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Compare And Contrast

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November 26, 2009

We have seen and heard so much discussion during the past week concerning the dismal performance of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner while testifying before the Joint Economic Committee — I won’t repeat it.  At this point, there appears to be a consensus that Turbo Tim has to go.  The scary part comes when pundits start tossing around names for a possible replacement.  One would expect that President Obama might be wise enough to avoid the appointment of another “Wall Street insider” as Treasury Secretary.  Rumors are circulating that The Dimon Dog (Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase) is being considered for the post.  This buzz gained more traction when bank analyst, Dick Bove, recently voiced support for Dimon as Treasury Secretary.  The handful of Geithner supporters deny that Turbo Tim ever was a “Wall Street insider”.  This assertion is contradicted by the fact that Geithner was the President of the New York Federal Reserve at the time of the financial crisis, when he served as architect of the more-than-generous bailouts of those “too big to fail” financial institutions — at taxpayer expense.

These days, the most vilified beneficiary of government largesse resulting from the financial crisis is the widely-despised investment bank, Goldman Sachs — often referred to as the “giant vampire squid” — thanks to Matt Taibbi’s metaphor, describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

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 refutes 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.

On November 21, one of my favorite reporters for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Gretchen Morgenson, wrote an informative piece concerning the recent SIGTARP Report.  Compare and contrast Ms. Morgenson’s discussion of the report’s disclosures, with the spin provided by James Stewart.  Here is some of what Ms. Morgenson had to say:

The Fed, under Mr. Geithner’s direction, caved in to A.I.G.’s counterparties, giving them 100 cents on the dollar for positions that would have been worth far less if A.I.G. had defaulted.  Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale and other banks were in the group that got full value for their contracts when many others were accepting fire-sale prices.

On the question of whether this payout was what the report describes as a “backdoor bailout” of A.I.G.’s counterparties, Mr. Barofsky concluded:  “The very design of the federal assistance to A.I.G. was that tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.’s counterparties.”  The report noted that this was money the banks might not otherwise have received had A.I.G. gone belly-up.

*   *   *

Finally, Mr. Barofsky pokes holes in arguments made repeatedly over the past 14 months by Goldman Sachs, A.I.G.’s largest trading partner and recipient of $12.9 billion in taxpayer money in the bailout, that it had faced no material risk in an A.I.G. default — that, in effect, had A.I.G. cratered, Goldman wouldn’t have suffered damage.

*   *   *

Rather than forcing the banks to accept a steep discount, or “haircut,” the Fed gave the banks $27 billion in taxpayer cash and allowed them to keep an additional $35 billion in collateral already posted by A.I.G.  That amounted to about $62 billion for the contracts, which the report describes as “far above their market value at the time.”

*   *   *

As Goldman prepares to pay out nearly $17 billion in bonuses to its employees in one of its most profitable years ever, it is important that an authoritative, independent voice like Mr. Barofsky’s reminds us how the taxpayer bailout of A.I.G. benefited Goldman.

*   *   *

The inspector noted in his report that Goldman made several arguments for why it believed it was not materially at risk in an A.I.G. default, but he is skeptical of the firm’s reasoning.

So is Janet Tavakoli, an expert in derivatives at Tavakoli Structured Finance, a consulting firm.

*   *   *

Ms. Tavakoli argues that Goldman should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books — and to do so before it begins showering bonuses on its taxpayer-protected employees.

“A.I.G., a sophisticated investor, foolishly took this risk,” she said.  “But the U.S. taxpayer never agreed to be the victim of investments that should undergo a rigorous audit.”

After reading James Stewart’s November 19 blog posting and Gretchen Morgenson’s November 21 article from The New York Times, ask yourself this:  Are Gretchen Morgenson and Janet Tavakoli “conspiracy theorists”      . . .  or is James Stewart just a tool?



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