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Building A Consensus For Survival

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March 29, 2010

In my last posting, I focused on the fantastic discourse in favor of financial reform presented by Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  In addition to Hoenig’s speech, last week brought us a number of excellent arguments for the cause that is so bitterly opposed by Wall Street lobbyists.  On the same day that Thomas Hoenig delivered his great speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin also addressed that institution to argue in favor of financial reform.  I enjoyed the fact that he rubbed this in their faces:

That is why it is so puzzling that, despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it.  That campaign is not designed to improve the House and Senate bills.  It is designed to defeat them.  It is designed to delay reform until the memory of the crisis fades and the political will for change dies out.

The Chamber’s campaign comes on top of the $1.4 million per day already being spent on lobbying and campaign contributions by big banks and Wall Street financial firms.  There are four financial lobbyists for every member of Congress.

Wolin’s presentation was yet another signal from the Treasury Department that inspired economist Simon Johnson to begin feeling optimistic about the possibility that some meaningful degree of financial reform might actually take place:

Against all the odds, a glimmer of hope for real financial reform begins to shine through.  It’s not that anything definite has happened — in fact most of the recent Senate details are not encouraging – but rather that the broader political calculus has shifted in the right direction.

Instead of seeing the big banks as inviolable, top people in Obama administration are beginning to see the advantage of taking them on — at least on the issue of consumer protection.  Even Tim Geithner derided the banks recently as,

“those who told us all they were the masters of noble             financial innovation and sophisticated risk management.”

Yep.  That was our old pal and former New York Fed President, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, making the case for financial reform before the American Enterprise Institute.  (You remember them — the outfit that fired David Frum for speaking out against Fox News and the rest of the “conservative entertainment industry”.)  Treasury Secretary Geithner made his pitch for reform by reminding his conservative audience that longstanding advocates of the “efficient market hypothesis” had come on board in favor of financial reform:

Now, the recognition that markets failed and that the necessary solution involves reform; that it requires rules enforced by government is not a partisan or political judgment.  It is a conclusion reached by liberals and by conservative skeptics of regulation.

Judge Richard Posner, a leader in the conservative Chicago School of economics, wrote last year, that “we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.”

And consider Alan Greenspan, a skeptic of the benefits of regulation, who recently said, “inhibiting irrational behavior when it can be identified, through regulation,   . . .   could be stabilizing.”

No wonder Simon Johnson is feeling so upbeat!  The administration is actually making a serious attempt at doing what needs to be done to get this accomplished.

Meanwhile, The New York Times had run a superb article by David Leonhardt just as Geithner was about to address the AEI.  Leonhardt’s essay, “Heading Off the Next Financial Crisis” is a thorough analysis, providing historical background and covering every angle on what needs to be done to clean up the mess that got us where we are today — and to prevent it from happening again.  Here are some snippets from the first page that had me hooked right away:

It was a maddening story line:  the government helped the banks get rich by looking the other way during good times and saved them from collapse during bad times.  Just as an oil company can profit from pollution, Wall Street profited from weak regulation, at the expense of society.

*   *   *

In a way, this issue is more about human nature than about politics.  By definition, the next period of financial excess will appear to have recent history on its side.

*   *   *

One way to deal with regulator fallibility is to implement clear, sweeping rules that limit people’s ability to persuade themselves that the next bubble is different — upfront capital requirements, for example, that banks cannot alter.  Thus far, the White House, the Fed and Congress have mostly steered clear of such rules.

Congratulations to David Leonhardt for putting that great piece together.  As more commentators continue to advance such astute, sensible appeals to plug the leaks in our sinking financial system, there is a greater likelihood that our lawmakers will realize that the economic risk of doing nothing far exceeds the amounts of money in those envelopes from the lobbyists.



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The Best Argument For Financial Reform

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March 26, 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, spoke out in favor of financial reform on Wednesday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The shocking aspect of Hoenig’s speech is that it comes from the mouth of a member of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which sets economic policy.  Beyond that, Hoenig brutally criticized what has been done so far to tilt the playing field in favor of the megabanks, at the expense of smaller banks.  Here are some choice bits from what should be mandatory reading for everyone in Congress:

As a nation, we have violated the central tenants of any successful system.  We have seen the formation of a powerful group of financial firms.  We have inadvertently granted them implied guarantees and favors, and we have suffered the consequences.  We must correct these violations.  We must reinvigorate fair competition within our system in a culture of business ethics that operates under the rule of law.  When we do this, we will not eliminate the small businesses’ need for capital, but we will make access to capital once again earned, as it should be.

*   *   *

The fact is that Main Street will not prosper without a healthy financial system.  We will not have a healthy financial system now or in the future without making fundamental changes that reverse the wrong-headed incentives, change behavior and reinforce the structure of our financial system.  These changes must be made so that the largest firms no longer have the incentive to take too much risk and gain a competitive funding advantage over smaller ones.  Credit must be allocated efficiently and equitably based on prospective economic value.  Without these changes, this crisis will be remembered only in textbooks and then we will go through it all again.

Hoenig’s speech comes at a time when the Senate is considering a watered-down version of financial reform that has been widely criticized.  Economist Simon Johnson pointed out how any approach based on U.S. authority alone to “resolve” or break up systemically dangerous banks would be doomed because “there is no cross-border agreement on resolution process and procedure — and no prospect of the same in sight”.

Blogger Mike Konczal expressed his disappointment with what has become of the Financial Reform Bill as it has been dragged through the legislative process:

It’s funny, I know what a good financial reform bill becoming a bad financial reform bill looks like through this process.  I’ve seen bribes and more bribes and last-minute giveaway changes.

The notion that bribery has been an obstacle to financial reform became a central theme of Karl Denninger’s enthusiastic reaction to Hoenig’s speech:

All in all it’s nice to see Thomas Hoenig wake up.  Now let’s see if we can get CONgress to stop opening the bribe envelopes, er, ignore the campaign contributions for a sufficient period of time to actually fix this mess, forcing those “big banks” to get that leverage ratio down to where it belongs, along with marking their assets to the market.

Thomas Hoenig provided exactly the type of leadership needed and at exactly the right time to give a boost to serious financial reform.  We can only hope that there will be enough responsible, ethical people in the Senate to incorporate Hoenig’s suggestions into the Financial Reform Bill.  If only  . . .



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The GOP Is Losing Centrists

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March 23, 2010

David Frum’s Sunday afternoon blog posting, “Waterloo” has been receiving praise for its painfully accurate diagnosis of what ails (or should I say, “Ailes”) the Republican Party.  Among his important points were these:

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

*   *   *

The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government.  Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination.  When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests.  What he omitted to say — but what is equally true — is that he also wants Republicans to fail.  If Republicans succeed — if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry.  And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry.  Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio.  For them, it’s mission accomplished.  For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right:  ours.

On the following evening, Frum appeared on ABC’s Nightline with Terry Moran and this exchange took place:

Moran:   “It sounds like you’re saying that the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, hijacked the Republican party and drove it to a defeat?”

Frum:   “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.  And this balance here has been completely reversed.  The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”

During the days leading up to the vote on the healthcare bill, the rallying tea party activists exhibited the behavior of a lynch mob.  Their rhetoric was curiously extreme and anyone with a neutral point of view on the issue had to wonder what was pushing those people to the edge.   Following up on Frum’s thesis, Thomas Frank of The Wall Street Journal seemed to have the right idea:

It is tempting to understand the tea party movement as a distant relative of the lowest form of televangelism, with its preposterous moral certainty, its weird faith in markets, its constant profiteering, and, of course, its gullible audiences.

Tea partiers fancy themselves a movement without leaders, but this is only true in the sense that, say, the nation’s Miley Cyrus fan clubs don’t have a central leader.  They don’t need one — they have Miley Cyrus herself.  And the tea partiers, for their part, have Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the various personalities of Fox News, whose exploits were mentioned frequently from the speaker’s platform on Saturday.  But it was only after I watched an online video of Capitol Hill protesters earnestly instructing one another in what sounded like Mr. Beck’s trademark theory of progressivism that I understood:  This is protest as a form of fandom.

These are TV citizens, regurgitating TV history lessons, and engaged in a TV crusade.  They seem to care little for the give and take of the legislative process.  What seems to make sense to them is the logic of entertainment, the ever-escalating outrage of reality TV.

But maybe, one of these days, the nation is going to change the channel.

That change of the channel is exactly what the Republicans need to worry about.  Karl Rove’s trademark strategy of pandering to the so-called “base” of the party failed in 2006 and it failed again in 2008.  Nevertheless the GOP continues with a tone-deaf strategy, focused on the manipulated emotions of the tea partiers.

As I observed when I started this blog two years ago, a decision by John McCain to continue pandering to the televangelist lobby after winning the Republican Presidential nomination, would make absolutely no sense.  McCain now finds himself struggling against an ultra-conservative tea partier for the Republican nomination to retain his Senate seat.  He has again chosen to pander to the base and in the process, he has painted himself into a corner — boosting the chances for victory by the Democratic nominee in November.

The Republicans just don’t get it.  John “BronzeGel” Boehner’s decision to ally himself with the banking lobbyists has given another black eye to the Republican Party.   Although the voting public has become increasingly educated and incensed about the bank bailouts as a form of “lemon socialism” BronzeGel decided to give a pep talk to the American Bankers Association, advising them:

“Don’t let those little punk staffers take advantage of you and stand up for yourselves.”

Who is going to stand up for the taxpayers (and their children) who have been forced to support the welfare queens of Wall Street?  Certainly not the Republicans.  BronzeGel Boehner has promised to fight a protracted battle against financial reform.  In the process, he and his party are throwing the centrist voters (and the educated conservatives) under the bus.  What a brilliant strategy!



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Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.



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Everyone Knew About Lehman Brothers

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March 19, 2010

A March 18 report by Henny Sender at the Financial Times revealed that former officials from Merrill Lynch had contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Federal Reserve of New York to complain that Lehman Brothers had been incorrectly calculating a key measure of its financial health.  The regulators received this warning several months before Lehman filed for bankruptcy in September of 2008.  Apparently Lehman’s reports of robust financial health were making Merrill look bad:

Former Merrill Lynch officials said they contacted regulators about the way Lehman measured its liquidity position for competitive reasons.  The Merrill officials said they were coming under pressure from their trading partners and investors, who feared that Merrill was less liquid than Lehman.

*   *   *

In the account given by the Merrill officials, the SEC, the lead regulator, and the New York Federal Reserve were given warnings about Lehman’s balance sheet calculations as far back as March 2008.

*   *   *

The former Merrill officials said they contacted the regulators after Lehman released an estimate of its liquidity position in the first quarter of 2008.  Lehman touted its results to its counterparties and its investors as proof that it was sounder than some of its rivals, including Merrill, these people said.

*   *   *

“We started getting calls from our counterparties and investors in our debt.  Since we didn’t believe the Lehman numbers and thought their calculations were aggressive, we called the regulators,” says one former Merrill banker, now at another big bank.

Could the people at Merrill Lynch have expected the New York Fed to intervene and prevent the accounting chicanery at Lehman?  After all, Lehman’s CEO, Richard Fuld, was also a class B director of the New York Fed.  Would any FRBNY investigator really want to make trouble for one of the directors of his or her employer?  This type of conflict of interest is endemic to the self-regulatory milieu presided over by the Federal Reserve.  When people talk about protecting “Fed independence”, I guess this is what they mean.

The Financial Times report inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to emphasize that the New York Fed’s failure to do its job, having been given this additional information from Merrill officials, underscores the ineptitude of the New York Fed’s president at the time — Tim Geithner:

The fact that Merrill, with a little digging, could see that Lehman’s assertions about its financial health were bogus says other firms were likely to figure it out sooner rather than later.  That in turn meant that the Lehman was extremely vulnerable to a run.  Bear was brought down in a mere ten days.  Having just been through the Bear implosion, the warning should have put the authorities in emergency preparedness overdrive.  Instead, they went into “Mission Accomplished” mode.

This Financial Times story provides yet more confirmation that Geithner is not fit to serve as a regulator and should resign as Treasury Secretary.  But it may take Congress forcing a release of the Lehman-related e-mails and other correspondence by the New York Fed to bring about that outcome.

Those “Lehman-related e-mails” should be really interesting.  If Richard Fuld was a party to any of those, it will be interesting to note whether his e-mail address was “@LehmanBros”, “@FRBNY” or both.

The Lehman scandal has come to light at precisely the time when Ben Bernanke is struggling to maintain as much power for the Federal Reserve as he can — in addition to getting control over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  One would think that Bernanke is pursuing a lost cause, given the circumstances and the timing.  Nevertheless, as Jesse of Jesse’s Cafe Americain points out — Bernanke may win this fight:

The Fed is the last place that should receive additional power over the banking system, showing itself to be a bureaucracy incapable of exercising the kind of occasionally stern judgment, the tough love, that wayward bankers require.  And the mere thought of putting Consumer Protection under their purview makes one’s skin crawl with fear and the gall of injustice.

They may get it, this more power, not because it is deserved, but because politicians themselves wish to have more power and money, and this is one way to obtain it.

The next time the financial system crashes, the torches and pitchforks will come out of the barns and there will be a serious reform, and some tar and feathering in congressional committees, and a few virtual lynchings.  The damage to the people of the middle class will be an American tragedy.  But this too shall pass.

It’s beginning to appear as though it really will require another financial crisis before our graft-hungry politicians will make any serious effort at financial reform.  If economist Randall Wray is correct, that day may be coming sooner than most people expect:

Another financial crisis is nearly certain to hit in coming months — probably before summer.  The belief that together Geithner and Bernanke have resolved the crisis and that they have put the economy on a path to recovery will be exposed as wishful thinking.

Although that may sound a bit scary, we have to look at the bright side:  at least we will finally be on a path toward serious financial reform.



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Deceptive Oversight

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March 17, 2010

March 16 brought us a few more provocative essays about the Lehman Brothers scandal.  The most prominent subject discussed in the reactions to the Valukas Report has been the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Does that sound like a conflict of interest to anyone besides me?  The Securities and Exchange Commission (under the direction of Christopher Cox at the time) has become another subject of scrutiny for its own dubious semblance of oversight.

Eliot Spitzer and William Black (a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City) recently posted a great article at the New Deal 2.0 website.  Among the memorable points from that piece is the assertion that accounting is “the weapon of choice” for financial deception.  The Valukas Report has exposed such extensive accounting fraud at Lehman, it will be impossible for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to feign ignorance of that activity.  Another memorable aspect of the Spitzer – Black piece is its reference to those “too big to fail” financial institutions as “SDIs” or systemically dangerous institutions.  Here is some of what Spitzer and Black had to say about how the FRBNY became enmeshed in Lehman’s sleazy accounting tactics:

The FRBNY knew that Lehman was engaged in smoke and mirrors designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to lend as much money to Lehman.  The FRBNY did not, however, inform the SEC, the public, or the OTS  (which regulated an S&L that Lehman owned) of what should have been viewed by all as ongoing misrepresentations.

The Fed’s behavior made it clear that officials didn’t believe they needed to do more with this information. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to an institution with misleading accounting and neither remedied the accounting nor notified other regulators who may have had the opportunity to do so.

*   *   *

The FRBNY acted shamefully in covering up Lehman’s inflated asset values and liquidity.

The consequences of the New York Fed’s involvement in this scam were discussed in an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin from the March 16 edition of The New York Times.  (You may recall that Andrew Ross Sorkin is the author of the book, Too Big To Fail.)  He pointed out that the consequences of the Lehman scandal could be very far-reaching:

Indeed, it now appears that the federal government itself either didn’t appreciate the significance of what it saw (we’ve seen that movie before with regulators waving off tips about Bernard L. Madoff).  Or perhaps they did appreciate the significance and blessed the now-suspect accounting anyway.

*   *   *

There’s a lot riding on the government’s oversight of these accounting shenanigans.  If Lehman Brothers executives are sued civilly or prosecuted criminally, they may actually have a powerful defense:  a raft of government officials from the S.E.C. and Fed vetted virtually everything they did.

On top of that, Lehman’s outside auditor, Ernst &Young, and a law firm, Linklaters, signed off on the transactions.

The problems at Lehman raise even larger questions about the vigilance of the SEC and Fed in overseeing the other Wall Street banks as well.

The question as to whether similar accounting tricks were being performed at “other Wall Street banks as well” opens a very huge can of worms.  It’s time for the government to step back and assess the larger picture of what the systemic problem really is.  In a speech before the Senate, Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.



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The Lehman Fallout

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March 16, 2010

Everyone is speculating about what will happen next.  The shock waves resulting from the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, have left the blogosphere’s commentators with plenty to discuss.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media isn’t giving this story very much traction.  On March 15, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  Here is some of what he said:

Look, I know that Lehman collapsed a year and a half ago, but this is a major story — one that finally gets awfully close to putting the crimes in the crisis.  I’ll go ahead and say it:  If you’ve wanted to know about the Valukas report and its implications, you’ve been better served by reading Zero Hedge and Naked Capitalism than you have The Wall Street Journal or New York Times.  This on the biggest financial news story of the week — and one of the biggest of the year.  These papers have hundreds of journalists at their disposal.  The blogs have one non-professional writer and a handful of sometime non-pro-journalist contributors.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed this.  James Kwak of Baseline Scenario wrote this earlier today:

Overall, I’m surprised by how little interest the report has gotten in the media, given its depth and the surprising nature of some of its findings.

At the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden reacted to the Columbia Journalism Review piece this way:

Only a few days have passed since its release, and already the Mainstream Media has forgotten all about the Lehman Examiner Report, with barely an occasional mention.  As the CJR points out, this unquestionably massive story of corruption and vice, is being covered up by powered interests controlling all the major news outlets, because just like in the Galleon case, the stench goes not only to the top, (in this case the NewYork Fed and the SEC), but very likely to various corporations that have vested interests in the conglomerates controlling America’s key media organizations.

One probable reason why the Lehman story is being buried is because its timing dovetails so well with the unveiling of Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd’s financial reform plan.  The fact that Dodd’s plan includes the inane idea of expanding the powers of the Federal Reserve was not to be ignored by John Carney of The Business Insider website:

Why do we think these are such bad ideas?  At the most basic level, it’s hard to see how the expansion of the scope of the Federal Reserve’s authority to cover any large financial institution makes sense.  The Federal Reserve was not able to prevent disaster at the firms it was already charged with overseeing.  What reason is there to think it will do a better job at regulating a wider universe of firms?

More concretely, the Federal Reserve had regulators in place inside of Lehman Brothers following the collapse of Bear Stearns.  These in-house regulators did not realize that Lehman’s management was rebuking market demands for reduced risk and covering up its rebuke with accounting sleight-of-hand.  When Lehman actually came looking for a bailout, officials were reportedly surprised at how bad things were at the firm.  A similar situation unfolded at Merrill Lynch.  The regulators proved inadequate to the task.

Just think:  It was only one week ago when we were reading those fawning, sycophantic stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic about what a great guy “Turbo” Tim Geithner is.  This week brought us a great essay by Professor Randall Wray, which raised the question of whether Geithner helped Lehman hide its accounting tricks.  Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized how this scandal underscores the need for Federal Reserve transparency, which has been so ardently resisted by Ben Bernanke.  (Remember the lawsuit by the late Mark Pittman of Bloomberg News?)  Among the great points made by Professor Wray were these:

Not only did the NY Fed fail to blow the whistle on flagrant accounting tricks, it also helped to hide Lehman’s illiquid assets on the Fed’s balance sheet to make its position look better.  Note that the NY Fed had increased its supervision to the point that it was going over Lehman’s books daily; further, it continued to take trash off the books of Lehman right up to the bitter end, helping to perpetuate the fraud that was designed to maintain the pretense that Lehman was not massively insolvent. (see here)

Geithner told Congress that he has never been a regulator. (see here)  That is a quite honest assessment of his job performance, although it is completely inaccurate as a description of his duties as President of the NY Fed.

*   *   *

More generally, this revelation drives home three related points.  First, the scandal is on-going and it is huge. President Obama must hold Geithner accountable.  He must determine what did Geithner know, and when did he know it.  All internal documents and emails related to the AIG bailout and the attempt to keep Lehman afloat need to be released.  Further, Obama must ask what has Geithner done to favor his clients on Wall Street?  It now looks like even the Fed BOG, not just the NY Fed, is involved in the cover-up.  It is in the interest of the Obama administration to come clean.  It is hard to believe that it does not already have sufficient cause to fire Geithner.  In terms of dollar costs to the government, this is surely the biggest scandal in US history.  In terms of sheer sleaze does it rank with Watergate?  I suppose that depends on whether you believe that political hit lists and spying that had no real impact on the outcome of an election is as bad as a wholesale handing-over of government and the economy to Wall Street.

It remains to be seen whether anyone in the mainstream media will be hitting this story so hard.  One possible reason for the lack of significant coverage may exist in this disturbing point at the conclusion of Wray’s piece:

Of greater importance is the recognition that all of the big banks are probably insolvent.  Another financial crisis is nearly certain to hit in coming months — probably before summer.  The belief that together Geithner and Bernanke have resolved the crisis and that they have put the economy on a path to recovery will be exposed as wishful thinking.

Oh, boy!  Not good!  Not good at all!  We’d better change the subject to March Madness, American Idol or Rielle Hunter!  Anything but this!



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More Damned Lies Than You Can Count

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March 15, 2010

Thanks to the great work of Anton Valukas, as court-appointed bankruptcy examiner investigating the collapse of Lehman Brothers, people are finally beginning to realize how significant a role fraud plays on Wall Street.  It turned out that the Enron scandal wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime event people thought it was.  Accounting fraud occurs on a regular basis, as does fraudulent stock price manipulation.  The 2200-page report prepared by Valukas and his team at Jenner & Block has everyone talking.  It’s about time.

Other lies are getting more exposure as well.  President Obama justified the bank bailouts with the rationale that giving the money to the banks creates a “money multiplier” effect because banks can loan out 8-10 dollars for every bailout dollar they get, giving the economy more bang for the bailout buck.  As I pointed out on September 21, Australian economist Steve Keen published a fantastic report from his website, explaining how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who helped cause the crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  Here’s some of what Professor Keen had to say:

He justified giving the money to the lenders, rather than to the debtors, on the basis of “the multiplier effect” from bank lending:

the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth.  (page 3 of the speech)

This argument comes straight out of the neoclassical economics textbook.  Fortunately, due to the clear manner in which Obama enunciates it, the flaw in this textbook argument is vividly apparent in his speech.

This “multiplier effect” will only work if American families and businesses are willing to take on yet more debt:  “a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans”.

So the only way the roughly US$1 trillion of money that the Federal Reserve has injected into the banks will result in additional spending is if American families and businesses take out another US$8-10 trillion in loans.

*  *  *

If the money multiplier was going to “ride to the rescue”, private debt would need to rise from its current level of US$41.5 trillion to about US$50 trillion, and this ratio would rise to about 375% — more than twice the level that ushered in the Great Depression.

This is a rescue?  It’s a “hair of the dog” cure:  having booze for breakfast to overcome the feelings of a hangover from last night’s binge.  It is the road to debt alcoholism, not the road to teetotalism and recovery.

Fortunately, it’s a “cure” that is also highly unlikely to work, because the model of money creation that Obama’s economic advisers have sold him was shown to be empirically false over three decades ago.

Now that Australia’s economy is beginning to recover, they have already found it necessary to begin raising interest rates.  As I pointed out last September:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

Michael Shedlock (“Mish”) recently referred to Professor Keen’s debunking of the money multiplier myth in a fantastic essay:

However, conventional wisdom regarding the money multiplier is wrong.  Australian economist Steve Keen notes that in a debt based society, expansion of credit comes first and reserves come later.

Indeed, this is easy to conceptualize:  Banks lent more than they should have, and those loans are going bad at a phenomenal rate.  In response, the Fed has engaged in a huge swap-o-rama party with various banks (swapping treasuries for collateral of dubious value) in addition to turning on the printing presses.

This was done so that banks would remain “well capitalized”. The reality is those excess reserves are a mirage.  Banks need those reserves for credit losses coming down the pike, as unemployment rises, foreclosures mount, and credit card defaults soar.

Banks are not well capitalized, they are insolvent, unwilling and unable to lend.

Blogger George Washington recently wrote an extensive, thought-provoking piece about public banking and other potential alternatives to resolve the economic crisis, which appeared at the Naked Capitalism website.  The essay began with a discussion of Steve Keen’s work in exposing the “money multiplier” as a sham.

Speaking of shams, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote a great essay entitled, “The Sham Recovery”.  Reich has exposed the propagandists touting the imaginary economic recovery in his unique, clear style:

Business cheerleaders naturally want to emphasize the positive.  They assume the economy runs on optimism and that if average consumers think the economy is getting better, they’ll empty their wallets more readily and — presto! — the economy will get better.  The cheerleaders fail to understand that regardless of how people feel, they won’t spend if they don’t have the money.

It’s always nice when a big lie gets exposed.   It’s even better that we are now learning that the true cause of the financial crisis was plain, old sleaze.



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Head For The Hills

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March 12, 2010

When a stranger in a tinfoil hat tells me that the sky is falling, I don’t pay attention to him.  On the other hand, when credible sources warn of an upcoming economic collapse as a result of our government’s financial ignorance — I listen.

Simon Johnson is a professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  From 2007-2008, he was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.  He recently co-authored an article for CenterPiece with Peter Boone entitled, “The Doomsday Cycle”.  Their essay began with this observation:

Each time the system runs into problems, the Federal Reserve quickly lowers interest rates to revive it.  These crises appear to be getting worse and worse — and their impact is increasingly global.  Not only are interest rates near zero around the world, but many countries are on fiscal trajectories that require major changes to avoid eventual financial collapse.

What will happen when the next shock hits?  We believe we may be nearing the stage where the answer will be — just as it was in the Great Depression — a calamitous global collapse.  The root problem is that we have let a “doomsday cycle” infiltrate our economic system  . . .

The essay contains a number of proposals for correcting this problem.  One of them involves tripling the requirement for core capital at major banks to 15-20% of assets.  They concluded with this warning:

Last year, we came remarkably close to collapse.  Next time, it may be worse.  The threat of the doomsday cycle remains strong and growing.

Of course, the fact that scares me is that our government doesn’t give a damn.  We aren’t likely to see any changes in capital requirements or anything else that was suggested in that article.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of economic history at Harvard.  He recently wrote an article entitled, “Complexity and Collapse — Empires on the Edge of Chaos”.  It was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.  The piece began with this summary:

Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine.  A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice.

Niall Ferguson’s essay inspired Paul Farrell of MarketWatch to write a commentary on Ferguson’s piece, summarizing the highlights, while driving home this message:

Dismiss his warning at your peril.  Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving our political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history.  The American Empire is at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse.

*   *   *

His message negates all the happy talk you’re hearing in today’s news — about economic recovery and new bull markets, about “hope,” about a return to “American greatness” — from Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers.

*   *   *

“The Consummation of Empire” focuses us on Ferguson’s core message:  At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation.  They have it all.

Fortunately, Mr. Farrell included some advice for those of us who are wondering about how to survive an economic collapse:  Head for the hills.  Here’s what he had to say:

At this point, investors are asking themselves:  How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire?  There is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history’s inevitable cycles.

But there is one in “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, Morgan Stanley’s former chief global strategist who warns us of the “possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure,” advising us to buy a farm in the mountains.

“Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food … well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc.  Think Swiss Family Robinson.”  And when they come looting, fire “a few rounds over the approaching brigands’ heads.”

A reading of Paul Farrell’s article about Barton Biggs from July of 2009, reveals a more comfortable assessment of a crisis which may be 40 or 50 years in the future.  Professor Ferguson’s essay has apparently given Mr. Farrell a greater sense of urgency about the disaster ahead.  Here’s the assessment Mr. Farrell gave last summer:

But how to invest for the “End of Civilization” coming around 2050?  The next 40 years will be confusing: Accelerating struggles between aging populations and disenchanted youth, soaring commodity prices, global warming, peak oil, food shortages, famine, blackouts, rationing, civil disorder, increasing crime, worldwide jihads, riots, anarchy and other dark scenarios of a tomorrow with “warfare defining human life.”

Compare and contrast that view with the concluding remark from Mr. Farrell’s recent piece:

You are forewarned:  If the peak of America’s glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush, then we have already triggered the countdown to collapse, the decade from 2010 until 2020 … tick … tick … tick …

You have just read the views of some intelligent men who are warning us that a huge disaster may lie just around the corner.  Yikes!



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Inviting Blowback

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March 11, 2010

Is it just a coincidence that “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the subject of back-to-back feature stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic ?  A number of commentators don’t think so.

The March 10 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title is meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system are working but he’s not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, this piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he has been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

The article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in the April 26, 2009 issue of The New York Times helped clarify the record on Geithner’s loyalty to the big banks at the public’s expense, during his tenure as president of the Federal Reserve of New York.  That piece began with a brainstorming session convened by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in June of 2008, at which point Paulson asked for suggestions as to what emergency powers the government should have at its disposal to confront the burgeoning financial crisis:

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.

The recent article in The New Yorker defends Geithner’s bank bailouts, with a bit of historical revisionism that conveniently avoids a small matter referred to as Maiden Lane III:

During the past ten months, U.S. banks have raised more than a hundred and forty billion dollars from investors and increased the reserves they hold to cover unforeseen losses.  While many small banks are still in peril, their larger brethren, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, are more strongly capitalized than many of their international competitors, and they have repaid virtually all the money they received from taxpayers.  Looking ahead, the Treasury Department estimates the ultimate cost of the financial-rescue package at just a hundred and seventeen billion dollars — and much of that related to propping up General Motors and Chrysler.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the NewYorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

The article on Geithner, appearing in the April issue of The Atlantic, was described by Mr. Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

The reaction to the New Yorker and Atlantic articles, articulated by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is an absolutely fantastic “must read” piece.  Ms. Smith goes beyond the subject of Geithner.  Her essay is a tour de force, describing how President Obama sold out the American public in the service of his patrons on Wall Street.  The final two paragraphs portray the administration’s antics with a long-overdue measure of pugilism:

But the Obama administration miscalculated badly.  First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy.  But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment.  Obama took his eye off the ball.  A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation.  It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering.  Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.  But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic.  Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke’s designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program.  While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Administration’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.

So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts.  It may have no choice.  Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield.  The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades.  Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.

Congratulations to Yves Smith for writing a fantastic critique of the Obama administration’s combination of nonfeasance and misfeasance in responding to both the financial and economic crises.



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