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Democrats Share The Blame

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January 21 brought us Episode 199 of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  At the end of the program, Bill went through his popular “New Rules” segment.  On this occasion, he wound it up with a rant about how the Republicans were exclusively at fault for the financial crisis.  Aside from the fact that this claim was historically inaccurate, it was not at all fair to David Stockman (a guest on that night’s show) who had to sit through Maher’s diatribe without an opportunity to point out the errors.  (On the other hand, I was fine with watching Stephen Moore twist in the wind as Maher went through that tirade.)

That incident underscored the obvious need for Bill Maher to invite William Black as a guest on the show in order to clarify this issue.  Prior to that episode, Black had written an essay, which appeared on The Big Picture website.  Although the theme of that piece was to debunk the “mantra of the Republican Party” that “regulation is a job killer”, Black emphasized that Democrats had a role in “deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization (the three ‘des’)” which created the “criminogenic environment” precipitating the financial crisis:

The Great Recession was triggered by the collapse of the real estate bubble epidemic of mortgage fraud by lenders that hyper-inflated that bubble.  That epidemic could not have happened without the appointment of anti-regulators to key leadership positions.  The epidemic of mortgage fraud was centered on loans that the lending industry (behind closed doors) referred to as “liar’s” loans — so any regulatory leader who was not an anti-regulatory ideologue would (as we did in the early 1990s during the first wave of liar’s loans in California) have ordered banks not to make these pervasively fraudulent loans.

*   *   *

From roughly 1999 to the present, three administrations have displayed hostility to vigorous regulation and have appointed regulatory leaders largely on the basis of their opposition to vigorous regulation.  When these administrations occasionally blundered and appointed, or inherited, regulatory leaders that believed in regulating, the administration attacked the regulators.  In the financial regulatory sphere, recent examples include Arthur Levitt and William Donaldson (SEC), Brooksley Born (CFTC), and Sheila Bair (FDIC).

Similarly, the bankers used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) into trashing the accounting rules so that the banks no longer had to recognize their losses.  The twin purposes of that bit of successful thuggery were to evade the mandate of the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) law and to allow banks to pretend that they were solvent and profitable so that they could continue to pay enormous bonuses to their senior officials based on the fictional “income” and “net worth” produced by the scam accounting.  (Not recognizing one’s losses increases dollar-for-dollar reported, but fictional, net worth and gross income.)

When members of Congress (mostly Democrats) sought to intimidate us into not taking enforcement actions against the fraudulent S&Ls we blew the whistle.

President Obama’s January 18 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal prompted a retort from Bill Black.  The President announced that he had signed an executive order requiring “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive”.  Obama’s focus on “regulations that stifle job creation” seemed to exemplify what Black had just discussed one day earlier.  Accordingly, Bill Black wrote an essay for The Huffington Post on January 19, which began this way:

I get President Obama’s “regulatory review” plan, I really do.  His game plan is a straight steal from President Clinton’s strategy after the Republican’s 1994 congressional triumph. Clinton’s strategy was to steal the Republican Party’s play book.  I know that Clinton’s strategy was considered brilliant politics (particularly by the Clintonites), but the Republican financial playbook produces recurrent, intensifying fraud epidemics and financial crises.  Rubin and Summers were Clinton’s offensive coordinators.  They planned and implemented the Republican game plan on finance.  Rubin and Summers were good choices for this role because they were, and remain, reflexively anti-regulatory.  They led the deregulation and attack on supervision that began to create the criminogenic environment that produced the financial crisis.

Bill Clinton’s role in facilitating the financial crisis would have surely become an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee.  Instead, the Democrats got behind a “Trojan horse” candidate, disguised in the trappings of  “Change” who, once elected, re-installed the very people who implemented the crucial deregulatory changes which caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black provided this explanation:

The zeal, crude threats, and arrogance they displayed in leading the attacks on SEC Chair Levitt and CFTC Chair Born’s efforts to adopt regulations that would have reduced the risks of fraud and financial crises were exceptional.  Just one problem — they were wrong and Levitt and Born were right.  Rubin and Summers weren’t slightly wrong; they put us on the path to the Great Recession.  Obama knows that Clinton’s brilliant political strategy, stealing the Republican play book, was a disaster for the nation, but he has picked politics over substance.

*   *   *

Obama’s proposal and the accompanying OMB releases do not mention the word or the concept of fraud.  Despite an “epidemic” of fraud led by the bank CEOs (which caused the greatest crisis of his life), Obama cannot bring itself to use the “f” word. The administration wants the banks’ senior officers to fund its reelection campaign.  I’ve never raised political contributions, but I’m certain that pointing out that a large number of senior bank officers were frauds would make fundraising from them awkward.

Black targeted Obama’s lame gesture toward acknowledgement of some need for regulation, encapsulated in the statement that “(w)here necessary, we won’t shy away from addressing obvious gaps …”:

Huh?  The vital task is to find the non-obvious gaps.  Why, two years into his presidency, has the administration failed to address “obvious gaps”?  The administration does not need Republican approval to fill obvious gaps in regulation.  Even when Obama finds “obvious gaps” in regulatory protection he does not promise to act.  He will act only “where necessary.”  We know that Summers, Rubin, and Geithner rarely believe that financial regulation is “necessary.”  Even if Obama decides it is “necessary” to act he only promises to “address” “obvious gaps” — not “end” or “fill” them.

At the conclusion of his Huffington Post essay, Black provided his own list of  “obvious gaps” described as the “Dirty Dozen”  —  “. . .  obvious gaps in financial regulation which have persisted and grown during this, Obama’s first two years in office.”

Bill Black is just one of many commentators to annotate the complicity of Democrats in causing the financial crisis.  Beyond that, Black has illustrated how President Obama has preserved – and possibly enhanced — the “criminogenic” milieu which could bring about another financial crisis.

The first step toward implementing “bipartisan solutions” to our nation’s ills should involve acknowledging the extent to which the fault for those problems is bipartisan.


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A Preemptive Strike By Tools Of The Plutocracy

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  As I pointed out on April 15, more than a few commentators had been expressing their disappointment with the FCIC.  Section (5)(h)(1) of  the FERA established a deadline for the FCIC to submit its report:

On December 15, 2010, the Commission shall submit to the President and to the Congress a report containing the findings and conclusions of the Commission on the causes of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.

In light of the fact that it took the FCIC eight months to conduct its first hearing, one shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that their report had not been completed by December 15.  The FCIC expects to have the report finalized in approximately one month.  This article by Phil Mattingly and Robert Schmidt of Bloomberg News provides a good history of the partisan struggle within the FCIC.  On December 14, Sewell Chan of The New York Times disclosed that the four Republican members of the FCIC would issue their own report on December 15:

The Republican members of the panel were angered last week when the commission voted 6 to 4, along partisan lines, to limit individual comments by the commissioners to 9 pages each in a 500-page report that the commission plans to publish next month with Public Affairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group, one Republican commissioner said.

Beyond that, Shahien Nasiripour of the Huffington Post revealed more details concerning the dissent voiced by Republican panel members:

During a private commission meeting last week, all four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases “Wall Street” and “shadow banking” and the words “interconnection” and “deregulation” from the panel’s final report, according to a person familiar with the matter and confirmed by Brooksley E. Born, one of the six commissioners who voted against the proposal.

I gave those four Republican members more credit than that.  I was wrong.  Commission Vice-Chairman Bill Thomas, along with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Peter Wallison, and Keith Hennessey issued their own propaganda piece as a preemptive strike against whatever less-than-complimentary things the FCIC might ultimately say about the Wall Street Plutocrats.  The spin strategy employed by these men in explaining the cause of the financial crisis is to blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for the entire episode.  (That specious claim has been debunked by Mark Thoma and others many times.)  This remark from the “Introduction” section of the Republicans’ piece set the tone:

While the housing bubble, the financial crisis, and the recession are surely interrelated events, we do not believe that the housing bubble was a sufficient condition for the financial crisis. The unprecedented number of subprime and other weak mortgages in this bubble set it and its effect apart from others in the past.

Many economists and other commentators will have plenty of fun ripping this thing to shreds.  One of the biggest lies that jumped right out at me was this statement from page 5 of the so-called Financial Crisis Primer:

Put simply, the risk of a housing collapse was simply not appreciated.  Not by homeowners, not by investors, not by banks, not by rating agencies, and not by regulators.

That lie can and will be easily refuted —  many times over —  by the simple fact that a large number of essays had been published by economists, commentators and even dilettantes who predicted the housing collapse.

Yves Smith provided a refreshing retort to the Plutocracy’s Primer at her Naked Capitalism website:

This whole line of thinking is garbage, the financial policy equivalent of arguing that the sun revolves around the earth.  Yes, the US and other countries provide overly generous subsidies to housing, and curtailing them over time would not be a bad idea.  But that’s been our policy for decades.  Calling that a major, let alone primary, cause of the crisis, is simply a highly coded “blame the poor” strategy.  In reality, both the run-up to the crisis and its aftermath were one of the greatest wealth transfers from the citizenry at large to a comparatively small group of rentiers in the history of man.

*   *   *

This pathetic development shows how deeply this country is in thrall to lobbyists.  But these so-called commissioners, who are really no more than financial services minions out to misbrand themselves as independent, look to have overplayed their hand.  This stunt shows more than a tad of desperation on the part of banks and their operatives in their excessive efforts block any remotely accurate, and therefore critical, report on the industry.

Perversely, this development may be a positive indicator on several fronts.  First, the FCIC report may be tougher and more probing than I dared hope.

The fact that a pre-emptive strike by the Plutocratic “Gang of Four” has been initiated with the release of their Primer could indeed suggest that that their patrons are worried about the ultimate conclusions to be published by the FCIC next month.  The release of this Primer will surely draw plenty of criticism and attract more attention to the FCIC’s final report.  Nevertheless, will the resulting firestorm motivate the public to finally demand some serious action beyond the lame “financial reform” fiasco?  Adam Garfinkle’s recent essay in The American Interest suggests that such hope could be misplaced:

Obsessed with vacuous celebrity, Americans make it easier than ever for plutocrats to sail under the radar.  Corporate heavyweights and bankers may be suborning Congress and ripping off  “we the people” left and right, but we’re too busy dancing with the stars to notice.

Will this situation ever change?



Lev Is The Drug

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January 14, 2010

The first day of hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was as entertaining as I expected.  The stars of the show:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, “The Dimon Dog” of JP Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan from Bank of America presented themselves as likeable guys.  However, in the case of Blankfein, whenever he wasn’t talking he would sit there with that squinting, perplexed look on his face that seemed to mime the question:  “WTF?”  A large segment of the viewing public has already been primed to view these gentlemen as “The Four Horsemen of The Financial Apocalypse”.  Nevertheless, there were four more Horsemen absent from the “stage” on Wednesday:  Messrs. Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner.  Beyond that, Brian Moynihan didn’t really belong there, since he was not such a significant “player” as the other panel members, in events of 2008.  In fact, history may yet view his predecessor, Ken Lewis, as more of a victim in this drama, due to the fact that he was apparently coerced by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke into buying Merrill Lynch with instructions to remain silent about Merrill’s shabby financial status.  I would have preferred to see Vikram Pandit of Citigroup in that seat.

As I watched the show, I tried to imagine what actors would be cast to play which characters on the panel in a movie about the financial crisis.  Mike Myers would be the obvious choice to portray Lloyd Blankfein.  Myers could simply don his Dr. Evil regalia and it would be an easy gig.  The Dimon Dog should be played by George Clooney because he came off as a “regular guy”, lacking the highly-polished, slick presentation one might expect from someone in that position.  Brian Moynihan could be portrayed by Robin Williams, in one of his rare, serious roles.  John Mack should be portrayed by Nicholas Cage, if only because Cage needs the money.

Although many reports have described their demeanor as “contrite”, the four members of the first panel gave largely self-serving presentations, characterizing their firms in the most favorable light.  Blankfein emphasized that Goldman Sachs still believes in marking its assets to market.  As expected, his theme of  “if we knew then what we knew now  . . .” got heavier rotation than a Donna Summer record at a party for Richard Simmons.  John Mack, who was more candid and perhaps the most contrite panel member, made a point of mentioning that some assets cannot be “marked to market” because there really is no market for them.  Excuse me   . . .  but isn’t that the definition of the term, “worthless”?

Throughout the session, the panel discussed the myriad causes that contributed to the onset of the financial crisis.  Despite that, nobody seemed interested in implicating the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as a factor.  “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the order of the day.  All four panelists described the primary cause of the crisis as excessive leverage.  They acted as a chorus, singing “Lev Is The Drug”.  Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a 23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.  Dimon went on to make the specious claim that overleveraging by consumers was a contributing element in causing the crisis.  Although many commentators whom I respect have made the same point, I just don’t buy it.  Why blame people who were led to believe that their homes would continue to print money for them until they died?  Dimon himself admitted at the hearing that no consideration was ever given to the possibility that home values would slump.  Worse yet, for a producer or purveyor of the so-called “financial weapons of mass-destruction” to implicate overleveraged consumers as sharing a role in precipitating this mess is simply absurd.

The second panel from Wednesday’s hearing was equally, if not more entertaining.  Michael Mayo of Calyon Securities seemed awfully proud of himself.  After all, he did a great job on his opening statement and he knew it.  Later on, he refocused his pride with an homage to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.  Nevertheless, the star witness from the second panel was Kyle Bass of Hayman Advisors, who gave the most impressive performance of the day.  Bass made a point of emphasizing (in so many words) that Lloyd Blankfein’s 23-to-1 leverage ratio was nearly 100 percent higher than what prudence should allow.  If you choose to watch the testimony of just one witness from Wednesday’s hearing, make sure it’s Kyle Bass.

I didn’t bother to watch the third panel for much longer than a few minutes.  The first two acts were tough to follow.  Shortly into the opening statement by Mark Zandy of Moody’s, I decided that I had seen enough for the day.  Besides, Thursday’s show would hold the promise of some excitement with the testimony of Sheila Bair of the FDIC.  I wondered whether someone might ask her:  “Any hints as to what banks are going to fail tomorrow?”  On the other hand, I had been expecting the testimony of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to help cure me of the insomnia caused by too much Cuban coffee.

The Commissioners themselves have done great work with all of the witnesses.  Phil Angelides has a great style, combining a pleasant affect with incisive questioning and good witness control.  Doug Holtz-Eakin and Brooksley Born have been batting 1000.  Heather Murren is more than a little easy on the eyes, bringing another element of “star quality” to the show.

Who knows?  This commission could really end up making a difference in effectuating financial reform.  They’re certainly headed in that direction.



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