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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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More Windfalls For Wall Street

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August 3, 2009

At a time when states and municipalities are going broke, foreclosures are on the rise and bankruptcies are skyrocketing, it’s nice to know that the Federal Reserve keeps coming up with new and inventive ways to enrich the investment banks on Wall Street.

I’ve often discussed the involvement of the Federal Government in “propping up” (manipulating) the stock markets since the onset of the financial crisis, nearly one year ago.  The so-called “Plunge Protection Team” or PPT was created during the Reagan administration to prevent stock market crashes after the October 19, 1987 event.  Although the PPT has been called an “urban myth” by many skeptics, there is plenty of documentation as to its existence.  Its formal name is the Working Group on Financial Markets.  It was created by Executive Order 12631 on March 18, 1988, which appears at 53 FR 9421, 3 CFR 559, 1988 Comp.  You can read the Executive Order here.  Much has been written about the PPT over the years since 1988.  Brett Fromson wrote an article about it for The Washington Post on February 23, 1997.  Here is a paragraph from that informative piece:

In the event of a financial crisis, each federal agency with a seat at the table of the Working Group has a confidential plan.  At the SEC, for example, the plan is called the “red book” because of the color of its cover.  It is officially known as the Executive Directory for Market Contingencies.  The major U.S.stock markets have copies of the commission’s plan as well as the CFTC’s.

In October of 2006, two years before the financial meltdown, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote an interesting piece about the PPT for the Telegraph.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

The PPT was once the stuff of dark legends, its existence long denied.  But ex-White House strategist George Stephanopoulos admits openly that it was used to support the markets in the Russia/LTCM crisis under Bill Clinton, and almost certainly again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They have an informal agreement among major banks to come in and start to buy stock if there appears to be a problem,” he said.

“In 1998, there was the Long Term Capital crisis, a global currency crisis.  At the guidance of the Fed, all of the banks got together and propped up the currency markets.  And they have plans in place to consider that if the stock markets start to fall,” he said.

Back on September 13, 2005, The Prudent Investor website featured a comprehensive report on the PPT.  It referenced a paper by John Embry and Andrew Hepburn.  Here is an interesting passage from that essay:

A thorough examination of published information strongly suggests that since the October 1987 crash, the U.S. government has periodically intervened to prevent another destabilizing stock market fall.  And as official rhetoric continues to toe the free market line, manipulation has become increasingly apparent.  Almost every floor trader on the NYSE, NYMEX, CBOT and CME will admit to having seen the PPT in action in one form or another over the years.

The conclusion reached in The Prudent Investor‘s article raises the issue of moral hazard, which continues to be a problem:

But a policy enacted in secret and knowingly withheld from the body politic has created a huge disconnect between those knowledgeable about such activities and the majority of the public who have no clue whatsoever.  There can be no doubt that the firms responsible for implementing government interventions enjoy an enviable position unavailable to other investors.  Whether they have been indemnified against potential losses or simply made privy to non-public government policy, the major Wall Street firms evidently responsible for preventing plunges no longer must compete on anywhere near a level playing field.

That point brings us to the situation revealed in a recent article by Henny Sender for the Financial Times on August 2.  Although, the PPT’s involvement in the equities markets has been quite low-profiled, the involvement one PPT component (the Federal Reserve) in the current market for mortgage-backed securities has been quite the opposite.  In fact, the Fed has invoked “transparency” (I thought the Fed was allergic to that) as its reason for tipping off banks on its decisions to buy such securities.  As Mr. Sender explained:

The Fed has emerged as one of Wall Street’s biggest customers during the financial crisis, buying massive amounts of securities to help stabilise the markets.  In some cases, such as the market for mortgage-backed securities, the Fed buys more bonds than any other party.

However, the Fed is not a typical market player.  In the interests of transparency, it often announces its intention to buy particular securities in advance.  A former Fed official said this strategy enables banks to sell these securities to the Fed at an inflated price.

The resulting profits represent a relatively hidden form of support for banks, and Wall Street has geared up to take advantage.  Barclay’s, for example, e-mails clients with news on the Fed’s balance sheet, detailing the share of the market in particular securities held by the Fed.

“You can make big money trading with the government,” said an executive at one leading investment management firm.  “The government is a huge buyer and seller and Wall Street has all the pricing power.”

A former official of the US Treasury and the Fed said the situation had reached the point that “everyone games them.  Their transparency hurts them.  Everyone picks their pocket.”

*   *   *

Larry Fink, chief executive of money manager BlackRock, has described Wall Street’s trading profits as “luxurious”, reflecting the banks’ ability to take advantage of diminished competition.

So let’s get this straight:  When Republican Congressman Ron Paul introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act (HR 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components for a report to Congress, there was widespread opposition to the idea of transparency for the Fed.  However, when Wall Street banks are tipped off about the Fed’s plans to buy particular securities and the public objects to the opportunistic inflation of the pricing of those securities by the tipped-off banks, the Fed emphasizes a need for transparency.

Perhaps Ron Paul might have a little more luck with his bill if he could demonstrate that its enactment would be lucrative for the Wall Street banks.  HR 1207 would find its way to Barack Obama’s desk before the next issue of the President’s Daily Brief.

Sign This Petition

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May 25, 2009

For some reason, the Boston College School of Law invited Federal Reserve Chairman, B.S. Bernanke, to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2009 on May 22.  While reading the text of that oration, I found the candor of this remark at the beginning of his speech, to be quite refreshing:

Along those lines, last spring I was nearby in Cambridge, speaking at Harvard University’s Class Day.  The speaker at the main event, the Harvard graduation the next day, was J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.  Before my remarks, the student who introduced me took note of the fact that the senior class had chosen as their speakers Ben Bernanke and J. K. Rowling, or, as he put it, “two of the great masters of children’s fantasy fiction.”  I will say that I am perfectly happy to be associated, even in such a tenuous way, with Ms. Rowling, who has done more for children’s literacy than any government program I know of.

Meanwhile, that great master of children’s fantasy fiction (and money printing) is now faced with the possibility that someday, someone might actually start looking over his shoulder in attempt to get some vague idea of just what the hell is going on over at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve’s resistance to transparency has been a favorite topic of many commentators.  For example, once Ben Bernanke took over the Fed Chairmanship from Alan Greenspan in 2006, Ralph Nader expressed his high hopes that Bernanke might adopt Nader’s suggested “seven policies of openness”.  Dream on, Ralph!

Speaking of children’s fantasy fiction, one expert on that subject is Congressman Alan Grayson.  As the Representative of Florida’s Eighth Congressional District, his territory includes Disney World.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that back in January of 2009, as a new member of the House Financial Services Committee, he immediately set about cross-examining Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Donald Kohn about what had been done with the 1.2 trillion dollars in bank bailout money squandered by the Fed after September 1, 2008.  Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com provided a five-minute video clip of that testimony along with an audio recording of his 20-minute interview with Congressman Grayson, focusing on the complete lack of transparency at the Federal Reserve.

Better yet was Congressman Grayson’s questioning of Federal Reserve Board Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman on May 7.  In one of the classic “WTF Moments” of all time, Ms. Coleman admitted that she had no clue about the “off balance sheet transactions” by the Federal Reserve, reported by Bloomberg News as amounting to over nine trillion dollars in the previous eight months.  If you haven’t seen this yet, you can watch it here.  After reviewing this video clip, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism was of the opinion that Coleman was not stonewalling, but instead was “clearly completely clueless”.  Ms. Smith pointed out how opacity at the Federal Reserve may be by design, with the apparent motive being obfuscation:

But there is a possibly more important issue at stake.  The interview is with the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.  The programs are actually at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  For reasons I cannot fathom, the Board of Governors is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, while the Fed of New York has been able to rebuff them.

So I take Coleman’s inability to answer key questions to be a feature, not a bug.  The Fed of New York probably can answer Congressional questions, is taking care to limit what it conveys to the Board so as to keep the information from Congress and the public.  Note in the questioning the emphasis on “high level reviews”.

In order to shine a bright light on the Federal Reserve, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, (H.R. 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components, and require a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill.  Among the many interesting points made in his letter were the following:

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve has refused multiple inquiries from both the House and the Senate to disclose who is receiving trillions of dollars from the central banking system.  The Federal Reserve has redacted the central terms of the no-bid contracts it has issued to Wall Street firms like Blackrock and PIMCO, without disclosure required of the Treasury, and is participating in new and exotic programs like the trillion-dollar TALF to leverage the Treasury’s balance sheet.  With discussions of allocating even more power to the Federal Reserve as the “systemic risk regulator” of the credit markets, more oversight over the central bank’s operations is clearly necessary.

The net effect of recent actions has been to isolate financial policy-making entirely from democratic input, and allow the Treasury Department to leverage the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to spend money it cannot get appropriated from Congress.  The public does not know where trillions of its dollars are going, and so has no meaningful control over the currency or this unappropriated “budget”.  The extraordinary size of these lending facilities combined, the extreme secrecy, and the private influence is a dangerous seizure of Congress’s constitutional prerogative to appropriate public monies and control the currency.

You can do your part for this cause by signing the on-line petition.  Let Congress know that we will no longer tolerate “children’s fantasy fiction” from the Federal Reserve.  Demand an audit of the Federal Reserve as well as a report to the public of what that audit reveals.