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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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Leadership Void

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In my last posting, I re-ran a passage from what I wrote on December 2, which was supported by Robert Reich’s observation that, unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not at the helm of a country with an expanding economy.  As I said on December 2:

After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.

After I posted my April 7 piece, I felt a bit remorseful about repeating a stale theme.  Nevertheless, a few days later, Ezra Klein’s widely-acclaimed Washington Post critique of President Obama’s misadventure in “negotiating” the 2011 budget was entitled, “2011 is not 1995”.  Ezra Klein validated the point I was trying to make:

Clinton’s success was a function of a roaring economy.  The late ‘90s were a boom time like few others — and not just in America.  The unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1995, and fell to under 5 percent in 1996. Cutting deficits was the right thing to do at that time.  Deficits should be low to nonexistent when the economy is strong, and larger when it is weak.  The Obama administration’s economists know that full well.  They are, after all, the very people who worked to balance the budget in the 1990s, and who fought to expand the deficit in response to the recession.

Right now, the economy is weak.  Giving into austerity will weaken it further, or at least delay recovery for longer.  And if Obama does not get a recovery, then he will not be a successful president, no matter how hard he works to claim Boehner’s successes as his own.

President Obama’s attempt at spin control with a claim of “bragging rights” for ending the budget stalemate brought similar criticism from economist Brad DeLong:

To reduce federal government spending by $38 billion in the second and third quarters of 2011 when the unemployment rate is 8.9% and the U.S. Treasury can borrow on terms that make pulling spending forward from the future into the present essentially free is not an accomplishment.

It will knock between 0.5% and 1.0% off the growth rate of real GDP in the second half of 2011, and leave us at the start of 2012 with an unemployment rate a couple of tenths of a percent higher than it would have been otherwise.

Robert Reich expressed his disappointment with the President’s handling of the 2011 budget deal by highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to put the interests of the middle class ahead of the goals of the plutocracy:

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth:  That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets.  And that much of the current deficit comes from the necessary response to that financial crisis.

That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and to slow down soaring health-care costs.

And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.

“We preserved the investments we need to win the future,” he said last night.  That’s not true.

The idea that a huge portion of our current deficit comes from the response to the financial crisis created by Wall Street banks was explored in more detail by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The approach of saving the banks, under the misguided notion that relief would “trickle down” to Main Street didn’t work.  The second round of quantitative easing (QE 2) has proven to be nothing more than an imprudent decision to follow Japan’s ineffective playbook:

And in 2008 our government was convinced by Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that if we just saved the banks we would fix the economy.  So we embarked on the “recovery” plan that has led us to one of the weakest recoveries in US economic history.  Because of the keen focus on the banking system there is a clear two tier recovery.  Wall Street is thriving again and Main Street is still struggling.

Thus far, we have run budget deficits that have been large enough to offset much of the deleveraging of the private sector.  And though the spending was poorly targeted it has been persistent enough that we are not repeating the mistakes of Japan – YET.  By my estimates the balance sheet recession is likely to persist well into 2013.

*   *   *

QE2 has truly been a “monetary non-event”.  As many of us predicted at its onset, this program has shown absolutely no impact on the US money supply (much to the dismay of the hyperinflationists).  And now its damaging psychological impact (via rampant speculation) has altered the options available to combat the continuing balance sheet recession.  While more stimulus is almost certainly off the table given the Fed’s misguided QE2 policy, it would be equally misguided to begin cutting the current budget deficit.  Sizable cuts before the end of the balance sheet recession will almost guarantee that the US economy suffers a Japan-like relapse.  It’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of Japan.

So where is the leader who is going to save us from a Japanese-style “lost decade” recession?  It was over two years ago when I posed this question:

Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” – by avoiding bank nationalization – send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

Two years down – eight years to go.


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An Army Of Lobbyists For The Middle Class

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Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee this week to testify about the Fed’s monetary policy.  Scot Kersgaard of The American Independent focused our attention on a five-minute exchange between Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and The Ben Bernank, with an embedded video clip.  Senator Bennett asked Bernanke to share his opinions concerning the recommendations made by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission.  Bernanke initially attempted to dodge the question with the disclaimer that the Fed’s authority extends to only monetary policy rather than fiscal policy – such as the work conducted by the deficit commission.  If Congressman Ron Paul had been watching the hearing take place, I’m sure he had a good, hard laugh at that statement.  Nevertheless, Bernanke couldn’t restrain himself from concurring with the effort to place the cost of Wall Street’s larceny on the backs of middle-class taxpayers.

The chant for “entitlement reform” continues to reverberate throughout the mainstream media as it has for the past year.  Last May, economist Dean Baker exposed this latest effort toward upward wealth redistribution:

Emboldened by the fact that none of them have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis, the Wall Street gang is now gunning for Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important safety net programs. Led by investment banker Pete Peterson, this crew is spending more than a billion dollars to convince the public that slashing these programs is the only way to protect our children and grandchildren from poverty.

A key propaganda tactic used by the “entitlement reform” crusaders is to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” even though it is not (as I discussed here).  Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”, wrote a great essay, which refuted the claim that Social Security is “broken” while explaining why it is not an “entitlement”.  Unfortunately, there are very few politicians who are willing to step forward to provide the simple explanation that Social Security is not an entitlement.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently made a statement to that effect before a senior citizens’ group in East Haven, Connecticut – without really providing an explanation why it is not an entitlement.  Susan Feiner wrote a great commentary on the subject last fall for womensenews.org.  Here is some of what she said:

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes.  It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing.  It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

The attempt to mischaracterize Social Security as an “entitlement” is not a “Right vs. Left” dispute —  It’s a class warfare issue.  There have been commentaries from across the political spectrum emphasizing the same fact:  Social Security is not an “entitlement”.  The assertion has appeared on the conservative patriotsteaparty.net website, the DailyKos on the Left and in a piece by independent commentator, Marti Oakley.

The battle for “entitlement reform” is just one front in the larger war being waged by Wall Street against the middle class.  Kevin Drum discussed this conflict in a recent posting at his Plutocracy Now blog for Mother Jones:

It’s about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.  With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction.  And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance.  In theory, that’s supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone — even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick — that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone.  But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch made this observation on March 1:

Wall Street’s corrupt banks have lost their moral compass … their insatiable greed has become a deadly virus destroying its host nation … their campaign billions buy senate votes, stop regulators’ actions, manipulate presidential decisions.  Wall Street money controls voters, runs America, both parties.  Yes, Wall Street is bankrupting America.

Wake up America, listen:

  • “Our country is bankrupt.  It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years,” warns economist Larry Kotlikoff, “it’s bankrupt today.”
  • Economist Peter Morici:  “Capitalism is broken, America’s government is two bankrupt political parties bankrupting the country.”
  • David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director:  “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians” the “tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”
  • BusinessWeek recently asked analyst Mary Meeker to run the numbers.  How bad is it? America really is bankrupt, with a “net worth of a negative $44 trillion.” Bankrupt.

And it will get worse.  Unfortunately, nothing can stop America’s self-destructive Wall Street bankers.  They simply do not care that their “doomsday capitalism” is destroying themselves from within, and is bankrupting America too.

On February 21, I quoted a statement made by bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO, which included this thought:

America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.

That essay by Bill Gross became the subject of an article by Terrence Keeley of Bloomberg News.  Mr. Keeley’s reaction to the suggestions made by Bill Gross was this:

To redeem Wall Street’s soul, radical solutions are clearly needed, but advocating the eradication of profit-based markets that have served humanity well on balance without a viable replacement is fanciful. Gross deserves an “A” for intent — but something more practical than a “heart transplant” is required to restore trust and efficacy to our banking system.

*   *   *

But an economy based on something other than profit risks misery and injustice of another sort.  The antibodies now needed aren’t those that negate profitability.  Rather, they are the ones that bind financial engineering to value creation and advancement of society.

Perhaps the most constructive solution to the problem is my suggestion from February 10:  Recruit and employ an army of lobbyists to represent and advance the interests of the middle class on Capitol Hill.  Some type of non-partisan, “citizens’ lobby” could be created as an online community.  Once its lobbying goals are developed and articulated, an online funding drive would begin.  The basic mission would be to defend middle-class taxpayers from the tyranny of the plutocracy that is destroying not just the middle class – but the entire nation.  Fight lobbyists with lobbyists!


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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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