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Obama Backpedals To Save His Presidency

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President Obama’s demotion of his Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, has drawn quite a bit of attention – despite efforts by the White House to downplay the significance of that event.  The demotion of Daley is significant because it indicates that Obama is now trying to back away from his original strategy of helping Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.  This move appears to be an attempt by Obama to re-cast himself as a populist, in response to the widespread success of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  Despite the subsequent spin by right-wing pundits, to the effect that voters had been enamored with the Tea Party’s emphasis on smaller government, the true reasons for the mid-term disaster for the Democrats had become obvious:

During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

*   *   *

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .”

Back in December of 2009, Bill Daley – a minion of The Dimon Dog at JPMorgan Chase – wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, which resonated with Wall Street’s tool in the White House.  Daley claimed that Obama and other Democrats were elected to office in 2008 because voters had embraced some pseudo-centrist ideas, which Daley referenced in these terms:

These independents and Republicans supported Democrats based on a message indicating that the party would be a true Big Tent — that we would welcome a diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy.

*   *   *

All that is required for the Democratic Party to recover its political footing is to acknowledge that the agenda of the party’s most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans — and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Obama was pre-disposed to accept this rationale, keeping his policy decisions on a trajectory which has proven as damaging to his own political future as it has been to the future of the American middle class.

On November 8, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog, wherein he explained that the demotion of Bill Daley revealed a “course correction” by Obama, in order to a pursue a strategy “in line with the realities of public opinion”.  Jonathan Chait explained how the ideas espoused by Daley in his 2009 Washington Post editorial, had been a blueprint for failure:

Daley, pursuing his theory, heavily courted business leaders.  He made long-term deficit reduction a top priority, and spent hours with Republican leaders, meeting them three-quarters of the way in hopes of securing a deal that would demonstrate his centrism and bipartisanship.  The effort failed completely.

The effort failed because Daley’s analysis – which is also the analysis of David Brooks and Michael Bloomberg – was fatally incorrect.  Americans were not itching for Obama to make peace with corporate America.  Americans are in an angry, populist mood – distrustful of government, but even more distrustful of business.  In the most recent NBC/The Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of Americans strongly agreed with the following statement:

The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.  America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency.  The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.

At the website of economist Brad DeLong, a number of comments were posted in response to Jonathan Chait’s essay.  One can only hope that our President has the same, clear understanding of this situation as do the individuals who posted these comments:

Full Employment Hawk said:

.   .   .   The defeat of the Democrats was due to the fact that the Obama administration did too little, not because it did too much.

Daley’s view that it was because the moderately progressive policies of the Obama administration were too far left for the center was totally wrong.  And listening to Daley’s advice to further shift from job creation to deficit reduction was a major blunder that reinforced the blunder of the first two years of dropping the ball on making the economy grow fast enough for the unemployment rate to be coming down significantly by the time of the Fall election.

In reply to the comment posted by Full Employment Hawk, a reader, identified as “urban legend” said this:

Obama should have been making the point over and over and over and over that getting more money into the hands of more Americans — principally right now by creating jobs — is the most pro-business stance you can take.  Continuing to let the 1% dictate everything in their favor is the most anti-business thing you can do.  We are the ones who want demand to rise for the goods and services of American business.  Right-wingers don’t care much about that.  What they do care about is maintaining their theology against all the evidence of its massive failure.

At Politico, Jonathan Chait’s essay provoked the following comment from Ben Smith:

It is entirely possible that no staff shift, and no ideological shift, can save Obama from a bad economy.  You don’t get to run controlled experiments in politics.

But it does seem worth noting that this argument pre-dates Daley: It’s the substance of the 2008 debate between Hillary Clinton and Obama, with Clinton portraying Obama as naive in his dream of bipartisan unity, and the Republicans as an implacable foe.  It’s the Clinton view, the ’90s view, that has prevailed here.

Indeed, it would be nice for all of us if Obama could get a “Mulligan” for his mishandling of the economic crisis.  Unfortunately, this ain’t golf.


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The Smell Of Rotting TARP

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September 16, 2010

I never liked the TARP program.  As we approach the second anniversary of its having been signed into law by President Bush, we are getting a better look at how really ugly it has been.  Marshall Auerback picked up a law degree from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in 1983 and currently serves as a consulting strategist for RAB Capital Plc in addition to being an economic consultant to PIMCO.  Mr. Auerback recently wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism website in response to a posting by Ben Smith at Politico.  Smith’s piece touted the TARP program as a big success, with such statements as:

The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse.  That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.

Marshall Auerback’s essay, rebutting Ben Smith’s piece, was entitled, “TARP Was Not a Success —  It Simply Institutionalized Fraud”.  Mr. Auerback began his argument this way:

Indeed, the only way to call TARP a winner is by defining government sanctioned financial fraud as the main metric of results.  The finance leaders who are guilty of wrecking much of the global economy remain in power – while growing extraordinarily wealthy in the process.  They know that their primary means of destruction was accounting “control fraud”, a term coined by Professor Bill Black, who argued that “Control frauds occur when those that control a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a ‘weapon’ to defraud.”  TARP did nothing to address this abuse; indeed, it perpetuates it.  Are we now using lying and fraud as the measure of success for financial reform?

After pointing out that “Congress adopted unprincipled accounting principles that permit banks to lie about asset values in order to hide their massive losses on loans and investments”, Mr. Auerback concluded by enumerating the steps followed to create an illusion of viability for those “zombie banks”:

Both the Bush and Obama administration followed a three-part strategy towards our zombie banks:  (1) cover up the losses through (legalized) accounting fraud, (2) launch an “everything is great” propaganda campaign (the faux stress tests were key to this tactic and Ben Smith perpetuates this nonsense in his latest piece on TARP), and (3) provide a host of secret taxpayer subsidies to the systemically dangerous institutions (the so-called “too big to fail” banks).  This strategy is the opposite of what the Swedes and Norwegians did during their banking crisis in the 1990s, which remains the template on a true financial success.

Despite this sleight-of-hand by our government, the Moment of Truth has arrived.  Alistair Barr reported for MarketWatch that it has finally become necessary for the Treasury Department to face reality and crack down on the deadbeat banks that are not paying back what they owe as a result of receiving TARP bailouts.  That’s right.  Despite what you’ve heard about what a great “investment” the TARP program supposedly has been, there is quite a long list of banks that cannot boast of having paid back the government for their TARP bailouts.  (Don’t forget that although Goldman Sachs claims that it repaid the government for what it received from TARP, Goldman never repaid the $13 billion it received by way of Maiden Lane III.)  The MarketWatch report provided us with this bad news:

In August, 123 financial institutions missed dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury Department under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.  That’s up from 55 in November 2009, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

More important —  of those 123 financial institutions, seven have never made any TARP dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury.  Those seven institutions are:  Anchor Bancorp Wisconsin, Blue Valley Ban Corp, Seacoast Banking Corp., Lone Star Bank, OneUnited Bank, Saigon National Bank and United American Bank.  The report included this point:

Saigon National is the only institution to have missed seven consecutive quarterly TARP dividend payments.  The other six have missed six consecutive payments, KBW noted.

The following statement from the MarketWatch piece further undermined Ben Smith’s claim that the TARP program was a great success:

Most of the big banks have repaid the TARP money they got and the Treasury has collected about $10 billion in dividend payments from the effort.  However, the rising number of smaller banks that are struggling to meet dividend payments shows the program hasn’t been a complete success.

Of course, the TARP program’s success (or lack thereof) will be debated for a long time.  At this point, it is important to take a look at the final words from the “Conclusion” section (at page 108) of a document entitled, September Oversight Report (Assessing the TARP on the Eve of its Expiration), prepared by the Congressional Oversight Panel.  (You remember the COP – it was created to oversee the TARP program.)  That parting shot came after this observation at page 106:

Both now and in the future, however, any evaluation must begin with an understanding of what the TARP was intended to do.  Congress authorized Treasury to use the TARP in a manner that “protects home values, college funds, retirement accounts, and life savings; preserves home ownership and promotes jobs and economic growth; [and] maximizes overall returns to the taxpayers of the United States.”  But weaknesses persist.  Since EESA was signed into law in October 2008, home values nationwide have fallen.  More than seven million homeowners have received foreclosure notices.  Many Americans’ most significant investments for college and retirement have yet to recover their value.  At the peak of the crisis, in its most significant acts and consistent with its mandate in EESA, the TARP provided critical support at a time in which confidence in the financial system was in freefall.  The acute crisis was quelled.  But as the Panel has discussed in the past, and as the continued economic weakness shows, the TARP’s effectiveness at pursuing its broader statutory goals was far more limited.

The above-quoted passage, as well as these final words from the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, provide a  greater degree of candor than  what can be seen in Ben Smith’s article:

The TARP program is today so widely unpopular that Treasury has expressed concern that banks avoided participating in the CPP program due to stigma, and the legislation proposing the Small Business Lending Fund, a program outside the TARP, specifically provided an assurance that it was not a TARP program.  Popular anger against taxpayer dollars going to the largest banks, especially when the economy continues to struggle, remains high.  The program’s unpopularity may mean that unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that the TARP was effective, the government will not authorize similar policy responses in the future.  Thus, the greatest consequence of the TARP may be that the government has lost some of its ability to respond to financial crises in the future.

No doubt.



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Painting Themselves Into A Corner

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April 27, 2009

During the April 21 – 24 timeframe, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted a poll to ascertain President Obama’s approval rating.  The poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans favor the job performance of our new President.  Fifty percent of those polled believe that the country is on the right track (compared with 19 percent just before Obama’s inauguration).  This seemed like a particularly strong showing since, just one week before this poll began, we saw the anti-taxation “tea parties” that had been promoted by Fox News.

A recent article by Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin for Politico revealed that in some states, the “tea parties” have helped energize the Republican base:

“There is a sense of rebellion brewing,” said Katon Dawson, the outgoing South Carolina Republican Party chairman, who cited unexpectedly high attendance at anti-tax “tea parties” last week.

As the article by Smith and Martin pointed out, this “rebellion” is taking place at exactly the time when many Republican Party leaders are tacking to the center and looking for someone like Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as a possible Presidential candidate for 2012.  Nevertheless, as the article noted, rank-and-file Republicans outside of Washington have no desire to adopt more moderate views:

Within the party, conservative groups have grown stronger absent the emergence of any organized moderate faction.

Many of those comprising the Republican base appear to be motivated by antipathy toward the increasing acceptance of gay marriage, rather than by a reaction to all of the bailouts that have been taking place.  In fact, I was surprised to observe, during the extensive “tea party” coverage, that none of the protesters were upset about the bank bailouts or Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s use of the Federal Reserve to manage the bank bailouts in furtherance of his attempts to avoid legislative oversight.  I guess Fox News had not primed the protesters for that sort of outrage.

The Politico article by Smith and Martin reveals that “cultural issues” remain as the primary concern of the Republican base.  Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich is trying to position himself as the next Republican standard bearer.  Those touting the “sanctity of marriage” (including the Catholic Church) don’t seem particularly concerned that Newt has been married three times.  Newt’s vision for the future is the same vision he was seeing almost twenty years ago:  lower taxes.  If others within the Republican Party have a broader vision and feel the need to expand their appeal to the voters, they can expect plenty of opposition from the party’s base — and therein lies the problem.  Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman has written extensively about how the political primary system works to the benefit of political candidates with the most extreme views.  This is because the only people who vote in political primaries are those with strongly held views and most of them come from the extremes.  This is why wing-nuts such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann get nominated.  In the absence of any strong moderate or centrist uprising within the Republican ranks, the GOP could be destined to find itself marginalized.  It’s beginning to appear as though the only way for promising, new, centrist Republicans to get elected is to run as independents in the general elections.  Once elected, they can reclaim the “high ground” within the party.  In the mean time, Republican leaders are either unconcerned by or oblivious to the fact that they are painting themselves into a corner by continuing to pander to their base.

The Betrayal

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March 23, 2009

We the people, who voted for Barack Obama, are about to get ripped off by our favorite Hope dealer.  Throughout the recent controversy arising from the huge bonuses paid to AIG executives, President Obama has done quite a bit of hand wringing over the fact that the government is rewarding “the very same people who got us into this mess”.  Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner is now rolling out the administration’s so-called Financial Stability Plan, wherein once again, “the very same people who got us into this mess” will be rewarded with our tax dollars.  Over a trillion dollars of taxpayer money will be used to either buy back or insure an arbitrarily-assigned value for the infamous mortgage-backed securities.  The purpose of this exercise will be to prevent the bankers themselves from losing money.  The country’s top economists, including two Nobel Prize winners (Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz) have advocated a different solution:  placing those banks that are about to fail into “temporary receivership”.  However, this process would result in a significant reduction of the stock prices for those banks, in addition to replacement of the management of those institutions.  The big-shot bankers won’t put up with this.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich referenced a reader’s observation that this is President Obama’s “Katrina Moment”.  How the new President responds to this crisis will likely shape “the trajectory of his term”.  I prefer to call it Obama’s “Yellow Cake Moment”, since he and his administration are bent on selling a lie (the likelihood that the Financial Stability Plan can succeed) to the public in order to further assist the bad bankers.  It is similar to when George W. Bush convinced many in Congress and the public, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellow cake uranium to make atomic bombs (with Bush’s ultimate goal being widespread support for the invasion of Iraq).

It should be no coincidence that the Financial Stability Plan is rewarding the bad bankers, since it was prepared by some of “the very same people who got us into this mess”.  I am specifically referring to Larry Summers and Turbo Tim himself.  Frank Rich covered this point quite well in Sunday’s article.  As a result, Obama’s attempt to chastise “the very same people who got us into this mess” is quite specious, in light of the fact that some of those people have shaped his latest bank bailout.

Back during the campaign, Candidate Obama caught quite a bit of flack for talking about “putting lipstick on a pig”.  Nevertheless, his continued promotion of the various incarnations of what is essentially the same ill-conceived plan floated by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, demonstrates that Obama himself is now putting lipstick on a pig.  As Paul Krugman pointed out:

Why was I so quick to condemn the Geithner plan?  Because it’s not new; it’s just another version of an idea that keeps coming up and keeps being refuted.  It’s basically a thinly disguised version of the same plan Henry Paulson announced way back in September.

*    *    *

But Treasury is still clinging to the idea that this is just a panic attack, and that all it needs to do is calm the markets by buying up a bunch of troubled assets.  Actually, that’s not quite it:  the Obama administration has apparently made the judgment that there would be a public outcry if it announced a straightforward plan along these lines, so it has produced what Yves Smith calls “a lot of bells and whistles to finesse the fact that the government will wind up paying well above market for [I don’t think I can finish this on a Times blog]”

Nevertheless, “public outcry” is exactly what is warranted in response to this soon-to-be fiasco.  Most economists favor the “temporary receivership” approach, rather than the continued bailouts of insolvent banks.  The Administration’s Financial Stability Plan is just another way to reward “the very same people who got us into this mess”.  This plan is expected to cost at least one trillion dollars.  As a result, the government is about to bilk the taxpayers out of an amount in excess of 20 Bernie Madoff Ponzi schemes.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has recently vilified Senator Evan Bayh’s caucus of moderate Democrats, whom she calls “Conservadems” because they have been offering some resistance to a few of Obama’s proposals.   These Senators are actually smart people who can detect the distinctive odor of snake oil.  They know better than to tie their political futures to a bank bailout plan that can destroy their own credibility with the voting public.  They know that public support of Obama’s broader agenda is hinged on how he deals with the banking problem.  As Ben Smith and Manu Raju reported for Politico:

But many lawmakers made clear Tuesday their view that voters’ willingness to trust Obama on some subjects will be determined by their view of how well he handles the economic crisis.

*    *    *

“Unless we can instill some trust back with the American people that these people who brought on this problem, who risked our 401K funds and hard-working people’s money, aren’t going to be able to profit from their folly, I think we are at risk of losing their trust,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Meanwhile, there’s an ill wind a-blowin’ and it’s coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The efforts by many pundits to blame the flawed financial policy on Geithner are misplaced.  If President Obama weren’t on board with this plan, it would have never made it outside of the Oval Office.  The problem is with Obama himself, rather than Geithner.  Unfortunately, the decision our President has made will likely turn a two-year recession into a ten-year recession.  To him, the corresponding benefit of helping out the bankers must apparently be worth it.

“Bank Rage” Stresses The Obama Agenda

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March 19, 2009

Public anger over the AIG bonus controversy has risen to the point where no politician wants to be complicit in any government action to further reward those characters, widely regarded to have helped cause the economic crisis.  Worse yet, bailout fatigue is finally taking its toll on the consensual psyche.  On March 18, Chairman Ben Bernanke announced the decision of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) to print up another trillion dollars to buy back long-term Treasury bonds and to purchase some of those toxic, mortgage-backed securities.  The most immediate beneficiaries of this news were the usual suspects:  the banks.  Citigroup saw its stock value jump over 22% on Wednesday.  Bank of America made a similar gain and Wells Fargo’s stock rose over 17%.  As John Dickerson reported for Slate, President Obama is walking a tightrope by resonating with the public outrage over the behavior of Wall Street’s investment banks, since too much taxpayer anger could cause him trouble down the road:

Administration aides know this outrage can go too far.  If the president stokes too much outrage, he’ll have a tougher time asking for more tax money for future bailouts of banks and other industries.  But, as it was explained to me by an administration adviser, it is impossible for the president not to show that he’s outraged.  If he didn’t, he’d lose credibility, which would eventually hurt his ability to sell future bailouts and his budget.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner continued to take heat from members of Congress, as he is increasingly perceived as the individual who failed to prevent the villains at AIG from being rewarded $165 million for their role in causing the financial meltdown.  As Rick Klein reported for ABC News, two Republican Congressmen (Connie Mack of Florida and Darrell Issa of California) have called for Geithner’s resignation.  Klein’s article went on to point out:

Several congressional aides said members of Congress remain unlikely to press for Geithner’s ouster in large numbers.  At the very least, according to one Democratic leadership aide, members are likely to wait for Geithner to present his comprehensive bank bailout plan before passing judgment.

Once Turbo Tim does finally present “his comprehensive bank bailout plan” (a/k/a the Financial Stability Plan), he will validate his new-found reputation as a lackey for the Wall Street establishment.  If you think he’s unpopular now  …  wait until that happens.  Harold Meyerson’s March 18 op-ed piece in The Washington Post is emblematic of the criticism the new administration faces as it attempts to assimilate Geithner-ism into its economic recovery strategy:

But Geithner’s indulgence of bankers’ indulgences is fast becoming the Obama administration’s Achilles’ heel.  The AIG debacle is the latest in a series of bewildering Geithner decisions that threaten to undermine the administration’s efforts to restart the economy.  So long as it’s Be Kind to Bankers Week at Treasury — and we’ve had eight straight such weeks since the president was inaugurated — American banking, and the economy it is supposed to serve, will remain paralyzed.  The Geithner plan to restart the banks provides huge taxpayer subsidies to hedge funds, investment banks and private equity companies to buy the banks’ toxic assets without really having to assume the risk.  That’s right — the same Wall Street wizards who got us into this mess, using the same securitization techniques that built mountains of debt within a shadow financial system that remains unregulated, are the saviors whom Geithner has anointed to extricate us — with our capital, not theirs — from the mess that they created.

A more plausible solution would be for the government to assume control of those banks that are insolvent, as it routinely does when banks go under.  It could then install new management, wipe out the shareholders, take the devalued assets off the banks’ books, restart lending and restore the banks to private control at a modest profit for the taxpayers.  There may be reasons that Geithner’s plan makes more sense than this one, but if they exist, Geithner has failed to explain them.

Nothing could more seriously undermine President Obama’s “big bang” strategy (of simultaneously tackling the problems of energy, health care, climate change and education) than Geithner’s inept approach to solving the nation’s economic problems.  In fact, it appears as though the growing “bailout fatigue” is already taking its toll.  As Ben Smith and Manu Raju reported for Politico, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh’s 15-member caucus of conservative and centrist Democrats seems convinced that it will be impossible to adequately address the nation’s financial ills while pursuing such an ambitious, multi-front agenda.  Worse yet, as the Politico article pointed out, if the administration is seen as mishandling the economic crisis by catering to the interests of Wall Street, the public could become unwilling to trust the new administration with such a far-reaching scheme, involving so many costly programs:

But many lawmakers made clear Tuesday their view that voters’ willingness to trust Obama on some subjects will be determined by their view of how well he handles the economic crisis.  That judgment, in turn, will be shaped by whether the White House effectively responds to public outrage over large bonuses to executives at bailed-out American International Group.

“Unless we can instill some trust back with the American people that these people who brought on this problem, who risked our 401K funds and hard-working people’s money, aren’t going to be able to profit from their folly, I think we are at risk of losing their trust,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

If Rush Limbaugh still wants to see President Obama fail in advancing the “big bang” agenda  .  .  .

He must have a lot of love for Tim Geithner.