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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

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.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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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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