter explained how “the financial industry essentially de-regulated its own marketplace.  They got rid of the laws that required disclosure and accountability …” and created a “shadow banking system”.  Shechter’s previous book, Plunder, has now become a film that will be released soon.  In Plunder, he described how the subprime mortgage crisis nearly destroyed the American economy.  The interview by Max Keiser contains a short clip from the upcoming film.  Danny also directed the movie based on (and named after) his 2006 book, In Debt We Trust, wherein he predicted the bursting of the credit bubble.

It was right at this point last year when Danny’s father died.  The event is easy for me to remember because my own father died one week later.  At that time, I was comforted by reading Danny’s eloquent piece about his father’s death.  Danny was kind enough to respond to the e-mail I had sent him since, as an old fan from his days at WBCN radio in Boston, during the early 1970s, my friends and I tried our best to provide Danny with any leads we came across.  These days, it’s good to see that Danny Schechter “The News Dissector” is still at it with the same vigor he demonstrated more than thirty-five years ago.  I look forward to his new book and the new film.



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The Legacy Of Mark Pittman

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December 3, 2009

Just a week before the Senate banking committee was to begin confirmation hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, one of the most important watchdogs of the Fed died at the age of 52.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.  The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling last August by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve is pursuing an appeal of that decision.

Since September of 2008, we have been overexposed to the specious claims by politicians, regulators and other federal officials, that the financial crisis was “unforeseeable”.  The veracity of such statements is undercut by the fact that on June 29 of 2007, Mark Pittman provided us with this ominous warning from his desk at Bloomberg News:

The subprime meltdown is sending shock waves through the capital markets in part because mortgage bonds are the world’s biggest debt market, according to the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association.

Pittman’s groundbreaking work on the havoc created by the subprime mortgage-backed securities market resulted in his receiving the Gerald Loeb Award in 2008, which he shared with his fellow Bloomberg reporters, Bob Ivry and Kathleen Howley, for a five-part series entitled “Wall Street’s Faustian Bargain”.

On November 30, Bob Ivry wrote what many have described as the “definitive obituary” for Mark Pittman.  Ivry disclosed that although the actual cause of death was not yet known, Pittman had suffered from “heart-related illnesses”.  In addition to providing us with his colleague’s impressive biography, Ivry shared the reactions to Pittman’s death, expressed by several prominent individuals:

“He was one of the great financial journalists of our time,” said Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University in New York and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for economics. “His death is shocking.”

*   *   *

“Who sues the Fed?  One reporter on the planet,” said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg News.  “The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it.  Years ago, he forced us to learn what a credit- default swap was.  He dragged us kicking and screaming.”

*   *   *

“He’s been on this crisis since before the crisis,” said Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial columnist for the NewYork Times.  “He was the best at burrowing into the most complex securities Wall Street could come up with and explaining the implications of them to readers of all levels of sophistication.  His investigative work during the crisis set the standard for other reporters everywhere.  He was a giant.”

Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina wrote an informative remembrance of Pittman for The Huffington Post.  This statement is one of the highlights from that piece:

The financial crisis is a result of a failure of every institution of our democracy.  Regulators failed.  Congress failed.  And the financial press failed abysmally.  Mark was an exception.  Mark’s irreverence allowed him to see the crisis coming when other financial reporters accepted uncritically what the industry said.  Mark’s irreverence was what made him a great reporter.

Mark Pittman was featured in the recent film American Casino, a documentary which analyzed the subprime mortgage catastrophe and the resulting financial crisis.  In September of 2008, when the crisis had most people in the world scratching their heads in confusion, Pittman provided a roadmap to the initial bailouts, shortly after they were distributed.

The interview with Mark Pittman, conducted by Ryan Chittum for the Columbia Journalism Review in February of 2009, gave Pittman the opportunity to share his experiences during the onset of the financial crisis.  The interview is especially informative as to what we can expect to find out about this mess in the future, as the investigations begin to unfold.  Passages like these reveal the magnitude of the loss resulting from Pittman’s death:

TA:  Does there need to be regulation just to simplify things to where it makes sense to more people?

MP:  If it was all transparent the complexity wouldn’t matter.  If the CDO market had had publicly available prospectuses with the contents of the CDO disclosed, we wouldn’t have this issue, because Bloomberg probably would have made fun of anybody who bought anything like this.  But there was this enormous shadow banking system going on.  We did a series about that, too.  A lot of times people don’t see what we do.

*   *   *

The thing that people don’t realize is that the Fed is now the “bad bank.”  That’s just something that people don’t understand.  They’ve taken collateral, and they refuse to tell us how they valued it  …

We have numerous banks — dozens, maybe hundreds that are insolvent.  And they become more insolvent every day because more people quit paying their mortgage loans, and more guys move out of the shopping center, and more people quit paying their credit cards.  But nobody wants to have the adult conversation.  We need to be honest about what the problem is here, how big it is, and how we’re going forward to clean it up, and who’s going to pay for it.

*   *   *

Hopefully, we will be able to inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed (laughs).  We need to know how to prevent it from happening again, and we need to know who did it.  There’s renewed energy on this front because we’ve staffed up the people who cover banks, the securities firms.  We have a lot more people going at real estate and a bunch of different areas that this involves.  That was a conscious move from meetings we started having in 2007.  We hired people and we moved people from one area to another area.

Pittman’s final statement during the interview underscores the fact that one of the greatest fighters for an informed public has been lost:

This is a big deal and it’s going to be going on — I swear to God I’m going to retire on this story, because it’s just going to keep happening.

Tragically, Mark Pittman was forced to “retire” on terms that were not satisfactory to any of us.  We can only hope that others will be inspired by his work and follow his lead.



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