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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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Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

Newsweek’s Daniel Gross is back at it again.  His cover story for Newsweek’s April 9 issue is another attempt to make a preemptive strike at writing history.  You may remember his cover story for the magazine’s July 25 issue, entitled:  “The Recession Is Over”.  During the eight months since the publication of that article, the sober-minded National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER —  which is charged with making the determination that a recession has ended – has yet to make such a proclamation.

The most recent cover story by Daniel Gross, “The Comeback Country” has drawn plenty of criticism.  (The magazine cover used the headline “America’s Back” to introduce the piece.)  At The Huffington Post, Dan Dorfman discussed the article with Olivier Garret, the CEO of Casey Research, an economic and investment consulting firm.  Garret described the Newsweek cover story as “fantasy journalism” and he shared a number of observations with Dan Dorfman:

“You know when a magazine like Newsweek touts a bullish economic recovery on its cover, just the opposite is likely to be the case,” he says.  “It sees superficial signs of improvement, but it’s ignoring the big picture.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Garret sees additional signs of economic anguish.  Among them:  More foreclosures and delinquencies of real estate properties will plague construction spending; banks haven’t yet cleaned up their balance sheets; private debt is no longer going down as it did in 2009; both short and long term rates should be headed higher, and many companies, he says, tell him they’re reluctant to invest and hire.

He also sees some major corporate bankruptcies, worries about the country’s ability to repay its debt, looks for rising cost of capital, which should further slow the economy, and expects a spreading sovereign debt crisis.

*  *  *

Many economists are projecting GDP growth in the range of 3% to 4% in the first quarter and similar growth for the entire year.  Much too optimistic, Garret tells me.  His outlook (which would clobber the stock market if he’s right):  up 0.4%-0.5% in the first quarter after revisions and between 0% and 1% for all of 2010.

“Fantasy economies only work in the mind, not in real life,” he says.

Given his bleak economic outlook, Garret expects a major market adjustment, say about a 10% to 20% decline in stock prices over the next six months.  He figures it could be triggered by one event, such as as an extension of the sovereign debt crisis.

David Cottle of The Wall Street Journal had this reaction to the Newsweek article:

Therefore, when you see a cover such as Newsweek’s recent effort, yelling “America’s Back” in no uncertain terms, it’s quite tempting to stock up on bonds, cash, tinned goods and ammunition.

Now, in fairness to the author, Daniel Goss, he makes the good point that the U.S. economy is growing at a clip that has consistently surprised gloomy forecasters.  It is.  The turnaround we’ve seen since Lehman Brothers imploded has been remarkable, if not entirely satisfying, he says, and he is quite right.  At the very least, U.S. growth is all-too-predictably leaving the European version in the dust.  Goss is also pretty upfront about the corners of the U.S. economy that have so far failed to keep up:  job creation and the housing market being the most obvious.

However, the problem with all these ‘back to normal’ pieces, and Goss’s is only one of many creeping out as the sky resolutely fails to fall in, is that the ‘normal’ they want to go back to was, in reality, anything but.

The financial sector remains unreformed, the global economy remains dangerously unbalanced.  The perilous highways that brought us to 2007 have not been sealed off in favor of straighter, if slower, roads.  Of course it would be great for us all if America were ‘back’ and so we must hope Newsweek’s cover doesn’t join the ranks of those which cruel history renders unintentionally hilarious .

But back where?  That’s the real question.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has turned to Americans themselves to find out just how “back” America really is.  This report from April 20 didn’t seem to resonate so well with the rosy picture painted by Daniel Gross:

Americans are united in the belief that the economy is in bad shape (92% give it a negative rating), and for many the repercussions are hitting close to home.  Fully 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.  Jobs have become difficult to find in local communities for 85% of Americans.  A majority now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work (54%); just 39% said this in February 2009. Only a quarter reports receiving a pay raise or a better job in the past year (24%), while almost an equal number say they have been laid off or lost a job (21%).

As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for middle-class Americans, the first few months of 2009 are already looking like “the good old days”.   The “comeback” isn’t looking too good.



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The Goldman Fallout

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April 19, 2010

In the aftermath of the disclosure concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, we have heard more than a little reverberation of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid” metaphor, along with plenty of concern about which other firms might find themselves in the SEC’s  crosshairs.

As Jonathan Weil explained for Bloomberg News :

As Wall Street bombshells go, the lawsuit that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is about as big as it gets.

At The Economist, there was a detectable scent of schadenfreude in the discussion, which reminded readers that despite Lloyd Blankfein’s boast of having repaid Goldman’s share of the TARP bailout, not everyone has overlooked Maiden Lane III:

IS THE most powerful and controversial firm on Wall Street about to get the comeuppance that so many think it deserves?

*   *   *

The charges could hardly come at a worse time for Goldman.  The firm has been under fire on a number of fronts, including over the handsome payout it secured from the New York Fed as a derivatives counterparty of American International Group, an insurer that almost failed in 2008.  In a string of negative articles over the past year, Goldman has been accused of everything from double-dealing for its own advantage to planting its own people in the Treasury and other agencies to ensure that its interests were looked after.

At this point, those who criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.

The complaint filed against Goldman by the SEC finally put to rest the tired old lie that nobody saw the financial crisis coming.  The e-mails from Goldman VP, Fabrice Tourre, made it perfectly clear that in addition to being aware of the imminent collapse, some Wall Street insiders were actually counting on it.  Jonathan Weil’s Bloomberg article provided us with the translated missives from Mr. Tourre:

“More and more leverage in the system.  The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs vice president who was sued for his role in putting together the deal, wrote on Jan. 23, 2007.

“Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab …  standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

A few weeks later, Tourre, now 31, e-mailed a top Goldman trader:  “the cdo biz is dead we don’t have a lot of time left.”  Goldman closed the Abacus offering in April 2007.

Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has quoted a number of sources reporting that Goldman may soon find itself defending similar suits in Germany and the UK.

Not surprisingly, there is mounting concern over the possibility that other investment firms could find themselves defending similar actions by the SEC.  As Anusha Shrivastava reported for The Wall Street Journal, the action in the credit markets on Friday revealed widespread apprehension that other firms could face similar exposure:

Credit markets were shaken Friday by the news as investors tried to figure out whether other firms or other structured finance products will be affected.

Investors are concerned that the SEC’s action may create a domino effect affecting other firms and other structured finance products.  There’s also the worry that this regulatory move may rattle the recovery and bring uncertainty back to the market.

“Credit markets are seeing a sizeable impact from the Goldman news,” said Bill Larkin, a portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Mass.  “The question is, has the S.E.C. discovered what may have been a common practice across the industry?  Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

*  *  *

The SEC’s move marks “an escalation in the battle to expose conflicts of interest on Wall Street,” said Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics in a note to clients.  “Once upon a time, Wall Street firms protected clients and observed suitability …  This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another.”

The timing of this suit could not have been better – with the Senate about to consider what (if anything) it will do with financial reform legislation.  Bill Black expects that this scandal will provide the necessary boost to get financial reform enacted into law.  I hope he’s right.



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Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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Inviting Blowback

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March 11, 2010

Is it just a coincidence that “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the subject of back-to-back feature stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic ?  A number of commentators don’t think so.

The March 10 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title is meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system are working but he’s not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, this piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he has been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

The article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in the April 26, 2009 issue of The New York Times helped clarify the record on Geithner’s loyalty to the big banks at the public’s expense, during his tenure as president of the Federal Reserve of New York.  That piece began with a brainstorming session convened by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in June of 2008, at which point Paulson asked for suggestions as to what emergency powers the government should have at its disposal to confront the burgeoning financial crisis:

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.

The recent article in The New Yorker defends Geithner’s bank bailouts, with a bit of historical revisionism that conveniently avoids a small matter referred to as Maiden Lane III:

During the past ten months, U.S. banks have raised more than a hundred and forty billion dollars from investors and increased the reserves they hold to cover unforeseen losses.  While many small banks are still in peril, their larger brethren, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, are more strongly capitalized than many of their international competitors, and they have repaid virtually all the money they received from taxpayers.  Looking ahead, the Treasury Department estimates the ultimate cost of the financial-rescue package at just a hundred and seventeen billion dollars — and much of that related to propping up General Motors and Chrysler.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the NewYorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

The article on Geithner, appearing in the April issue of The Atlantic, was described by Mr. Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

The reaction to the New Yorker and Atlantic articles, articulated by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is an absolutely fantastic “must read” piece.  Ms. Smith goes beyond the subject of Geithner.  Her essay is a tour de force, describing how President Obama sold out the American public in the service of his patrons on Wall Street.  The final two paragraphs portray the administration’s antics with a long-overdue measure of pugilism:

But the Obama administration miscalculated badly.  First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy.  But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment.  Obama took his eye off the ball.  A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation.  It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering.  Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.  But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic.  Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke’s designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program.  While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Administration’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.

So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts.  It may have no choice.  Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield.  The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades.  Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.

Congratulations to Yves Smith for writing a fantastic critique of the Obama administration’s combination of nonfeasance and misfeasance in responding to both the financial and economic crises.



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Three New Books For March

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February 24, 2010

The month of March brings us three new books about the financial crisis.  The authors are not out to make apologies for anyone.  To the contrary, they point directly at the villains and expose the systemic flaws that were exploited by those who still may yet destroy the world economy.  All three of these books are available at the Amazon widget on the sidebar at the left side of this page.

Regular fans of the Naked Capitalism blog have been following the progress of Yves Smith on her new book, ECONned:  How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism.  It will be released on March 2.  Here is some information about the book from the product description at the Amazon website:

ECONned is the first book to examine the unquestioned role of economists as policy-makers, and how they helped create an unmitigated economic disaster.

Here, Yves Smith looks at how economists in key policy positions put doctrine before hard evidence, ignoring the deteriorating conditions and rising dangers that eventually led them, and us, off the cliff and into financial meltdown.  Intelligently written for the layman, Smith takes us on a terrifying investigation of the financial realm over the last twenty-five years of misrepresentations, naive interpretations of economic conditions, rationalizations of bad outcomes, and rejection of clear signs of growing instability.

In eConned (sic), author Yves Smith reveals:

–why the measures taken by the Obama Administration are mere palliatives and are unlikely to pave the way for a solid recovery

–how economists have come to play a profoundly anti-democratic role in policy

–how financial models and concepts that were discredited more than thirty years ago are still widely used by banks, regulators, and investors

–how management and employees of major financial firms looted them, enriching themselves and leaving the mess to taxpayers

–how financial regulation enabled predatory behavior by Wall Street towards investors

–how economics has no theory of financial systems, yet economists fearlessly prescribe how to manage them

Michael Lewis is the author of the wildly-popular book, Liar’s Poker, based on his experience as a bond trader for Solomon Brothers in the mid-80s.  His new book, The BigShort: Inside the Doomsday Machine, will be released on March 15.  Here is some of what Amazon’s product description says about it:

A brilliant account — character-rich and darkly humorous — of how the U.S. economy was driven over the cliff.

*   *   *

Michael Lewis’s splendid cast of characters includes villains, a few heroes, and a lot of people who look very, very foolish:  high government officials, including the watchdogs; heads of major investment banks (some overlap here with previous category); perhaps even the face in your mirror.  In this trenchant, raucous, irresistible narrative, Lewis writes of the goats and of the few who saw what the emperor was wearing, and gives them, most memorably, what they deserve.  He proves yet again that he is the finest and funniest chronicler of our times.

Our third author, Simon Johnson, recently co-authored an article for CenterPiece with Peter Boone entitled, “The Doomsday Cycle” which explains how “we have let a ‘doomsday cycle’ infiltrate our economic system”.  The essay contains a number of proposals for correcting this problem.  Here is one of them:

We believe that the best route to creating a safer system is to have very large and robust capital requirements, which are legislated and difficult to circumvent or revise.  If we triple core capital at major banks to15-25% of assets, and err on the side of requiring too much capital for derivatives and other complicated financial structures, we will create a much safer system with less scope for “gaming” the rules.

Simon Johnson is a professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  From 2007-2008, he was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.  With James Kwak, he is the co-publisher of The Baseline Scenario website.  Johnson and Kwak have written a new book entitled, 13 Bankers:  The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown.  Although this book won’t be released until March 30, the Amazon website has already quoted from reviews by the following people:  Bill Bradley, Robert Reich, Arianna Huffington, Bill Moyers, Alan Grayson, Brad Miller, Elizabeth Warren and others.  Professor Warren must be a Democrat, based on the affiliation of nearly everyone else who reviewed the book.

Here is some of what can be found in Amazon’s product description:

.  .  .  a wide-ranging, meticulous, and bracing account of recent U.S. financial history within the context of previous showdowns between American democracy and Big Finance: from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  They convincingly show why our future is imperiled by the ideology of finance (finance is good, unregulated finance is better, unfettered finance run amok is best) and by Wall Street’s political control of government policy pertaining to it.

As these authors make the talk show circuit to promote their books during the coming weeks, the American public will hearing repeated pleas to demand that our elected officials take action to stop the mercenary financial behemoths from destroying the world.  Perhaps the message will finally hit home.

If you are interested in any of these three books, they’re available on the right side of this page.



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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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An Early Favorite For 2010

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February 11, 2010

It appears as though the runner-up for TheCenterLane.com’s 2009 Jackass of the Year Award is well on his way to winning the title for 2010.  After reading an op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times, I decided that as of December 31, 2009, it was too early to determine whether our new President was worthy of such a title.

Since Wednesday morning, we have been bombarded with reactions to a story from Bloomberg News, concerning an interview Obama had with Bloomberg BusinessWeek in the Oval Office.  In case you haven’t seen it, here is the controversial passage from the beginning of that article:

President Barack Obama said he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon or the $9 million issued to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, noting that some athletes take home more pay.

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday.  “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.  That is part of the free-market system.”

Many commentators have expounded upon what this tells us about our President.  I’d like to quote the reactions from a couple of my favorite bloggers.  Here’s what Yves Smith had to say at Naked Capitalism:

There are only two, not mutually exclusive, conclusions one can reach from reading this tripe:  that Obama is a lackey of the financiers, and putting the best spin he can on their looting, or he is a fool.

The salient fact is that, their protests to the contrary, the wealth of those at the apex of the money machine was not the result of the operation of  “free markets” or any neutral system.  The banking industry for the better part of two decades has fought hard to create a playing field skewed in their favor, with it permissible to sell complex products with hidden bad features to customers often incapable of understanding them.  By contrast, one of the factors that needs to be in place for markets to produce desirable outcomes is for buyers and sellers to have the same information about the product and the objectives of the seller.

Similarly, the concentrated capital flows, often too-low interest rates, and asymmetrical Federal Reserve actions (cutting rates fast when markets look rocky, being very slow to raise rates and telegraphing that intent well in advance) that are the most visible manifestations of two decades of bank-favoring policies, are the equivalent of massive subsidies.

And that’s before we get to the elephant in the room, the massive subsidies to the banksters that took place during the crisis and continue today.

We have just been through the greatest looting of the public purse in history, and Obama tries to pass it off as meritocracy in action.

Obama is beyond redemption.

At his Credit Writedowns website, Edward Harrison made this observation:

The problem is not that we have free markets in America, but rather that we have bailouts and crony capitalism.  So Americans actually do begrudge people this kind of monetary reward.  It has been obvious to me that the bailouts are a large part of why Obama’s poll numbers have been sinking.  It’s not just the economy here — so unless the President can demonstrate he understands this, he is unlikely to win back a very large number of voters who see this issue as central to their loss of confidence in Obama.

Is it just me or does this sound like Obama just doesn’t get it?

Victoria McGrane of Politico gave us a little background on Obama’s longstanding relationship with The Dimon Dog:

Dimon is seen as one of the Wall Street executives who enjoys the closest relationship with the president, along with Robert Wolf, head of the American division of Swiss bank UBS.  A longtime Democratic donor, Dimon first met Obama in Chicago, where Dimon lived and worked from the late 1990s until 2007.

And both Dimon and Blankfein have met with the president several times.  In their most recent meeting, Obama invited Dimon to Washington for lunch right before the State of the Union, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Some commentators have expressed the view that Obama is making a transparent attempt to curry favor with the banking lobby in time to get those contributions flowing to Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections.  Nevertheless, for Obama, this latest example of trying to please both sides of a debate will prove to be yet another “lose/lose” situation.  As Victoria McGrane pointed out:

But relations between most Democrats and Wall Street donors aren’t as warm this cycle as the financial industry chafes against the harsh rhetoric and policy prescriptions lawmakers have aimed at them.

As for those members of the electorate who usually vote Democratic, you can rest assured that a large percentage will see this as yet another act of betrayal.  They saw it happen with the healthcare reform debacle and they’re watching it happen again in the Senate, as the badly-compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) is being completely defanged.  A bad showing by the Democrats on November 2, 2010 will surely be blamed on Obama.

As of February 11, we already have a “favorite” in contention for the 2010 Jackass of the Year Award.  It’s time for the competition to step forward!



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The Outrage Continues

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February 1, 2010

The news reports of the past few days have brought us enough fuel to keep us outraged for the next decade.  Let’s just hope that some of this lasts long enough for the November elections.  I will touch on just three of the latest stories that should get the pitchfork-wielding mobs off their asses and into the streets.  Nevertheless, we have to be realistic about these things.  With the Super Bowl coming up, it’s going to be tough to pry those butts off the couches.

The first effrontery should not come as too much of a surprise.  The Times of London has reported that Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein (a/k/a Lloyd Bankfiend) is expecting to receive a $100 million bonus this year:

Bankers in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) told The Times yesterday they understood that Lloyd Blankfein and other top Goldman bankers outside Britain were set to receive some of the bank’s biggest-ever payouts.  “This is Lloyd thumbing his nose at Obama,” said a banker at one of Goldman’s rivals.

Blankfein is also thumbing his nose at the American taxpayers.  Despite widespread media insistence that Goldman Sachs “paid back the government” there is a bit of unfinished business arising from something called Maiden Lane III — for which Goldman should owe us billions.

That matter brings us to our second item:  the recently-released Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  The report is 224 pages long, so I’ll refer you to the handy summary prepared by Michael Shedlock (“Mish”).  Mish’s headline drove home the point that there are currently 77 ongoing investigations of fraud, money laundering and insider trading as a result of the TARP bank bailout program.  Here are a few more of his points, used as introductions to numerous quoted passages from the SIGTARP report:

The Report Blasts Geithner and the NY Fed.  I seriously doubt Geithner survives this but the sad thing is Geithner will not end up in prison where he belongs.

*   *   *

Please consider a prime conflict of interest example in regards to PPIP, the Public-Private-Investment-Plan, specifically designed to allow banks to dump their worst assets onto the public (taxpayers) shielding banks from the risk.

*   *   *

Note the refutation of the preposterous claims that taxpayers will be made whole.

*   *   *

TARP Tutorial:  How Taxpayers Lose Money When Banks Fail

My favorite comment from Mish appears near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

Mish’s last remark (and his link to an earlier posting) brings us to the third disgrace to be covered in this piece:  The AIG bailout cover-up.  On January 29, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg News (and Business Week) concerning last Wednesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg/Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

This impenetrability comes in handy since the bank is the preferred vehicle for many of the Fed’s bailout programs.  It’s as though the New York Fed was a black-ops outfit for the nation’s central bank.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks that operate under the supervision of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, chaired by Ben Bernanke.  Member-bank presidents are appointed by nine-member boards, who themselves are appointed largely by other bankers.

As Representative Marcy Kaptur told Geithner at the hearing:  “A lot of people think that the president of the New York Fed works for the U.S. government.  But in fact you work for the private banks that elected you.”

The “cover-up” aspect to this caper involved intervention by the New York Fed that included editing AIG’s communications to investors and pressuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep secret the details of the bailouts of AIG’s counterparties (Maiden Lane III).  The Fed’s opposition to disclosure of such documentation to Congress was the subject of a New York Times opinion piece in December.  The recent SIGTARP report emphasized the disingenuous nature of the Fed’s explanation for keeping this information hidden:

SIGTARP’s audit also noted that the now familiar argument from Government officials about the dire consequences of basic transparency, as advocated by the Federal Reserve in connection with Maiden Lane III, once again simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Federal Reserve officials initially refused to disclose the identities of the counterparties or the details of the payments, warning that disclosure of the names would undermine AIG’s stability, the privacy and business interests of the counterparties, and the stability of the markets.  After public and Congressional pressure, AIG disclosed the identities of its counterparties, including its eight largest:  Societe Generale, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, UBS, Calyon Corporate and Investment Banking (a subsidiary of Credit Agricole S.A.), Barclays PLC, and Bank of America.

Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s warnings, the sky did not fall; there is no indication that AIG’s disclosure undermined the stability of AIG or the market or damaged legitimate interests of the counterparties.

The SIGTARP investigation has revealed some activity that most people would never have imagined possible given the enormous amounts of money involved in these bailouts and the degree of oversight (that should have been) in place.  The bigger question becomes:  Will any criminal charges be brought against those officials who breached the public trust by facilitating this monumental theft of taxpayer dollars?



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This Fight Is Far From Over

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December 24, 2009

On November 26, I mentioned how apologists for controversial Wall Street giant, Goldman Sachs, were attempting to characterize Goldman’s critics as “conspiracy theorists” in the apparent hope that the use of such a term would discourage continued scrutiny of that firm’s role in causing the financial crisis.  The name-calling tactic didn’t work.  Since that time, my favorite reporter for The New York Times — Pulitzer Prize winner, Gretchen Morgenson — has continued to dig down into a dirty, sickening story about how Goldman Sachs (as well as some other firms) through their deliberate bets against their own financial products, known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) caused the financial crisis and ruined the lives of most Americans.  Ms. Morgenson had previously discussed the opinion of derivatives expert, Janet Tavakoli, who argued that Goldman Sachs “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”.  Although the Goldman apologists have been quick to point out that the firm repaid the bailout money it received under TARP, the $13 billion received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, has not been repaid.

On December 23, The New York Times published the latest report written by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story revealing how Goldman and other firms created those Collateralized Debt Obligations, sold them to their own customers and then used a new Wall Street index, called the ABX (a way to invest in the direction of mortgage securities) to bet that those same CDOs would fail.  Here’s a passage from the beginning of that superb Morgenson/Story article:

Goldman was not the only firm that peddled these complex securities — known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s — and then made financial bets against them, called selling short in Wall Street parlance.  Others that created similar securities and then bet they would fail, according to Wall Street traders, include Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, as well as smaller firms like Tricadia Inc., an investment company whose parent firm was overseen by Lewis A. Sachs, who this year became a special counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

Wait a minute!  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner has retained a “special counselor” whose responsibilities included oversight of Tricadia’s parent company.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Our President apparently sees nothing wrong with it.  At this point, that’s not too surprising.

Anyway  . . .  Let’s get back to the Times article:

How these disastrously performing securities were devised is now the subject of scrutiny by investigators in Congress, at the Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, according to people briefed on the investigations.  Those involved with the inquiries declined to comment.

While the investigations are in the early phases, authorities appear to be looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them, people briefed on the matter say.

We can only hope that the investigations by Congress, the SEC and FINRA might result in some type of sanctions.  At this juncture, that sort of accountability just seems like a wild fantasy.

Janet Tavakoli did a follow-up piece of her own for The Huffington Post on December 22.  She is now more critical of the November 17 report prepared by the Special Inspector General of Tarp (SIGTARP) and she continues to demand that Goldman should pay back the billions it received as an AIG counterparty:

The TARP Inspector General’s November 17 report missed the most damaging facts.  Intentionally or otherwise, it was evasive action or just plain whitewash.  The report failed to clarify Goldman’s role in AIG’s near collapse, and that of all the settlement deals, the U.S.taxpayers’ was by far the worst.

*   *   *

Goldman paid mega bonuses in past years subsidized by selling hot air.  Now it proposes to again pay billions in bonuses based on earnings made possible by taxpayer dollars.

Now that the crisis is over, we should ask Goldman Sachs — and all of AIG’s other trading partners involved in these trades — to buy back these mortgage assets at full price.  Alternatively, we can impose a special tax.  Instead of calling it a windfall profits tax, we might label it a “hot air” profits tax.

It was refreshing to read the opinion of someone who felt that Janet Tavakoli was holding back on her criticism of Goldman Sachs in the above-quoted piece.  Thomas Adams is a banking law attorney at Paykin, Kreig and Adams, LLP as well a former managing director of Ambac Financial Group, a bond insurer that is managing to crawl its way out from under the rubble of the CDO catastrophe.  Mr. Adams obviously has no warm spot in his heart for Goldman Sachs.  I continue to take delight in the visual image of a Goldman apologist, blue-faced with smoke coming out of his ears while reading the essay Mr. Adams wrote for Naked Capitalism:

. . .  Ms. Tavakoli stops short of telling the whole story.  While she is very knowledgeable of this market, perhaps she is unaware of the full extent of the wrongdoings Goldman committed by getting themselves paid on the AIG bailout.  The Federal Reserve and the Treasury aided and abetted Goldman Sachs in committing financial and ethical crimes at an astounding level.

*   *   *

But Ms. Tavakoli fails to note that the collapse of the CDO bonds and the collapse of AIG were a deliberate strategy by Goldman.  To realize on their bet against the housing market, Goldman needed the CDO bonds to collapse in value, which would cause AIG to be downgraded and lead to AIG posting collateral and Goldman getting paid for their bet.  I am confident that Goldman Sachs did not reveal to AIG that they were betting on the housing market collapse.

*   *   *

Goldman goes quite a few steps further into despicable territory with their other actions and the body count from Goldman’s actions is so enormous that it crosses over into criminal territory, morally and legally, by getting taxpayer money for their predation.

Goldman made a huge bet that the housing market would collapse.  They profited, on paper, from the tremendous pain suffered by homeowners, investors and taxpayers across the country, they helped make it worse.  Their bet only succeeded because they were able to force the government into bailing out AIG.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, by helping Goldman Sachs to profit from homeowner and investor losses, conceal their misrepresentations to shareholders, destroy insurers by stuffing them with toxic bonds that they marketed as AAA, and escape from the consequences of making a risky bet, committed a grave injustice and, very likely, financial crimes.  Since the bailout, they have actively concealed their actions and mislead the public.  Goldman, the Fed and the Treasury should be investigated for fraud, securities law violations and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.  Based on what I have laid out here, I am confident that they will find ample evidence.

The backlash against the repugnant activities of Goldman Sachs has come a long way from 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.”  With three investigations underway, the widely-despised icon of Wall Street greed might have more to worry about than its public image.





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