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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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Federal Reserve Bailout Records Provoke Limited Outrage

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On December 3, 2009 I wrote a piece entitled, “The Legacy of Mark Pittman”.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.

The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling in August of 2009 by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions (which sought loans at the Fed’s discount window) to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve appealed Judge Preska’s decision, taking the matter before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Fed’s appeal was based on Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts trade secrets and confidential business information from mandatory disclosure.  The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Preska’s decision on the basis that the records sought were neither trade secrets nor confidential business information because Bloomberg requested only records generated by the Fed concerning loans that were actually made, rather than applications or confidential information provided by persons, firms or other organizations in attempt to obtain loans.  Although the Fed did not attempt to appeal the Second Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court by Clearing House Association LLC, a coalition of banks that received bailout funds.  The petition was denied by the Supreme Court on March 21.

Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News had this to say about the documents produced by the Fed as a result of the suit:

The 29,000 pages of documents, which the Fed released in pdf format on a CD-ROM, revealed that foreign banks accounted for at least 70 percent of the Fed’s lending at its October, 2008 peak of $110.7 billion.  Arab Banking Corp., a lender part- owned by the Central Bank of Libya, used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the window in the 18 months after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.

As government officials and news reporters continue to review the documents, a restrained degree of outrage is developing.  Ron Paul is the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy.  He is also a longtime adversary of the Federal Reserve, and author of the book, End The Fed.  A recent report by Peter Barnes of FoxBusiness.com said this about Congressman Paul:

.   .   .   he plans to hold hearings in May on disclosures that the Fed made billions — perhaps trillions — in secret emergency loans to almost every major bank in the U.S. and overseas during the financial crisis.

*   *   *

“I am, even with all my cynicism, still shocked at the amount this is and of course shocked, but not completely surprised, [that] much [of] this money went to help foreign banks,” said Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX),   .   .   .  “I don’t have [any] plan [for] legislation …  It will take awhile to dissect that out, to find out exactly who benefitted and why.”

In light of the fact that Congressman Paul is considering another run for the Presidency, we can expect some exciting hearings starring Ben Bernanke.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont became an unlikely ally of Ron Paul in their battle to include an “Audit the Fed” provision in the financial reform bill.  Senator Sanders was among the many Americans who were stunned to learn that Arab Banking Corporation used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the Fed during the 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  The infuriating factoid in this scenario is apparent in the following passage from the Bloomberg report by Bob Ivry and Donal Griffin:

The bank, then 29 percent-owned by the Libyan state, had aggregate borrowings in that period of $35 billion — while the largest single loan amount outstanding was $1.2 billion in July 2009, according to Fed data released yesterday.  In October 2008, when lending to financial institutions by the central bank’s so- called discount window peaked at $111 billion, Arab Banking took repeated loans totaling more than $2 billion.

Ivry and Griffin provided this reaction from Bernie Sanders:

“It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans, the Federal Reserve was providing tens of billions of dollars in credit to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya,” Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, wrote in a letter to Fed and U.S. officials.

The best critique of the Fed’s bailout antics came from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.  He began his report this way:

After the financial crash of 2008, it grew to monstrous dimensions, as the government attempted to unfreeze the credit markets by handing out trillions to banks and hedge funds.  And thanks to a whole galaxy of obscure, acronym-laden bailout programs, it eventually rivaled the “official” budget in size – a huge roaring river of cash flowing out of the Federal Reserve to destinations neither chosen by the president nor reviewed by Congress, but instead handed out by fiat by unelected Fed officials using a seemingly nonsensical and apparently unknowable methodology.

As Matt Taibbi began discussing what the documents produced by the Fed revealed, he shared this reaction from a staffer, tasked to review the records for Senator Sanders:

“Our jaws are literally dropping as we’re reading this,” says Warren Gunnels, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  “Every one of these transactions is outrageous.”

In case you are wondering just how “outrageous” these transactions were, Mr. Taibbi provided an outrageously entertaining chronicle of a venture named “Waterfall TALF Opportunity”, whose principal investors were Christy Mack and Susan Karches.  Susan Karches is the widow of Peter Karches, former president of Morgan Stanley’s investment banking operations.  Christy Mack is the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley.  Matt Taibbi described Christy Mack as “thin, blond and rich – a sort of still-awake Sunny von Bulow with hobbies”.  Here is how he described Waterfall TALF:

The technical name of the program that Mack and Karches took advantage of is TALF, short for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility.  But the federal aid they received actually falls under a broader category of bailout initiatives, designed and perfected by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called “giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all.”  If you want to learn how the shadow budget works, follow along.  This is what welfare for the rich looks like.

The venture would have been more aptly-named, “TALF Exploitation Windfall Opportunity”.  Think about it:  the Mack-Karches entity was contrived for the specific purpose of cashing-in on a bailout program, which was ostensibly created for the purpose of preventing a consumer credit freeze.

I was anticipating that the documents withheld by the Federal Reserve were being suppressed because – if the public ever saw them – they would provoke an uncontrollable degree of public outrage.  So far, the amount of attention these revelations have received from the mainstream media has been surprisingly minimal.  When one compares the massive amounts squandered by the Fed on Crony Corporate Welfare Queens such as Christy Mack and Susan Karches ($220 million loaned at a fraction of a percentage point) along with the multibillion-dollar giveaways (e.g. $13 billion to Goldman Sachs by way of Maiden Lane III) the fighting over items in the 2012 budget seems trivial.

The Fed’s defense of its lending to foreign banks was explained on the New York Fed’s spiffy new Liberty Street blog:

Discount window lending to U.S. branches of foreign banks and dollar funding by branches to parent banks helped to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis in the United States and abroad by containing financial market disruptions, supporting loan availability for companies, and maintaining foreign investment flows into U.S. companies and assets.

Without the backstop liquidity provided by the discount window, foreign banks that faced large and fluctuating demand for dollar funding would have further driven up the level and volatility of money market interest rates, including the critical federal funds rate, the Eurodollar rate, and Libor (the London interbank offered rate).  Higher rates and volatility would have increased distress for U.S. financial firms and U.S. businesses that depend on money market funding.  These pressures would have been reflected in higher interest rates and reduced bank lending, bank credit lines, and commercial paper in the United States.  Moreover, further volatility in dollar funding markets could have disrupted the Federal Reserve’s ability to implement monetary policy, which requires stabilizing the federal funds rate at the policy target set by the Federal Open Market Committee.

In other words:  Failure by the Fed to provide loans to foreign banks would have made quantitative easing impossible.  There would have been no POMO auctions.  As a result, there would have been no supply of freshly printed-up money to be used by the proprietary trading desks of the primary dealers to ramp-up the stock market for those “late-day rallies”.  This process was described as the “POMO effect” in a 2009 paper by Precision Capital Management entitled, “A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation”.

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Dudley.


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The Legacy Of Mark Pittman

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December 3, 2009

Just a week before the Senate banking committee was to begin confirmation hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve, one of the most important watchdogs of the Fed died at the age of 52.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.  The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling last August by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve is pursuing an appeal of that decision.

Since September of 2008, we have been overexposed to the specious claims by politicians, regulators and other federal officials, that the financial crisis was “unforeseeable”.  The veracity of such statements is undercut by the fact that on June 29 of 2007, Mark Pittman provided us with this ominous warning from his desk at Bloomberg News:

The subprime meltdown is sending shock waves through the capital markets in part because mortgage bonds are the world’s biggest debt market, according to the Securities Industry Financial Markets Association.

Pittman’s groundbreaking work on the havoc created by the subprime mortgage-backed securities market resulted in his receiving the Gerald Loeb Award in 2008, which he shared with his fellow Bloomberg reporters, Bob Ivry and Kathleen Howley, for a five-part series entitled “Wall Street’s Faustian Bargain”.

On November 30, Bob Ivry wrote what many have described as the “definitive obituary” for Mark Pittman.  Ivry disclosed that although the actual cause of death was not yet known, Pittman had suffered from “heart-related illnesses”.  In addition to providing us with his colleague’s impressive biography, Ivry shared the reactions to Pittman’s death, expressed by several prominent individuals:

“He was one of the great financial journalists of our time,” said Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University in New York and the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for economics. “His death is shocking.”

*   *   *

“Who sues the Fed?  One reporter on the planet,” said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg News.  “The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it.  Years ago, he forced us to learn what a credit- default swap was.  He dragged us kicking and screaming.”

*   *   *

“He’s been on this crisis since before the crisis,” said Gretchen Morgenson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning financial columnist for the NewYork Times.  “He was the best at burrowing into the most complex securities Wall Street could come up with and explaining the implications of them to readers of all levels of sophistication.  His investigative work during the crisis set the standard for other reporters everywhere.  He was a giant.”

Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina wrote an informative remembrance of Pittman for The Huffington Post.  This statement is one of the highlights from that piece:

The financial crisis is a result of a failure of every institution of our democracy.  Regulators failed.  Congress failed.  And the financial press failed abysmally.  Mark was an exception.  Mark’s irreverence allowed him to see the crisis coming when other financial reporters accepted uncritically what the industry said.  Mark’s irreverence was what made him a great reporter.

Mark Pittman was featured in the recent film American Casino, a documentary which analyzed the subprime mortgage catastrophe and the resulting financial crisis.  In September of 2008, when the crisis had most people in the world scratching their heads in confusion, Pittman provided a roadmap to the initial bailouts, shortly after they were distributed.

The interview with Mark Pittman, conducted by Ryan Chittum for the Columbia Journalism Review in February of 2009, gave Pittman the opportunity to share his experiences during the onset of the financial crisis.  The interview is especially informative as to what we can expect to find out about this mess in the future, as the investigations begin to unfold.  Passages like these reveal the magnitude of the loss resulting from Pittman’s death:

TA:  Does there need to be regulation just to simplify things to where it makes sense to more people?

MP:  If it was all transparent the complexity wouldn’t matter.  If the CDO market had had publicly available prospectuses with the contents of the CDO disclosed, we wouldn’t have this issue, because Bloomberg probably would have made fun of anybody who bought anything like this.  But there was this enormous shadow banking system going on.  We did a series about that, too.  A lot of times people don’t see what we do.

*   *   *

The thing that people don’t realize is that the Fed is now the “bad bank.”  That’s just something that people don’t understand.  They’ve taken collateral, and they refuse to tell us how they valued it  …

We have numerous banks — dozens, maybe hundreds that are insolvent.  And they become more insolvent every day because more people quit paying their mortgage loans, and more guys move out of the shopping center, and more people quit paying their credit cards.  But nobody wants to have the adult conversation.  We need to be honest about what the problem is here, how big it is, and how we’re going forward to clean it up, and who’s going to pay for it.

*   *   *

Hopefully, we will be able to inform the people enough to know how badly we’re getting screwed (laughs).  We need to know how to prevent it from happening again, and we need to know who did it.  There’s renewed energy on this front because we’ve staffed up the people who cover banks, the securities firms.  We have a lot more people going at real estate and a bunch of different areas that this involves.  That was a conscious move from meetings we started having in 2007.  We hired people and we moved people from one area to another area.

Pittman’s final statement during the interview underscores the fact that one of the greatest fighters for an informed public has been lost:

This is a big deal and it’s going to be going on — I swear to God I’m going to retire on this story, because it’s just going to keep happening.

Tragically, Mark Pittman was forced to “retire” on terms that were not satisfactory to any of us.  We can only hope that others will be inspired by his work and follow his lead.



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