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License To Steal

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People are finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions.  Voters have seen so many politicians breach their campaign promises while providing new meaning to the expression “follow the money”, that there now seems to be a resigned acceptance that political payoffs are an uncomfortable fact of life.  Worse yet, most people aren’t aware of another loophole in the law allowing Congress-cretins to make real money.

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

Here is a summary of the most important provisions of the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act”:

Amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Commodities Exchange Act to direct both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prohibit purchase or sale of either securities or commodities for future delivery by a person in possession of material nonpublic information regarding pending or prospective legislative action if the information was obtained:  (1) knowingly from a Member or employee of Congress; (2) by reason of being a Member or employee of Congress; and (3) other federal employees.

Amends the Code of Official Conduct of the Rules of the House of Representatives to prohibit designated House personnel from disclosing material nonpublic information relating to any pending or prospective legislative action relating to either securities of a publicly-traded company or a commodity if such personnel has reason to believe that the information will be used to buy or sell the securities or commodity based on such information.

Back in September of 2009, a report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators in September of 2008, after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting then GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.    .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement.  Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group.  Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

Take a look at the list below from opensecrets.org concerning the wealthiest members of Congress.  In light of the fact that these knaves are able to trade on “inside information” you now have the answer to the following question from the opensecrets website:

Congressional members’ personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases.  The same cannot be said for most Americans.  Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

Here is the Top Ten List of the Richest Members of Congress from opensecrets.org:

NAME               MINIMUM NET WORTH    AVERAGE   MAXIMUM NET WORTH

Darrell Issa (R-Calif) $156,050,022      $303,575,011    $451,100,000

Jane Harman (D-Calif)  $151,480,522    $293,454,761   $435,429,001

John Kerry (D-Mass)    $182,755,534     $238,812,296   $294,869,059

Mark Warner (D-Va)     $65,692,210       $174,385,102   $283,077,995

Jared Polis (D-Colo)     $36,694,140        $160,909,068   $285,123,996

Herb Kohl (D-Wis)        $89,358,027           $160,302,011   $231,245,995

Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla)$-69,434,661    $148,373,160  $366,180,982

Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $73,685,086  $137,611,043  $201,537,000

Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)  $61,446,018      $98,832,010   $136,218,002

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) $46,055,250    $77,082,134   $108,109,018

Jay Rockefeller’s position on the list is easy to understand, given the fact that he is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  How the first eight people on the list were able to become more wealthy than Jay Rockefeller should be matter of interest to the voting public.  In the case of  #10 — California Senator Dianne Feinstein  — we have an interesting situation.  As chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  In an article for bohemian.com, Peter Byrne discussed how Senator Feinstein was routinely informed about specific federal projects coming before her in which one of her husband’s businesses had a stake.  As Byrne’s article explained, the inside information Feinstein received was intended to help the senator avoid conflicts of interest, although it had the effect of exacerbating such conflicts.

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest .   .   .


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Troublesome Creatures

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A recent piece by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider website led me to the conclusion that Shepard Smith deserves an award.  You might recognize Shep Smith as The Normal Guy at Fox News.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a controversy has erupted over a 20-minute crank telephone call made to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by a man who identified himself as David Koch, one of two billionaire brothers, famous for bankrolling Republican politicians.  The caller was actually blogger Ian Murphy, who goes by the name, Buffalo Beast.  In a televised discussion with Juan Williams concerning the controversy surrounding Wisconsin Governor Walker, Shep Smith focused on the ugly truth that the Koch brothers are out to “bust labor”.  Here are Smith’s remarks as they appeared at The Wire blog:

It’s all political isn’t it?  Isn’t it just 100% politics? … Have you looked at the list of the top 10 donors to political campaigns?  Seven of those 10 donate to Republicans.  The other three that remain of those top 10, they all donate to Democrats and they are all unions.  Bust the unions, it’s over … . And this started when?  It started with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers were organizing…

*   *   *

I’m not taking a side on this, I’m telling you what’s going on … The facts!  But people don’t want to hear the facts … let them get angry, facts are troublesome creatures from time to time.  The Koch brothers, and others, were organized to bust labor, it’s what big business wants to do … this isn’t a new concept.  So they gave a bunch of money to the governor’s campaign.  The governor’s campaign is over.  Now, away we go!  We’re going to try to bust this union up, and that’s what they’re doing … this is political and everyone in the middle is a pawn.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts have been finding their way into the news to a refreshing degree lately.  Emotional rhetoric has replaced news reporting to such an extreme level that most people seem to have accepted the premise that facts are relative to one’s perception of reality.  The lyrics to “Crosseyed and Painless” by the Talking Heads (written more than 30 years ago) seem to have been a prescient commentary about this situation:

Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out

Budgetary disputes are now resolved on an emotional battlefield where facts usually take a back seat to ideology.  Despite this trend, there are occasional commentaries focused on fact-based themes.  One recent example came from David Leonhardt of The New York Times, entitled “Why Budget Cuts Don’t Bring Prosperity”.  The article began with the observation that because so many in Congress believe that budget cuts are the path to national prosperity, the only remaining question concerns how deeply spending should be cut this year.  Mr. Leonhardt provided those misled “leaders” with the facts:

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward.  Consider that new-vehicle sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005, recovered to only 12 million last year.  Single-family home sales, which peaked at 7.5 million in 2005, continued falling last year, to 4.6 million.  No wonder so many businesses are uncertain about the future.

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape.  Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

That’s the historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements.  The history is a rich one, too, because people understandably react to a bubble’s excesses by calling for the reverse.  When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he repeatedly called for a balanced budget.

But no matter how morally satisfying austerity may be, it’s the wrong answer.

Leonhardt’s  objective analysis drew this response from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

Did a memo go out?   Leonhardt almost always hews to neoclassical orthodoxy.  This is a big change for him.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts became the subject of an opinion piece about the budget, written by Bill Schneider for Politico.  While dissecting the emotional motivation responsible for “a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating”, Schneider set about isolating the fact-based signal from the emotional noise clouding the budget debate:

Many of the programs targeted for big cuts by the House Republicans have a suspiciously ideological tinge:  Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, funds to implement the new health care reform law, National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, money for a White House climate change czar.  The Washington Post calls the House budget “an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities.’’

The public is certainly worried about the deficit.  But do people believe the deficit is a crisis demanding immediate and radical action?  That’s not so clear.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken this month, the public was split over whether the federal government’s priority should be reducing the deficit (49 percent) or spending to help the economic recovery (46 percent).  What economic issue worries people the most? Jobs tops the list (44 percent). Fewer than half that say the deficit (19 percent).

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country.  The crisis is jobs.  So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

Let’s hope that those “troublesome creatures” keep turning up at debates, “town hall” meetings and in commentaries.  If they cause widespread allergic reactions, let nature run its course.


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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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No Justice For The Wicked

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Although the drumbeat continues, I remain skeptical as to whether any of the criminals responsible for causing the financial crisis will ever be brought to justice.  In the weeks before President Obama’s Inauguration, the foremost question on my mind was whether the new administration would take the necessary steps to change the culture of corruption on Wall Street:

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.

At that time, I also focused on the point made in a commentary by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn, which appeared in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

I concluded that piece with a rhetorical question:

Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

By March 23, 2009, it had become obvious that our new President was more concerned about the “welfare” (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks than the well-being of the American economy.  I began my posting of that date with this statement:

We the people, who voted for Barack Obama, are about to get ripped off by our favorite Hope dealer.

On August 27 of that year, I wrote another piece expressing my disappointment with how things had (not) progressed.  My October 1, 2009 posting focused on the fact that H. David Kotz, Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued two reports, recommending 58 changes to improve the way the agency investigates and enforces violations of securities laws, as a result of the SEC’s failure to investigate the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.  The reports exposed a shocking degree of ineptitude at the SEC.

After the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I lamented the fact that the mainstream media hadn’t shown much concern about the matter, despite the terrible fraud exposed in the report.  Nevertheless, by the next day, I was able to highlight some great commentaries on the Valukas Report and I felt optimistic enough to conclude the piece with this thought:

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.

If only  . . .

By the eve of the mid-term elections, I had an answer to the question I had posed on January 5, 2009 as to whether our new President and Congress would be up to the task of cleaning up Wall Street:

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.

By the close of 2010, I noted that an expanding number of commentators shared my outrage over the likelihood that we would never see any prosecutions result from the crimes that brought about the financial crisis:

A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most recently, Matt Taibbi has written another great article for Rolling Stone entitled, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?”.  It’s nice to know that the drumbeat for justice continues.  Taibbi’s essay provided a great history of the crisis, with a particular emphasis on how whistleblowers were ignored, just as Harry Markopolos was ignored when (in May of 2000) he tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  Here is a great passage from Matt Taibbi’s essay:

In the past few years, the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers — of a certain type.  Last year, the government deported 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion.  Since 2007, felony immigration prosecutions along the Mexican border have surged 77 percent; nonfelony prosecutions by 259 percent.  In Ohio last month, a single mother was caught lying about where she lived to put her kids into a better school district; the judge in the case tried to sentence her to 10 days in jail for fraud, declaring that letting her go free would “demean the seriousness” of the offenses.

So there you have it.  Illegal immigrants:  393,000.  Lying moms:  one.  Bankers:  zero.  The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious.  You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players.  But for stealing a billion dollars?  For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure?  Pass.  It’s not a crime.  Prison is too harsh.  Get them to say they’re sorry, and move on.  Oh, wait — let’s not even make them say they’re sorry.  That’s too mean; let’s just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead.  But don’t make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don’t ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes, to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year.  What’s next?  Taxpayer-funded massages for every Wall Street executive guilty of fraud?

Wouldn’t it be nice if public opinion meant more to the Obama administration than campaign contributions from Wall Street banksters?




Another Cartoon For The Bernank To Hate

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Those of us who found it necessary to explain quantitative easing during the course of a blog posting, have struggled with creating our own definitions of the term.  On October 18, 2010, I started using this one:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

What I failed to include in that description was the fact that the Fed was printing money to make those purchases.  I eventually resorted to simply linking the term to the definition of quantitative easing at Wikipedia.org.

Suddenly, in November of 2010, a cartoon – posted on YouTube – became an overnight sensation.  It was a 6-minute discussion between two little bears, which explained how “The Ben Bernank” was trying to fix a broken economy by breaking it more.

We eventually learned a few things about the cartoon’s creator, Omid Malekan, who produced the clip for free on the xtranormal.com website.  Kevin Depew, the Editor-in-Chief of Minyanville, interviewed Malekan within days of the cartoon’s debut.  Malekan expressed his disgust with what he described as “the Washington-Wall Street Complex” and the revolving door between the financial industry and those agencies tasked to regulate it.  David Weigel of Slate interviewed Malekan on November 22, 2010 (eleven days after the cartoon was made).  At that point, we learned a bit about the political views of the 30-year-old, former stock trader-turned-real estate manager:

I’m all over the map.  Socially, I’m pretty liberal.  Economically, I’m fairly free-market oriented.  I generally prefer to vote third party, because it’s just good for the country if we get another voice in there.  To me none of this is really partisan because things are the same under both parties.  Ben Bernanke was appointed by Bush and re-appointed by Obama, so they both have basically the same policies.  The problem, really, is that monetary policy is now removed from people in general.  People like Bernanke don’t have to get elected.  There’s a disconnect between them and the people their decisions are affecting.

One month later, Malekan was interviewed by “Evan” of The Point Blog at the Sam Adams Alliance.  On this occasion, the animator explained his decision to put “the” in front of so many proper names, as well as his reference to Ben Bernanke as “The Bernank”.  Malekan had this to say about the popularity of the cartoon:

To be fully honest, I had no idea this would get the wide audience that it did.  Initially when I made it, it was to explain it to a select group of friends of mine.  And any other straggler that happened to see it, and I never thought that would be over 3 million people.  But, the main reason was cause I think monetary policy is important to everybody because it’s monetary policy.  Unlike fiscal policy or regulation, monetary policy, because of the way it impacts interest rates and the dollar, impacts every single person that buys and sells and earns dollars.  So I think it’s something that everybody should be paying attention to, but most people don’t because it’s not ever presented to them in a way they could hope to understand it.

Omid Malekan produced another helpful cartoon on January 28.  The new six-minute clip, “Bank Bailouts Explained” provides the viewer with an understanding of what many of us know as Maiden Lane III – as well as how the other “backdoor bailouts” work, including the true cost of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) to the taxpayers.  This cartoon is important because it can disabuse people of the propaganda based on the claim that the Wall Street megabanks – particularly Goldman Sachs – owe the American taxpayers nothing because they repaid the TARP bailouts.  I discussed this obfuscation back on November 26, 2009:

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refuted the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

The end result was a $12.9 billion gift to “The Goldman Sachs”.

Thanks to Mr. Malekan, we now have a cartoon that explains how all of AIG’s counterparties were bailed out at taxpayer expense, along with an informative discourse about the other “backdoor bailouts”.

Omid Malekan has his own website here.  You should make a point of regularly checking in on it, so you can catch his next cartoon before someone takes the opportunity to spoil all of the jokes for you.  Enjoy!


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Wealth Redistribution

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One of the sleaziest, most disingenuous arguments exploited by politicians is the “wealth redistribution” theme.  Whenever an influential corporate sponsor of some creepy politician is confronted with proposed legislation, which might change the status quo by reducing unconscionable profiteering, we are told that the new bill is a “socialist” attempt at “wealth redistribution”.  Unfortunately, there are too many sheeple who don’t realize that “wealth redistribution” already happened.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East have demonstrated how difficult it can be to maintain a plutocracy in the modern world.  As the American voting public becomes more familiar with the economic circumstances which led to the Egyptian turmoil, attention gradually gets refocused on how our domestic situation compares with Mubarak’s dystopia.  Blogger “George Washington” (a former law school professor) of Washington’s Blog recently wrote a piece concerning how the “Gini coefficient” demonstrates that America’s upward wealth redistribution has reduced this nation to banana republic status:

Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni protesters all say that inequality is one of the main reasons they’re protesting.

However, the U.S. actually has much greater inequality than in any of those countries.

Specifically, the “Gini Coefficient” – the figure economists use to measure inequality – is higher in the U.S.

*   *   *

Gini Coefficients are like golf – the lower the score, the better (i.e. the more equality).

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.

In contrast:

  • Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
  • Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
  • And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.

And inequality in the U.S. has soared in the last couple of years, since the Gini Coefficient was last calculated, so it is undoubtedly currently much higher.

So why are Egyptians rioting, while the Americans are complacent?

Well, Americans – until recently – have been some of the wealthiest people in the world, with most having plenty of comforts (and/or entertainment) and more than enough to eat.

But another reason is that – as Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School demonstrate – Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in our nation.

Ariely and Norton’s paper, based on their 2005 poll of 5,522 citizens about their preferences for wealth division, has been the subject of much commentary.  Last fall, Bruce Watson wrote an article for Daily Finance discussing Ariely and Norton’s report.  As Watson explained, the following empirical data compiled by Professor Edward Wolff, (and incorporated into the Ariely-Norton paper) portrayed the “real world” wealth distribution in America:

Currently, 85% of America’s wealth, which is defined as total assets minus total liabilities, is held by the country’s richest 20%.  Meanwhile the upper middle class holds 11%, the middle class has 4%, and the lower class and poor share an anemic 0.3%.

Here’s how Watson summarized the results of the Ariely-Norton research:

In the poll, the vast majority of Americans across the political, gender and wealth spectrum displayed a markedly skewed understanding of how America’s money is divided.  On average, respondents thought that the rich hold only 58% of the nation’s wealth, 32% less than their actual holdings.  They thought that the middle class controls 13% of the country’s wealth, more than three times their actual holdings.  As for the bottom 40% of the population, the assumption was that the lower class and poor own a measly 9% of the country’s wealth.  In reality, these two groups control about one thirtieth of that amount.

Who Should Get the Money?

Although the perception that America’s wealth distribution is unfair cut across partisan lines, Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the ideal distribution.  People who voted for George Bush believed that the richest 20% of the population deserved roughly 35% of the nation’s wealth.  Kerry voters radically disagreed:  they felt that the rich deserved only about 30%. When it came to the country’s poorest citizens, Bush voters felt that they deserved about 9% of the country’s assets; Kerry voters preferred to give them 12%.

Respondents making over $100,000 per year, the group most heavily skewed toward a top-heavy distribution of wealth, advocated a system in which the top 20% received about 40% of the country’s assets and the bottom 20% got roughly 7%.  Yet even this comparatively Dickensian wealth distribution still gave America’s rich less than half of their current holdings, while giving the poorest more than twenty times their current holdings.

In October of 2008, before the full extent of the Wall Street megabank bailouts had been completely understood by most Americans (and before those multi-million-dollar bonuses had been awarded to the malefactors who caused the financial crisis) the Gallup Organization conducted a poll on the subject of wealth redistribution.  This is what they observed:

A majority of Americans (58%) say money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people, although slightly less than half (46%) go so far as to say that the government should redistribute wealth by “heavy taxes on the rich.”

*   *   *

Still, in each of the four times Gallup has asked this question in recent years, between 45% and 51% of Americans have gone so far as to agree with the fairly harsh-sounding policy of “redistribut[ing] wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

Because the polls discussed above reveal that the current wealth distribution is unacceptable to most Americans, the “wealth redistribution” argument — as it is often used by politicians – should be a non-starter.  Perhaps a program of  “enhanced tax incentives for generosity” might enjoy more widespread acceptance than Gallup’s “heavy taxes on the rich” – to the point where an overwhelming majority of Americans would support it.

Unfortunately, unless that “overwhelming majority of Americans” has an army of lobbyists to advance such an initiative, the cash registers politicians portraying the effort as “socialism” will be the only voices that matter.


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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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Debunking Oil Industry Propaganda

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The political crisis in Egypt is being used by tools of the oil industry to – once again – put the scare into people about our dependence on “foreign oil”.  Stephen Moore was on Fox News talking-up the old “drill baby, drill” sentiment on February 2, lamenting our lack of “energy independence”.  I just wish Moore would restrict himself to a diet of Gulf shrimp.  I doubt whether it would change his mind, although it might make him more fun to watch on television as the hydrocarbons gradually work their karmic magic.

The myth of “foreign oil” is one of my pet peeves for several reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the one foreign oil company, which has done the most harm to the United States is British Petroleum, rather than some enterprise from the Middle East.

Much as been written to dispel the myths of “foreign oil” and “energy independence”, although the spokestools of the oil industry do all they can to pretend as though such information does not exist.  Take for example, the essay written by David Saied for the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled “America’s Economic Myths”, wherein he debunked the myth of “dependence on foreign oil”:

This myth basically suggests that the problem with oil prices is due to America’s “dependence” on foreign oil.  One of the worst economic myths, it plays on economic nationalism and on xenophobic feelings that are sometimes pervasive in the United States.

The high price of oil has nothing to do with its origin; the price of oil is determined in international markets.  Even if the United States were to produce 100% of the oil it consumes, the price would be the same if the worldwide supply and demand of oil were to remain the same.  Oil is a commodity, so the price of a barrel produced in the United States is basically the same as the price of a barrel of oil produced in any other country, but the costs of labor, land, and regulatory compliance are usually higher in the United States than in third-world countries.  Lowering these costs would help increase supply.  Increasing supply, whether in the United States or elsewhere, will push prices lower.

Importing a product does not mean you “depend” on it.  This is like saying that when we “import” food from our local supermarket we “depend” on that supermarket.  The opposite is usually true; exporters depend on us, since we are the customers.  Also, importing a product usually means buying at lower prices, whereas producing in the United States often means consuming at higher prices.  This point is proven when we see the cheap imports we can purchase from China and the higher prices of many of these same products manufactured in the United States.  The amazing thing is that the protectionists claim, on the one hand, that America should be “protected” from cheap imports, but when it comes to oil, they say we should be “protected” from “expensive imported” oil.

Most, if not all, of the higher price of oil can be explained by the expansion of the money supply or the debasement of the dollar.  The foreign producers are not at fault; our national central bank is the culprit.

As a fan of the Real Clear Markets section of the Real Clear Politics website, I was pleased to see this recent commentary by John Tamny, wherein he had a good laugh at T-Bone Pickings for accidentally revealing the absurdity of the “energy independence” meme:

As this column has shown more than once, the price of a barrel of crude tends to revert to 1/15th of an ounce of gold, and as of Tuesday, oil’s price increase merely brought it in line with its historical cost.

*   *   *

Oil is oil is oil, and it’s a commodity whose price is discovered in deep world markets.

Canada is seemingly “energy independent”, but assuming ongoing Middle East uncertainty, its citizens will – like us – buy gasoline the price of which is based on the cost per barrel set in global markets.  Much as we might like to naively fantasize about walling ourselves off from international market realities, we’ll never be immune to the activities around the world that impact oil’s price.  Canada and its citizens won’t be either.

*   *   *

So while we can expect lots of breathy commentary about the need for energy independence in the coming weeks, particularly if Middle East unrest spreads, cooler heads will hopefully prevail.  The false God of independence will not wall us off from supply-driven increases, and more important, the waste of  human and financial capital necessary to achieve the silly notion would be far more economically crippling than any presumed supply shock could ever hope to be.

My own dream of “energy independence” involves owning an electric car, which I can recharge with a “solar power station” similar to what we see advertised on television – along with another “solar power station” to provide my home electricity.  “Energy independence” can only be achieved when American consumers are liberated from the tyranny of the oil companies and the power utilities.


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