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The Smell Of Rotting TARP

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September 16, 2010

I never liked the TARP program.  As we approach the second anniversary of its having been signed into law by President Bush, we are getting a better look at how really ugly it has been.  Marshall Auerback picked up a law degree from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in 1983 and currently serves as a consulting strategist for RAB Capital Plc in addition to being an economic consultant to PIMCO.  Mr. Auerback recently wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism website in response to a posting by Ben Smith at Politico.  Smith’s piece touted the TARP program as a big success, with such statements as:

The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse.  That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.

Marshall Auerback’s essay, rebutting Ben Smith’s piece, was entitled, “TARP Was Not a Success —  It Simply Institutionalized Fraud”.  Mr. Auerback began his argument this way:

Indeed, the only way to call TARP a winner is by defining government sanctioned financial fraud as the main metric of results.  The finance leaders who are guilty of wrecking much of the global economy remain in power – while growing extraordinarily wealthy in the process.  They know that their primary means of destruction was accounting “control fraud”, a term coined by Professor Bill Black, who argued that “Control frauds occur when those that control a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a ‘weapon’ to defraud.”  TARP did nothing to address this abuse; indeed, it perpetuates it.  Are we now using lying and fraud as the measure of success for financial reform?

After pointing out that “Congress adopted unprincipled accounting principles that permit banks to lie about asset values in order to hide their massive losses on loans and investments”, Mr. Auerback concluded by enumerating the steps followed to create an illusion of viability for those “zombie banks”:

Both the Bush and Obama administration followed a three-part strategy towards our zombie banks:  (1) cover up the losses through (legalized) accounting fraud, (2) launch an “everything is great” propaganda campaign (the faux stress tests were key to this tactic and Ben Smith perpetuates this nonsense in his latest piece on TARP), and (3) provide a host of secret taxpayer subsidies to the systemically dangerous institutions (the so-called “too big to fail” banks).  This strategy is the opposite of what the Swedes and Norwegians did during their banking crisis in the 1990s, which remains the template on a true financial success.

Despite this sleight-of-hand by our government, the Moment of Truth has arrived.  Alistair Barr reported for MarketWatch that it has finally become necessary for the Treasury Department to face reality and crack down on the deadbeat banks that are not paying back what they owe as a result of receiving TARP bailouts.  That’s right.  Despite what you’ve heard about what a great “investment” the TARP program supposedly has been, there is quite a long list of banks that cannot boast of having paid back the government for their TARP bailouts.  (Don’t forget that although Goldman Sachs claims that it repaid the government for what it received from TARP, Goldman never repaid the $13 billion it received by way of Maiden Lane III.)  The MarketWatch report provided us with this bad news:

In August, 123 financial institutions missed dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury Department under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.  That’s up from 55 in November 2009, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

More important —  of those 123 financial institutions, seven have never made any TARP dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury.  Those seven institutions are:  Anchor Bancorp Wisconsin, Blue Valley Ban Corp, Seacoast Banking Corp., Lone Star Bank, OneUnited Bank, Saigon National Bank and United American Bank.  The report included this point:

Saigon National is the only institution to have missed seven consecutive quarterly TARP dividend payments.  The other six have missed six consecutive payments, KBW noted.

The following statement from the MarketWatch piece further undermined Ben Smith’s claim that the TARP program was a great success:

Most of the big banks have repaid the TARP money they got and the Treasury has collected about $10 billion in dividend payments from the effort.  However, the rising number of smaller banks that are struggling to meet dividend payments shows the program hasn’t been a complete success.

Of course, the TARP program’s success (or lack thereof) will be debated for a long time.  At this point, it is important to take a look at the final words from the “Conclusion” section (at page 108) of a document entitled, September Oversight Report (Assessing the TARP on the Eve of its Expiration), prepared by the Congressional Oversight Panel.  (You remember the COP – it was created to oversee the TARP program.)  That parting shot came after this observation at page 106:

Both now and in the future, however, any evaluation must begin with an understanding of what the TARP was intended to do.  Congress authorized Treasury to use the TARP in a manner that “protects home values, college funds, retirement accounts, and life savings; preserves home ownership and promotes jobs and economic growth; [and] maximizes overall returns to the taxpayers of the United States.”  But weaknesses persist.  Since EESA was signed into law in October 2008, home values nationwide have fallen.  More than seven million homeowners have received foreclosure notices.  Many Americans’ most significant investments for college and retirement have yet to recover their value.  At the peak of the crisis, in its most significant acts and consistent with its mandate in EESA, the TARP provided critical support at a time in which confidence in the financial system was in freefall.  The acute crisis was quelled.  But as the Panel has discussed in the past, and as the continued economic weakness shows, the TARP’s effectiveness at pursuing its broader statutory goals was far more limited.

The above-quoted passage, as well as these final words from the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, provide a  greater degree of candor than  what can be seen in Ben Smith’s article:

The TARP program is today so widely unpopular that Treasury has expressed concern that banks avoided participating in the CPP program due to stigma, and the legislation proposing the Small Business Lending Fund, a program outside the TARP, specifically provided an assurance that it was not a TARP program.  Popular anger against taxpayer dollars going to the largest banks, especially when the economy continues to struggle, remains high.  The program’s unpopularity may mean that unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that the TARP was effective, the government will not authorize similar policy responses in the future.  Thus, the greatest consequence of the TARP may be that the government has lost some of its ability to respond to financial crises in the future.

No doubt.



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Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

On April 15, I discussed the disappointing performance of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC).  The vapid FCIC hearings have featured softball questions with no follow-up to the self-serving answers provided by the CEOs of those too-big–to-fail financial institutions.

In stark contrast to the FCIC hearings, Tuesday brought us the bipartisan assault on Goldman Sachs by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  Goldman’s most memorable representatives from that event were the four men described by Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post as “The Fab Four”, apparently because the group’s most notorious member, Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, has become the central focus of the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman.   Tourre’s fellow panel members were Daniel Sparks (former partner in charge of the mortgage department), Joshua Birnbaum (former managing director of Structured Products Group trading) and Michael Swenson (current managing director of Structured Products Group trading).  The panel members were obviously over-prepared by their attorneys.  Their obvious efforts at obfuscation turned the hearing into a public relations disaster for Goldman, destined to become a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Although these guys were proud of their evasiveness, most commentators considered them too cute by half.  The viewing public could not have been favorably impressed.  Both The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein as well as Tunku Varadarajan of The Daily Beast provided negative critiques of the group’s testimony.  On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see the Senators on the Subcommittee doing their job so well, cross-examining the hell out of those guys and not letting them get away with their rehearsed non-answers.

A frequently-repeated theme from all the Goldman witnesses who testified on Tuesday (including CEO Lloyd Bankfiend and CFO David Viniar) was that Goldman had been acting only as a “market maker” and therefore had no duty to inform its customers that Goldman had short positions on its own products, such as the Abacus-2007AC1 CDO.  This assertion is completely disingenuous.  When Goldman creates a product and sells it to its own customers, its role is not limited to that of  “market-maker”.  The “market-maker defense” was apparently created last summer, when Goldman was defending its “high-frequency trading” (HFT) activities on stock exchanges.  In those situations, Goldman would be paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves to buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying Goldman to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) was to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail (Ma and Pa) investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  That type of market-making bears no resemblance to the situations which were the focus of Tuesday’s hearing.

Coincidentally, Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading resulted in allegations that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  The Zero Hedge website focused on the language of the disclaimer Goldman posted on its “GS360” portal.  Zero Hedge found some language in the GS360 disclaimer which could arguably have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Goldman witnesses were repeatedly questioned as to what, if any, duty the firm owed its clients who bought synthetic CDOs, such as Abacus.  Alistair Barr of MarketWatch contended that the contradictory answers provided by the witnesses on that issue exposed internal disagreement at Goldman as to what duty the firm owed its customers.  Kurt Brouwer of MarketWatch looked at the problem this way :

This distinction is of fundamental importance to anyone who is a client of a Wall Street firm.  These are often very large and diverse financial services firms that have — wittingly or unwittingly — blurred the distinction between the standard of responsibility a firm has as a broker versus the requirements of an investment advisor.  These firms like to tout their brilliant and objective advisory capabilities in marketing brochures, but when pressed in a hearing, they tend to fall back on the much looser standards required of a brokerage firm, which could be expressed like this:

Well, the firm made money and the traders made money.  Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

The third party referred to indirectly would be the clients who, all too frequently, are left out of the equation.

A more useful approach could involve looking at the language of the brokerage agreements in effect between Goldman and its clients.  How did those contracts define Goldman’s duty to its own customers who purchased the synthetic CDOs that Goldman itself created?  The answer to that question could reveal that Goldman Sachs might have more lawsuits to fear than the one brought by the SEC.



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