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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Psychopaths Caused The Financial Crisis

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Two months ago, Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post in rebuttal to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s parroting of what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

Ritholtz then proceeded to list and discuss the true causes of the financial crisis.  Among those causes were Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve monetary policy – wherein interest rates were reduced to 1 percent; the deregulation of derivatives trading by way of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Bear Stearns exemption” – allowing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns to boost their leverage as high as 40-to-1; as well as the “bundling” of sub-prime mortgages with higher-quality mortgages into sleazy “investment” products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Purveyors of The Big Lie are also big on advancing the claim that the “too big to fail” beneficiaries of the TARP bailout repaid the money they were loaned, at a profit to the taxpayers.  Immediately after her arrival at CNN, former Goldman Sachs employee, Erin Burnett made a point of interviewing a young, Occupy Wall Street protester, asking him if he was aware that the government actually made a profit on the TARP.  Unfortunately, the fiancée of Citigroup executive David Rubulotta didn’t direct her question to Steve Randy Waldman – who debunked that propaganda at his Interfluidity website:

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants.  Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses.  So there really was no bailout, right?  The banks took loans and paid them back.

Bullshit.

*   *   *

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest.  Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran).  The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion).  The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps.  Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars.  We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers.  Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out.  Big time.

Another overlooked cause of the financial crisis was the fact that there were too many psychopaths managing the most privileged Wall Street institutions.  Not only had the lunatics taken over the asylum – they had taken control of the world’s largest, government-backed casino, as well.  William D. Cohan of Bloomberg News gave us a peek at the recent work of Clive R. Boddy:

It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along:  The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Professor Boddy wrote a book on the subject – entitled, Corporate Psychopaths.  The book’s publisher, Macmillan, provided this description of the $90 opus:

Psychopaths are little understood outside of the criminal image.  However, as the recent global financial crisis highlighted, the behavior of a small group of managers can potentially bring down the entire western system of business.  This book investigates who they are, why they do what they do and what the consequences of their presence are.

Matt Taibbi provided a less-expensive explanation of this mindset in a recent article for Rolling Stone:

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors.  It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here.  Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India.  They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets.  They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest.  Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Do you think that Mayor Bloomberg learned his lesson  .  .  .  that spreading pro-bankster propaganda can provoke the infusion of an overwhelming dose of truth into the mainstream news?   Nawwww  .  .  .


 

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More Favorable Reviews For Huntsman

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In my last posting, I focused on how Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate to present responsible ideas for regulating the financial industry (Obama included).  Since that time, I have read a number of similarly favorable reactions from respected authorities and commentators who reviewed Huntsman’s proposals .

Simon Johnson is the former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2007-2008.  He is currently the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  At his Baseline Scenario blog, Professor Johnson posted the following comments in reaction to Jon Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform and Huntsman’s October 19 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal:

More bailouts and the reinforcement of moral hazard – protecting bankers and other creditors against the downside of their mistakes – is the last thing that the world’s financial system needs.   Yet this is also the main idea of the Obama administration.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Fiscal Times this week that European leaders “are going to have to move more quickly to put in place a strong firewall to help protect countries that are undertaking reforms,” meaning more bailouts.  And this week we learned more about the underhand and undemocratic ways in which the Federal Reserve saved big banks last time around.  (You should read Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, to understand Mr. Geithner’s philosophy of unconditional bailouts; remember that he was president of the New York Fed before become treasury secretary.)

Is there really no alternative to pouring good money after bad?

In a policy statement released this week, Governor Jon Huntsman articulates a coherent alternative approach to the financial sector, which begins with a diagnosis of our current problem:  Too Big To Fail banks,

“To protect taxpayers from future bailouts and stabilize America’s economic foundation, Jon Huntsman will end too-big-to-fail. Today we can already begin to see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts. More than three years after the crisis and the accompanying bailouts, the six largest U.S. financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were before the crisis, having been encouraged by regulators to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices”

Mr. Geithner feared the collapse of big banks in 2008-09 – but his policies have made them bigger.  This makes no sense.  Every opportunity should be taken to make the megabanks smaller and there are plenty of tools available, including hard size caps and a punitive tax on excessive size and leverage (with any proceeds from this tax being used to reduce the tax burden on the nonfinancial sector, which will otherwise be crushed by the big banks’ continued dangerous behavior).

The goal is simple, as Mr. Huntsman said in his recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece: make the banks small enough and simple enough to fail, “Hedge funds and private equity funds go out of business all the time when they make big mistakes, to the notice of few, because they are not too big to fail.  There is no reason why banks cannot live with the same reality.”

The quoted passage from Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal essay went on to say this:

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product—at least $9.4 trillion, up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.  There is no evidence that institutions of this size add sufficient value to offset the systemic risk they pose.

The major banks’ too-big-to-fail status gives them a comparative advantage in borrowing over their competitors thanks to the federal bailout backstop.

Far be it from President Obama to make such an observation.

Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform included a discussion of repealing the Dodd-Frank law:

More specifically, real reform means repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which perpetuates too-big-to-fail and imposes costly and mostly useless regulations on innocent smaller banks without addressing the root causes of the crisis or anticipating future crises.  But the overregulation cannot be addressed without ending the bailout subsidies, so that is where reform must begin.

Beyond that, Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal piece gave us a chance to watch the candidate step in shit:

Once too-big-to-fail is fixed, we could then more easily repeal the law’s unguided regulatory missiles, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  American banks provide advice and access to capital to the entrepreneurs and small business owners who have always been our economic center of gravity.  We need a banking sector that is able to serve that critical role again.

American banks also do a lot to screw their “personal banking” customers (the “little people”) and sleazy “payday loan”-type operations earn windfall profits exploiting those workers whose incomes aren’t enough for them to make it from paycheck-to-paycheck.  The American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  American consumers have always been “our economic center of gravity” and the CFPB was designed to protect them.  Huntsman would do well to jettison his anti-CFPB agenda if he wants to become President.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, exhibited a similarly “hot and cold” reaction to Huntsman’s proposals for financial reform.  What follows is a passage from a recent posting at his Rortybomb blog, entitled “Huntsman Wants to Repeal Dodd-Frank so he can Pass Title VII of Dodd-Frank”:

So we need to get serious about derivatives regulation by bringing transparency to the over-the-counter derivatives market, with serious collateral requirements.  This was turned into law as the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of 2010, or Title VII of Dodd-Frank.

So we need to eliminate Dodd-Frank in order to pass Dodd-Frank’s resolution authority and derivative regulations – two of the biggest parts of the bill – but call it something else.

You can argue that Dodd-Frank’s derivative rules have too many loopholes with too much of the market exempted from the process and too much power staying with the largest banks.  But those are arguments that Dodd-Frank doesn’t go far enough, where Huntsman’s critique of Dodd-Frank is that it goes way too far.

Huntsman should be required to explain the issues here – is he against Dodd-Frank before being for it?  Is his Too Big To Fail policy and derivatives policy the same as Dodd-Frank, and if not how do they differ?  It isn’t clear from the materials he has provided so far how the policies would be different, and if it is a problem with the regulations in practice how he would get stronger ones through Congress.

I do applaud this from Huntsman:

RESTORING RULE OF LAW

President Huntsman’s administration will direct the Department of Justice to take the lead in investigating and brokering an agreement to resolve the widespread legal abuses such as the robo-signing scandal that unfolded in the aftermath of the housing bubble.  This is a basic question of rule of law; in this country no one is above the law. There are also serious issues involving potential violations of the securities laws, particularly with regard to fair and accurate disclosure of the underlying loan contracts and property titles in mortgage-backed securities that were sold.  If investors’ rights were abused, this needs to be addressed fully.  We need a comprehensive settlement that puts all these issues behind us, but any such settlement must include full redress of all legal violations.

*   *   *

And I will note that the dog-whistles hidden inside the proposal are towards strong reforms (things like derivatives reform “will also allow end-users to negotiate better terms with Wall Street and in turn lower trading costs” – implicitly arguing that the dealer banks have too much market power and it is the role of the government to create a fair playing field).  Someone knows what they are doing.  His part on bringing down the GSEs doesn’t mention the hobbyhorse of the Right that the CRA and the GSEs caused the crisis, which is refreshing to see.

If Republican voters are smart, they will vote for Jon Huntsman in their state primary elections.  As I said last time:  If Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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Dubious Reassurances

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There appears to be an increasing number of commentaries presented in the mainstream media lately, assuring us that “everything is just fine” or – beyond that – “things are getting better” because the Great Recession is “over”.  Anyone who feels inclined to believe those comforting commentaries should take a look at the Financial Armageddon blog and peruse some truly grim reports about how bad things really are.

On a daily basis, we are being told not to worry about Europe’s sovereign debt crisis because of the heroic efforts to keep it under control.  On the other hand, I was more impressed by the newest Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Be sure to read the entire essay.  Here are some of Dr. Hussman’s key points:

From my perspective, Wall Street’s “relief” about the economy, and its willingness to set aside recession concerns, is a mistake born of confusion between leading indicators and lagging ones.  Leading evidence is not only clear, but on a statistical basis is essentially certain that the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, faces an oncoming recession.  As Lakshman Achuthan notes on the basis of ECRI’s own (and historically reliable) set of indicators, “We’ve entered a vicious cycle, and it’s too late: a recession can’t be averted.”  Likewise, lagging evidence is largely clear that the economy was not yet in a recession as of, say, August or September. The error that investors are inviting here is to treat lagging indicators as if they are leading ones.

The simple fact is that the measures that we use to identify recession risk tend to operate with a lead of a few months.  Those few months are often critical, in the sense that the markets can often suffer deep and abrupt losses before coincident and lagging evidence demonstrates actual economic weakness.  As a result, there is sometimes a “denial” phase between the point where the leading evidence locks onto a recession track, and the point where the coincident evidence confirms it. We saw exactly that sort of pattern prior to the last recession. While the recession evidence was in by November 2007 (see Expecting A Recession ), the economy enjoyed two additional months of payroll job growth, and new claims for unemployment trended higher in a choppy and indecisive way until well into 2008. Even after Bear Stearns failed in March 2008, the market briefly staged a rally that put it within about 10% of its bull market high.

At present, the S&P 500 is again just 10% below the high it set before the recent market downturn began. In my view, the likelihood is very thin that the economy will avoid a recession, that Greece will avoid default, or that Europe will deal seamlessly with the financial strains of a banking system that is more than twice as leveraged as the U.S. banking system was before the 2008-2009 crisis.

*   *   *

A few weeks ago, I noted that Greece was likely to be promised a small amount of relief funding, essentially to buy Europe more time to prepare its banking system for a Greek default, and observed “While it’s possible that the equity markets will mount a relief rally in the event of new funding to Greece, it will be important to recognize that handing out a bit more relief would be preparatory to a default, and that would probably be reflected in a failure of Greek yields to retreat significantly on that news.”

As of Friday, the yield on 1-year Greek debt has soared to 169%. Greece will default. Europe is buying time to reduce the fallout.

As of this writing, the yield on 1-year Greek debt is now 189.82%.  How could it be possible to pay almost 200% interest on a one-year loan?

Despite all of the “good news” about America’s zombie megabanks, which were bailed out during the financial crisis (and for a while afterward) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has been keeping an ongoing “Bank of America Deathwatch”.  The story has gone from grim to downright creepy:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it.  I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC.  About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

*   *   *

This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed.  Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.  Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions:  derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs.  So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.  It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario.  You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency.  Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.

But it’s even worse than that.  During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle.  It had to get more funding from Congress.  This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.  No Congressman would dare vote against that.  This move is Machiavellian, and just plain evil.

It is the aggregate outrage caused by the rampant malefaction throughout American finance, which has motivated the protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those demonstrators have found it difficult to articulate their demands because any comprehensive list of grievances they could assemble would be unwieldy.  Most important among their complaints is the notion that the failure to enforce prohibitions against financial wrongdoing will prevent restoration of a healthy economy.  The best example of this is the fact that our government continues to allow financial institutions to remain “too big to fail” – since their potential failure would be remedied by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz articulated those objections quite well, in a recent piece supporting the State Attorneys General who are resisting the efforts by the Justice Department to coerce settlement of the States’ “fraudclosure” cases against Bank of America and others – on very generous terms:

The Rule of Law is yet another bedrock foundation of this nation.  It seems to get ignored when the criminals involved received billions in bipartisan bailout monies.

The line of bullshit being used on State AGs is that we risk an economic crisis if we prosecute these folks.

The people who claim that fail to realize that the opposite is true – the protest at Occupy Wall Street, the negative sentiment, the general economic angst – traces itself to the belief that there is no justice, that senior bankers have gotten away with economic murder, and that we have a two-tiered criminal system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Today’s NYT notes the gloom that has descended over consumers, and they suggest it may be home prices. I think they are wrong – in my experience, the sort of generalized rage and frustration comes about when people realize the institutions they have trusted have betrayed them.  Humans deal with financial losses in a very specific way – and it’s not fury.  This is about a fundamental breakdown of the role of government, courts, and leadership in the nation.  And it all traces back to the bailouts of reckless bankers, and the refusal to hold them in any way accountable.

There will not be a fundamental economic recovery until that is recognized.

In the mean time, the quality of life for the American middle class continues to deteriorate.  We need to do more than simply hope that the misery will “trickle” upward.


 

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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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Justice Denied

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A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most of us assumed that the Enron scandal had set a precedent for the prosecution of corporate financial crime.  A few Enron executives received prison sentences and the CEO, Ken Lay, died while serving time.  Enron’s auditor, Arthur Andersen & Company, was forced out of business.  In the wake of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s, Charles Keating and a few of his associates were indicted by the State of California.  Keating eventually received a ten-year prison sentence for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.  Keating’s prosecution resulted from pressure brought by William Black, former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.  At one point during Black’s investigation, Keating issued a written memo to one of his minions, with this directive:  “If you can’t get Wright and Congress to get Black . . .  Kill him dead.”

These days, William Black has been doing quite a bit of speaking and writing about the need to initiate criminal proceedings against the culprits responsible for causing the financial crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

*   *   *

Our best bet is to continue to win the scholarly disputes and to continue to push media representatives to take fraud seriously. If the media demands for prosecution of the elite banking frauds expand there is a chance to create a bipartisan coalition in Congress and the administration supporting prosecutions.  In the S&L debacle, Representative Annunzio was one of the leading opponents of reregulation and leading supporters of Charles Keating.  After we brought several hundred successful prosecutions he began wearing a huge button:  “Jail the S&L Crooks!”  Bringing many hundreds of enforcement actions, civil suits, and prosecutions causes huge changes in the way a crisis is perceived.  It makes tens of thousands of documents detailing the frauds public.  It generates thousands of national and local news stories discussing the nature of the frauds and how wealthy the senior officers became through the frauds.  All of this increases the saliency of fraud and increases demands for serious reforms, adequate resources for the regulators and criminal justice bodies, and makes clear that elite fraud poses a severe danger.  Collectively, this creates the political space for real reform, vigorous regulators, and real prosecutors.

Hedge fund manager, David Einhorn (author of  Fooling Some of the People All of the Time) was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose.  At one point during the interview, Charlie Rose asked Einhorn to address the argument that regulators lacked the tools necessary for preventing the financial crisis.  Mr. Einhorn gave this response:

I would actually disagree with that.  I think that the problem was that the laws were not enforced.  After Enron you had Sarbanes Oxley.  And there have been hardly any prosecutions under Sarbanes Oxley.  You put in a tough anti-fraud law.  The CEO has to sign there is no fraud.

The CFO has to sign that the financial statements are correct.  If it’s not, there are going to be criminal consequences to all of this.  And the result was that effectively you passed a law but then they didn’t enforce the law.

And once the bad guys figured out that the law wasn’t being enforced, it effectively provided cover because everybody said, look we have the tough antifraud law.  The fraud must have gone away.

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products — who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

While many people have been getting excited about the “insider trading” investigation currently underway, I have been sitting here, wearing my tinfoil hat, viewing the entire episode as a diversionary tactic to direct public attention away from the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  Fortunately, I am not the only cynic with such an outlook.  Jesse Eisenger recently wrote a piece for the DealBook blog at The New York Times entitled, “The Feds Stage a Sideshow While the Big Tent Sits Empty”.  Here is some of what Eisenger had to say about the “insider trading” investigation:

In fact, plenty of people on Wall Street are happy about the investigation.  The ones with clean consciences like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason:  They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness.  Everyone is wondering:  Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders, “Have they committed the resources in the right place?  Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything.  No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted.  All former American International Group executives are running free.  No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

There’s an old saying:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  The government has demonstrated that it is in no hurry to bring any significant criminal charges against the perpetrators of the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly obvious that those crimes will go unpunished.  The cause of justice is simply no match for the ability of certain individuals to operate “above the law”.  In fact, it never has been.


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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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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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Everyone Knew About Lehman Brothers

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March 19, 2010

A March 18 report by Henny Sender at the Financial Times revealed that former officials from Merrill Lynch had contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the Federal Reserve of New York to complain that Lehman Brothers had been incorrectly calculating a key measure of its financial health.  The regulators received this warning several months before Lehman filed for bankruptcy in September of 2008.  Apparently Lehman’s reports of robust financial health were making Merrill look bad:

Former Merrill Lynch officials said they contacted regulators about the way Lehman measured its liquidity position for competitive reasons.  The Merrill officials said they were coming under pressure from their trading partners and investors, who feared that Merrill was less liquid than Lehman.

*   *   *

In the account given by the Merrill officials, the SEC, the lead regulator, and the New York Federal Reserve were given warnings about Lehman’s balance sheet calculations as far back as March 2008.

*   *   *

The former Merrill officials said they contacted the regulators after Lehman released an estimate of its liquidity position in the first quarter of 2008.  Lehman touted its results to its counterparties and its investors as proof that it was sounder than some of its rivals, including Merrill, these people said.

*   *   *

“We started getting calls from our counterparties and investors in our debt.  Since we didn’t believe the Lehman numbers and thought their calculations were aggressive, we called the regulators,” says one former Merrill banker, now at another big bank.

Could the people at Merrill Lynch have expected the New York Fed to intervene and prevent the accounting chicanery at Lehman?  After all, Lehman’s CEO, Richard Fuld, was also a class B director of the New York Fed.  Would any FRBNY investigator really want to make trouble for one of the directors of his or her employer?  This type of conflict of interest is endemic to the self-regulatory milieu presided over by the Federal Reserve.  When people talk about protecting “Fed independence”, I guess this is what they mean.

The Financial Times report inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to emphasize that the New York Fed’s failure to do its job, having been given this additional information from Merrill officials, underscores the ineptitude of the New York Fed’s president at the time — Tim Geithner:

The fact that Merrill, with a little digging, could see that Lehman’s assertions about its financial health were bogus says other firms were likely to figure it out sooner rather than later.  That in turn meant that the Lehman was extremely vulnerable to a run.  Bear was brought down in a mere ten days.  Having just been through the Bear implosion, the warning should have put the authorities in emergency preparedness overdrive.  Instead, they went into “Mission Accomplished” mode.

This Financial Times story provides yet more confirmation that Geithner is not fit to serve as a regulator and should resign as Treasury Secretary.  But it may take Congress forcing a release of the Lehman-related e-mails and other correspondence by the New York Fed to bring about that outcome.

Those “Lehman-related e-mails” should be really interesting.  If Richard Fuld was a party to any of those, it will be interesting to note whether his e-mail address was “@LehmanBros”, “@FRBNY” or both.

The Lehman scandal has come to light at precisely the time when Ben Bernanke is struggling to maintain as much power for the Federal Reserve as he can — in addition to getting control over the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  One would think that Bernanke is pursuing a lost cause, given the circumstances and the timing.  Nevertheless, as Jesse of Jesse’s Cafe Americain points out — Bernanke may win this fight:

The Fed is the last place that should receive additional power over the banking system, showing itself to be a bureaucracy incapable of exercising the kind of occasionally stern judgment, the tough love, that wayward bankers require.  And the mere thought of putting Consumer Protection under their purview makes one’s skin crawl with fear and the gall of injustice.

They may get it, this more power, not because it is deserved, but because politicians themselves wish to have more power and money, and this is one way to obtain it.

The next time the financial system crashes, the torches and pitchforks will come out of the barns and there will be a serious reform, and some tar and feathering in congressional committees, and a few virtual lynchings.  The damage to the people of the middle class will be an American tragedy.  But this too shall pass.

It’s beginning to appear as though it really will require another financial crisis before our graft-hungry politicians will make any serious effort at financial reform.  If economist Randall Wray is correct, that day may be coming sooner than most people expect:

Another financial crisis is nearly certain to hit in coming months — probably before summer.  The belief that together Geithner and Bernanke have resolved the crisis and that they have put the economy on a path to recovery will be exposed as wishful thinking.

Although that may sound a bit scary, we have to look at the bright side:  at least we will finally be on a path toward serious financial reform.



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Deceptive Oversight

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March 17, 2010

March 16 brought us a few more provocative essays about the Lehman Brothers scandal.  The most prominent subject discussed in the reactions to the Valukas Report has been the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Does that sound like a conflict of interest to anyone besides me?  The Securities and Exchange Commission (under the direction of Christopher Cox at the time) has become another subject of scrutiny for its own dubious semblance of oversight.

Eliot Spitzer and William Black (a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City) recently posted a great article at the New Deal 2.0 website.  Among the memorable points from that piece is the assertion that accounting is “the weapon of choice” for financial deception.  The Valukas Report has exposed such extensive accounting fraud at Lehman, it will be impossible for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to feign ignorance of that activity.  Another memorable aspect of the Spitzer – Black piece is its reference to those “too big to fail” financial institutions as “SDIs” or systemically dangerous institutions.  Here is some of what Spitzer and Black had to say about how the FRBNY became enmeshed in Lehman’s sleazy accounting tactics:

The FRBNY knew that Lehman was engaged in smoke and mirrors designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to lend as much money to Lehman.  The FRBNY did not, however, inform the SEC, the public, or the OTS  (which regulated an S&L that Lehman owned) of what should have been viewed by all as ongoing misrepresentations.

The Fed’s behavior made it clear that officials didn’t believe they needed to do more with this information. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to an institution with misleading accounting and neither remedied the accounting nor notified other regulators who may have had the opportunity to do so.

*   *   *

The FRBNY acted shamefully in covering up Lehman’s inflated asset values and liquidity.

The consequences of the New York Fed’s involvement in this scam were discussed in an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin from the March 16 edition of The New York Times.  (You may recall that Andrew Ross Sorkin is the author of the book, Too Big To Fail.)  He pointed out that the consequences of the Lehman scandal could be very far-reaching:

Indeed, it now appears that the federal government itself either didn’t appreciate the significance of what it saw (we’ve seen that movie before with regulators waving off tips about Bernard L. Madoff).  Or perhaps they did appreciate the significance and blessed the now-suspect accounting anyway.

*   *   *

There’s a lot riding on the government’s oversight of these accounting shenanigans.  If Lehman Brothers executives are sued civilly or prosecuted criminally, they may actually have a powerful defense:  a raft of government officials from the S.E.C. and Fed vetted virtually everything they did.

On top of that, Lehman’s outside auditor, Ernst &Young, and a law firm, Linklaters, signed off on the transactions.

The problems at Lehman raise even larger questions about the vigilance of the SEC and Fed in overseeing the other Wall Street banks as well.

The question as to whether similar accounting tricks were being performed at “other Wall Street banks as well” opens a very huge can of worms.  It’s time for the government to step back and assess the larger picture of what the systemic problem really is.  In a speech before the Senate, Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.



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