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Getting It Reich

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April 8, 2010

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has been hitting more than a few home runs lately.   At a time when too many commentators remain in lock-step with their favorite political party, Reich pulls no punches when pointing out the flaws in the Obama administration’s agenda.  I particularly enjoyed his reaction to the performance of Larry Summers on ABC television’s This Week on April 4:

I’m in the “green room” at ABC News, waiting to join a roundtable panel discussion on ABC’s weekly Sunday news program, This Week.

*   *   *

Larry Summers was interviewed just before Greenspan. He said the economy is expanding, that the Administration is doing everything it can to bring jobs back, and that the regulatory reform bills moving on the Hill will prevent another financial crisis.

What?

*   *   *

If any three people are most responsible for the failure of financial regulation, they are Greenspan, Larry Summers, and my former colleague, Bob Rubin.

*   *   *

I dislike singling out individuals for blame or praise in a political system as complex as that of the United States but I worry the nation is not on the right economic road, and that these individuals — one of whom advises the President directly and the others who continue to exert substantial influence among policy makers — still don’t get it.

The direction financial reform is taking is not encouraging.  Both the bill that emerged from the House and the one emerging from the Senate are filled with loopholes that continue to allow reckless trading of derivatives.  Neither bill adequately prevents banks from becoming insolvent because of their reckless trades.  Neither limits the size of banks or busts up the big ones.  Neither resurrects the Glass-Steagall Act. Neither adequately regulates hedge funds.

More fundamentally, neither bill begins to rectify the basic distortion in the national economy whose rewards and incentives are grotesquely tipped toward Wall Street and financial entrepreneurialism, and away from Main Street and real entrepreneurialism.

Is it because our elected officials just don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent another repeat of the financial crisis – or is the unwillingness to take preventative action the result of pressure from lobbyists?  I think they’re just playing dumb while they line their pockets with all of that legalized graft. Meanwhile, Professor Reich continued to function as the only adult in the room, with this follow-up piece:

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again.  In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks.  In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so.

*   *   *

But the only way to make sure no bank it too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big.  If Congress and the White House fail to do this, you have every reason to believe it’s because Wall Street has paid them not to.

Reich’s recent criticism of the Federal Reserve was another sorely-needed antidote to Ben Bernanke’s recent rise to media-designated sainthood.  In an essay quoting Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reich transcended the polarized political climate to focus on the fact that the mysterious Fed enjoys inappropriate authority:

The Fed has finally came clean.  It now admits it bailed out Bear Stearns – taking on tens of billions of dollars of the bank’s bad loans – in order to smooth Bear Stearns’ takeover by JP Morgan Chase.  The secret Fed bailout came months before Congress authorized the government to spend up to $700 billion of taxpayer dollars bailing out the banks, even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The Fed also took on billions of dollars worth of AIG securities, also before the official government-sanctioned bailout.

The losses from those deals still total tens of billions, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook.  But the public never knew.  There was no congressional oversight.  It was all done behind closed doors. And the New York Fed – then run by Tim Geithner – was very much in the center of the action.

*   *   *

The Fed has a big problem.  It acts in secret.  That makes it an odd duck in a democracy.  As long as it’s merely setting interest rates, its secrecy and political independence can be justified. But once it departs from that role and begins putting billions of dollars of taxpayer money at risk — choosing winners and losers in the capitalist system — its legitimacy is questionable.

You probably thought that Ron Paul was the only one who spoke that way about the Federal Reserve.  Fortunately, when people such as Robert Reich speak out concerning the huge economic and financial dysfunction afflicting America, there is a greater likelihood that those with the authority to implement the necessary reforms will do the right thing.  We can only hope.



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Getting Cozy

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April 1, 2010

This week’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Jones v.Harris Associates received a good deal of attention because it increased hopes of a cut in the fees mutual funds charge to individual investors.  The plaintiffs, Jerry Jones, Mary Jones and Arline Winerman, sued Harris Associates (which runs or “advises” the Oakmark mutual funds) for violating the Investment Company Act, by charging excessive fees.  Harris was charging individual investors a .88 percent (88 basis points) management fee, compared to the 45-bps fee charged to its institutional clients.

In his article about the Jones v. Harris case, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times made a point that struck a chord with me:

Pay scales in the mutual fund industry, like those in banking and investment firms, are not strictly regulated by the government, and as the Wall Street collapse revealed, investment advisors and bankers sometimes can earn huge fees while losing money for their shareholders.

In 1970, however, Congress said mutual funds must operate with an independent board of directors.  And it said the investment advisors for the funds have a “fiduciary duty,” or a duty of trust, to the investors when setting fees for their services.  The law also allowed suits against those suspected of violating this duty.

But investors have rarely won such claims.  In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court gave new life to the law, ruling that investment advisors could be sued for charging excessive fees.

But the court’s opinion also said such suits should fail unless there was evidence that advisors hid information from the board or that their fees were “so disproportionately large” as to suggest a cozy deal between the advisors and the supposedly independent board.

The lousy job that boards of directors do in protecting the investors they supposedly represent has become a big issue since the financial crisis, as Mr. Savage explained.  Think about it:  How could the boards of directors for those too-big-to-fail institutions allow the payouts of obscene bonuses to the very people who devastated our economy and nearly destroyed (or may yet destroy) our financial system?  The directors have a duty to the shareholders to make sure those investors obtain a decent dividend when the company does well.  If the company does well only because of a government bailout, despite inept management by the executives, who should benefit – the execs or the shareholders?

Michael Brush wrote an interesting essay concerning bad corporate boards for MSN Money on Wednesday.  His opining point was another reminder of how the financial crisis was facilitated by cozy relationships with bank boards:

Here’s a key take-away from the financial crisis that devastated our economy:   Bad boards of directors played a big role in the mess.

Because bank boards were too close to the executives they were supposed to police, they did a lousy job of spotting excessive risk.  They allowed short-term pay incentives such as huge options grants that encouraged bankers to roll the dice.

Michael Brush contacted The Corporate Library which used its Board Analyst screener to come up with a list of the five worst corporate boards.  Here is how he explained that research:

The ratings are based on problems that can compromise boards, including:

  • Allowing directors to do too much business with the companies they are supposed to oversee.
  • Letting the CEO chair the board, which is supposed to oversee the CEO.
  • Overpaying board members and keeping them on too long.
  • Allowing directors to miss too many meetings to do an effective job.

These and other red flags signal that a board is entrenched — too close to management to do its job of overseeing the people in the corner offices.

*   *   *

The big problem with bad boards is that they’re unlikely to ask CEOs tough questions, act swiftly when it is time to replace a CEO or tighten the reins on pay and perks.  And bad boards hurt shareholders.  Several studies have indicated that the stocks of companies with weak boards underperform.

I won’t spoil the surprise for you by identifying the companies with the bad boards.  If you want that information you will have to read the full piece.  Besides — you should read it anyway.

All of this raises the question (once again) of whether we will see any changes result in the aftermath of the financial crisis that will help protect the “little people” or the not-so-little “investor class”.   I’m not betting on it.



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More Super Powers For Turbo Tim

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February 18, 2010

I shouldn’t have been shocked when I read about this.  It’s just that it makes no sense at all and it’s actually scary — for a number of reasons.  On Wednesday, February 17, Sewell Chan broke the story for The New York Times:

The Senate and the Obama administration are nearing agreement on forming a council of regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to identify systemic risk to the nation’s financial system, officials said Wednesday.

They’re going to put “Turbo” Tim Geithner in charge of the council that regulates systemic risk in the banking system?  Let the pushback begin!  The first published reaction to this news (that I saw) came from Tom Lindmark at the iStockAnalyst.com website:

Only the Congress of the United States is capable of this sort of monumental stupidity.  It appears as if the responsibility for running a newly formed council of bank regulators is going to be delegated to the Treasury Secretary.

Lindmark’s beef was not based on any personal opinion about the appointment of Tim Geithner himself to such a role.  Mr. Lindmark’s opinion simply reflects his disgust at the idea of putting a political appointee at the head of such a committee:

The job of overseeing our financial system is going to be given to an individual whose primary job is implementing the political agenda of his boss — the President of the US.

Regulation of the banks and whatever else gets thrown into the mix is now going to be driven by politicians who have little or no interest in a safe and sound banking system.  As we know too well, their primary interest is the perpetuation and enhancement of their own power with no regard for the consequences.

So there you have reason number one:  Nothing personal — just bad policy.

I can’t wait to hear the responses from some of my favorite gurus from the world of finance.  How about John Hussman — president of the investment advisory firm that manages the Hussman Funds?  One day before the story broke concerning our new systemic risk regulator, this statement appeared in the Weekly Market Comment by Dr. Hussman:

If one is alert, it is evident that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have disposed of the need for Congressional approval, and have engineered a de facto bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at public expense.

What better qualification could one have for sitting at the helm of the systemic risk council?  Choose one of the guys who bypassed Congressional authority to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with the taxpayers’ money!  If Geithner is actually appointed to chair this council, you can expect an interesting response from Dr. Hussman.

Jeremy Grantham should have plenty to rant about concerning this nomination.  As chairman of GMO, Mr. Grantham is responsible for managing over $107 billion of his clients’ hard-inherited money.  Consider what he said about Geithner’s performance as president of the New York Fed during the months leading up to the financial crisis:

Timothy Geithner, in turn, sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks.

Mr. Grantham should hardly be pleased to hear about our Treasury Secretary’s new role, regulating systemic risk.

The coming days should provide some entertaining diatribes along the lines of:  “You’ve got to be kidding!” in response to this news.  I’m looking forward to it!



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A Helluva Read

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August 31, 2009

We are constantly being bombarded with predictions and opinions about where the economy is headed.  Since last fall’s financial crisis, people have seen their home values reduced to shocking levels; they’ve seen their investments take a nosedive and they’ve watched our government attempt to respond to crises on several fronts.  There have been numerous programs including TARP, TALF, PPIP and quantitative easing, that some of us have tried to understand and that others find too overwhelming to approach.  When one attempts to gain an appreciation of what caused this crisis, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of different theories being espoused, depending upon which pundit is doing the talking.  One of my favorite explanations of what caused the financial crisis came from William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.  In his lecture:  The Great American Bank Robbery (which can be seen here) Black explains that we have a culture of corruption at the highest levels of our government, which, combined with ineptitude, allowed some of the sleaziest people on Wall Street to nearly destroy our entire financial system.

William Black recently participated in a conference with a group of experts associated with the Economists for Peace and Security and the Initiative for Rethinking the Economy.  The panel included authorities from all over the world and met in Paris on June 15 – 16.  A report on the meeting was prepared by Professor James K. Galbraith and was published by The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.  The paper, entitled Financial and Monetary Issues as the Crisis Unfolds, is available here.  At 16 pages, the document goes into great detail about what has been going wrong and how to address it, in terms that are understandable to the layperson.  Here’s how the report was summarized in the Preface:

Despite some success in averting a catastrophic collapse of liquidity and a decline in output, the group was pessimistic that there would be sustained economic recovery and a return of high employment.  There was general consensus among the group that the pre-crisis financial system should not be restored, that reviving the financial sector first was not the way to revive the economy, and that governments should not pursue exit strategies that permit a return to the status quo. Rather, the crisis exposes the need for profound reform to meet a range of physical and social objectives.

As to the question of where we are now, at the current stage of the economic crisis, Professor Galbraith recalled one panel member’s analogy to the eye of a hurricane:

The first wall of the storm has passed over us:  the collapse of the banking system, which engendered panic and a massive public sector rescue effort.  At rest in the eye, we face the second:  the bankruptcy of states, provinces, cities, and even some national governments, from California, USA, to Belgium.  Since this is a slower process involving weaker players, complicated questions of politics, fairness, and solidarity, and more diffused system risk, there is no assurance that the response by capable actors at the national or transnational level will be either timely or sufficient, either in the United States or in Europe.

There is plenty to quote from in this document, especially in light of the fact that it provides a good deal of sound, constructive criticism of our government’s response to the crisis.  Additionally, the panel offered solutions you’re not likely to hear from politicians, most of whom are in the habit of repeating talking points, written by lobbyists.

Focusing on the situation here in the United States, the report gave us some refreshing criticism, especially in the current climate where commentators are stumbling over each other to congratulate Ben Bernanke on his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman:

American participants were almost equally skeptical of the effectiveness of the U.S.approach to date.  As one put it, “Diabetes is a metabolic disease.”  Elements of a metabolic disease can be treated (here, “stimulus” plays the role of insulin), but the key to success is to deal with the underlying metabolic problem.  In the economic sphere, that problem lies essentially with the transfer of resources and power to the top and the dismantling of effective taxing power over those at the top of the system.  (The speaker noted that the effective corporate tax rate for the top 20 firms in the United States is under 2 percent.)  The effect of this is to create a “trained professional class of retainers” who devote themselves to preserving the existing (unstable) system.  Further, there were massive frauds in the origination of mortgages, in the ratings processes that led to securitization, and in the credit default swaps that were supposed to insure against loss.  In the policy approach so far, there is a consistent failure to address,                 analyze, remedy, and prosecute these frauds.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, major legislation from health care to bank reform continues to be written in consultation with the lobbies; as one speaker noted, legislation on credit default swaps was being prepared by “Jamie Dimon and his lobbyists.”

One of the gravest dangers to economic recovery, finally, lies precisely in the crisis-fatigue of the political classes, in their lack of patience with a deep and intractable problem, and with their inflexible commitment to the preceding economic order.  This feeds denial of the problem, a deep desire to move back to familiar rhetorical and political ground, and the urge to declare victory, groundlessly and prematurely.  As one speaker argued, the U.S.discussion of  “green shoots” amounts to little more than politically inspired wishful thinking — a substitute for action, at least so far as hopes for the recovery of employment are concerned.

Lest I go on, quoting the whole damned thing, I’ll simply urge you to take a look at it.  At the conclusion of the paper was the unpleasant point that some of the damage from this crisis has been irreversible.  There was an admonition that before undertaking reconstruction of the damage, some careful planning should be done, inclusive of the necessary safeguards to make it possible to move forward.

Whether or not anyone in Washington will pay serious attention to these findings is another issue altogether.  Our system of legalized graft in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions, guarantees an uphill battle for anyone attempting to change the status quo.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

*    *    *

As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

*    *    *

Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?