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Fighting The Old War

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September 30, 2010

The New York Times recently ran a story about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to support the campaigns of centrist Republicans out of concern that the election of “Tea Party” –  backed candidates was pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right.  The article by Michael Barbaro began this way:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

Although it’s nice to see Mayor Bloomberg take a stand in support of centrism, I believe he is going about it the wrong way.  There are almost as many different motives driving people to the Tea Party movement as there are attendees at any given Tea Party event.  Although the movement is usually described as a far-right-wing fringe phenomenon, reporters who have attended the rallies and talked to the people found a more diverse group.  Consider the observations made by True Slant’s David Masciotra, who attended a Tea Party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana back on April 14:

The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference.

As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment they are given by Washington.

*   *   *

They have largely legitimate concerns and grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party.  Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased.

My pet theory is that the rise of the Tea Party movement is just the first signal indicating the demise of the so-called “two-party system”.  I expect this to happen as voters begin to face up to the fact that the differences between Democratic and Republican policies are subtle when compared to the parties’ united front with lobbyists and corporations in trampling the interests of individual citizens.  On July 26, I wrote a piece entitled, “The War On YOU”, discussing the battle waged by “our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party”.   On August 30, I made note of a recent essay at the Zero Hedge website, written by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

Barry Ritholtz, publisher of The Big Picture website, recently wrote a piece focused on how the old Left vs. Right paradigm has become obsolete.  He explained that the current power struggle taking place in Washington (and everywhere else) is the battle of corporations against individuals:

We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual.  These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts.  Where there are massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power.  The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

*   *   *

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture.  Consider this about the Bailouts:  It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make?   Almost none whatsoever.

*   *   *

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power:  Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users).  Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn.  I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek?  Friedman vs Krugman?  Those are the wrong intellectual debates.  It’s you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO,  You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO.   And you are losing    . . .

Barry Ritholtz concluded with the statement:

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all  . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  Beyond that, I believe that politicians who continue to champion the old Left vs. Right war will find themselves in the dust as those leaders representing the interests of human citizens  rather than corporate interests win the support and enthusiasm of the electorate.   Similarly, those news and commentary outlets failing to adapt to this changing milieu will no longer have a significant following.  It will be interesting to see who adjusts. 




Financial Crisis Inquiry Disappointment

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April 15, 2010

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has been widely criticized for its lame efforts at investigating the causes of the financial crisis.  As I pointed out on January 11, a number of commentators had been expressing doubt concerning what the FCIC could accomplish before the commission held its first hearing.  At this point — just three months later — we are already hearing the question of whether it might be “time to pull the plug on the FCIC”.   Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.org website, Mary Bottari posed that question as the title to her critical piece, documenting the commission’s “lackluster performance”:

The FCIC is a 10-person panel assembled to report on the meltdown to President Obama later this year.  The New York Times reported last week what was becoming increasingly obvious: the commission was in shambles.  The commission waited eight months before having its first hearing.  A top investigator resigned due to delays in hiring staff, no subpoenas have been issued and partisan infighting means few new documents have been released that would aid reporters in piecing together the crime scene, even if  FCIC investigators are not up to the task.  Worse, it seems like the majority of staff  have been borrowed from the complicit Federal Reserve.

These problems were on full display in last week’s hearings.  The three days of hearings were marked by some heat, but little light.

The FCIC’s failure to issue any subpoenas became a major point of criticism by Eliot Spitzer, who had this to say in a recent posting for Slate :

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has so far been a waste.  Some momentary theater has been provided by the witnesses who have tried to excuse, explain, or occasionally admit their role in the cataclysm of the past two years.  While this has ginned up some additional public outrage, it hasn’t deepened our knowledge about what critical players knew or did.  There is a simple reason for this:  The commission has not issued a single subpoena.  Any investigator will tell you that you must get the documentary evidence before you examine the witnesses.  The evidence is waiting to be seized from the Fed, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and on down the line.  Yet not one subpoena.

Rather than accept Robert Rubin’s simple disclaimers about Citigroup, why hasn’t the FCIC combed through the actual communications among the board, the executive committee, the audit committee, and the risk-management committee?  Why hasn’t the FCIC collected AIG’s e-mails with the Fed and Goldman Sachs?  Unless the subpoenas are issued, we will lose the chance to make the record.

As Binyamin Appelbaum pointed out in The Washington Post back on January 8, if a financial reform bill is eventually passed, it will likely be signed into law before the mid-term elections in November – one month before the FCIC is required to publish its findings.  As a result, there is a serious question as to whether the commission’s efforts will contribute anything to financial reform legislation.  Given the FCIC’s unwillingness to exercise its subpoena power, we are faced with the question of why the commission should even bother wasting its time and the taxpayers’ money on an irrelevant, ineffective exercise.

Although Mary Bottari’s essay discussed the possibility that the FCIC might still “get its act together”, the cynicism expressed by Eliot Spitzer provided a much more realistic assessment of the situation:

Americans have been betrayed by Washington over financial reform.  Our leaders have failed to get the evidence, failed to push back when clearly inadequate explanations were provided, and failed to explore the structural reforms that will work.  Pretend tears will drip from bankers’ eyes after the consumer protection agency is created.  Then their wolfish teeth will slowly break into a grin, the pure delight that Washington has failed to do anything meaningful to restructure the banking sector.

Just when it was beginning to appear as though we might actually see some meaningful financial reform find its way into law, we have been reminded that Washington has its own ways – which benefit the American public only by rare coincidence.




Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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Everyone Knew About Lehman Brothers

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March 19, 2010

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Elizabeth Warren To The Rescue

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March 4, 2010

We reached the point where serious financial reform began to look like a lost cause.  Nothing has been done to address the problems that caused the financial crisis.  Economists have been warning that we could be facing another financial crisis, requiring another round of bank bailouts.  The watered-down financial reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, HR 4173, is about to become completely defanged by the Senate.

The most hotly-contested aspect of the proposed financial reform bill — the establishment of an independent, stand-alone, Consumer Financial Protection Agency — is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Back on January 18, Elizabeth Warren (Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA) explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

The latest effort to sabotage the proposed CFPA involves placing it under the control of the Federal Reserve.  As Craig Torres and Yalman Onaran explained for Bloomberg News:

Putting it inside the Fed, instead of creating a standalone bureau, was a compromise proposed by Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

*   *   *

Banking lobbyists say the Fed’s knowledge of the banking system makes it well-suited to coordinate rules on credit cards and other consumer financial products.

*   *   *

The financial-services industry has lobbied lawmakers to defeat the plan for a consumer agency.  JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon called the agency “just a whole new bureaucracy” on a December conference call with analysts.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, recently discussed the importance of having an independent CFPA:

Currently, there are several proposals floating around to change the basic concept of a consumer protection agency.  For the most part, these proposals are meaningless, watered down foolishness, bordering on idiotic.  Let the Fed do it? They were already charged with doing this, and under Greenspan, committed Nonfeasance — they failed to do their duty.

The Fed is the wrong agency for this.

In an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, Congressman Barney Frank expressed a noteworthy reaction to the idea:

“It’s like making me the chief judge of the Miss America contest,” Frank said.

On Tuesday, March 2, Elizabeth Warren spent the day on the phone with reform advocates, members of Congress and administration officials, as she explained in an interview with Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post.  The key point she stressed in that interview was the message:  “Pass a strong bill or nothing at all.”  It sounds as though she is afraid that the financial reform bill could suffer the same fate as the healthcare reform bill.  That notion was reinforced by the following comments:

My first choice is a strong consumer agency  . . .  My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.

*   *   *

“The lobbyists would like nothing better than for the story to be the [proposed] agency has died and everyone has given up,” Warren said.  “The lobbyists’ closest friends in the Senate would like nothing better than passing an agency that has a good name but no real impact so they have something good to say to the voters — and something even better to say to the lobbyists.”

Congratulations, Professor Warren!  At last, someone with some cajones is taking charge of this fight!

On Wednesday, March 3, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration was getting involved in the financial reform negotiations, with Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the charge for an independent Consumer Financial Protection agency.  I suspect that President Obama must have seen the “Ex-Presidents” sketch from the FunnyOrDie.com website, featuring the actors from Saturday Night Live portraying former Presidents (and ghosts of ex-Presidents) in a joint effort toward motivating Obama to make sure the CFPA becomes a reality.  When Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase reunited, joining Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond in promoting this cause, Obama could not have turned them down.



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Taking The Suckers For Granted

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January 21. 2010

In the aftermath of Coakley Dokeley’s failed quest to replace Teddy Kennedy as Senator of Massachusetts, the airwaves and the blogosphere have been filled with an assortment of explanations for how and why the Bay State elected a Republican senator for the first time in 38 years.  I saw the reason as a simple formula:  One candidate made 66 campaign appearances while the other made 19.  The rationale behind the candidate’s lack of effort was simple:  she took the voters for granted.  This was the wrong moment to be taking the voters for chumps.  At a time when Democrats were vested with a “supermajority” in the Senate, an overwhelming majority in the House and with control over the Executive branch, they overtly sold out the interests of their constituents in favor of payoffs from lobbyists.  Obama’s centerpiece legislative effort, the healthcare bill, turned out to be another “crap sandwich” of loopholes, exceptions, escape clauses and an effective date after the Mayan-prophesized end of the world.  Obama’s giveaway to Big Pharma was outdone by Congressional giveaways to the healthcare lobby.

The Democrats’ efforts to bring about financial reform are now widely viewed as just another opportunity to rake in money and favors from lobbyists, leaving the suckers who voted for them to suffer worse than before.  Coakley Dokeley made the same mistake that Obama and most politicians of all stripes are making right now:  They’re taking the suckers for granted.  That narrative seems to be another important reason why the Massachusetts senatorial election has become such a big deal.  There is a lesson to be learned by the politicians, who are likely to ignore it.

Paul Farrell recently wrote an open letter to President Obama for MarketWatch, entitled:  “10 reasons Obama is now failing 95 million investors”.  In his discussion of reason number five, “Failing to pick a cast of characters that could have changed history”, Farrell made this point:

Last year many voted for you fearing McCain might pick Phil Gramm as Treasury secretary.  Unfortunately, Mr. President, your picks not only revived Reaganomics under the guise of Keynesian economics, you sidelined a real change-agent, Paul Volcker, and picked Paulson-clones like Geithner and Summers.  But worst of all, you’re reappointing Bernanke, a Greenspan clone, as Fed chairman, an economist who, as Taleb put it, “doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work.”  And with that pick, you proved you also don’t understand how things work.

Another former Obama supporter, Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News, wrote a piece for The Daily Beast, examining Obama’s leadership shortcomings:

In the campaign, he said he would change politics as usual.  He did change them.  It’s now worse than it was.  I’ve now seen the kind of buying off of politicians that I’ve never seen before.  It’s politically corrupt and it’s starting at the top.  It’s revolting.

*   *   *

I hope there are changes.  I think he’s already laid in huge problems for the country.  The fiscal program was a disaster.  You have to get the money as quickly as possible into the economy.  They didn’t do that.  By end of the first year, only one-third of the money was spent.  Why is that?

He should have jammed a stimulus plan into Congress and said, “This is it.  No changes.  Don’t give me that bullshit.  We have a national emergency.”  Instead they turned it over to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who can run circles around him.

As for the Democrats’ pre-sabotaged excuse for “financial reform”, the fate of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Elizabeth Warren, the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA, explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

Setting up the CFPA is largely a matter of stripping the Fed and other agencies of their consumer protection duties and relocating them into a new agency.

With all the coverage and expressed anticipation that the Massachusetts election will serve as a “wake-up call” to Obama and Congressional Democrats, not all of us are so convinced.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns put it this way:

But, I don’t think the President gets it.  He is holed up in the echo chamber called the White House.  If the catastrophic loss in Massachusetts’ Senate race and the likely defeat of his health care reform bill doesn’t wake Obama up to the realities that he is not in Roosevelt’s position but in Hoover’s, he will end as a failed one-term President.

I agree.  I also believe that the hubris will continue.  Why would any of these politicians change their behavior?  The “little people” never did matter.  They exist solely to be played as fools.  They are powerless against the plutocracy.  Right?



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Lacking Reform

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January 4, 2010

David Reilly of Bloomberg News did us all a favor by reading through the entire, 1,270-page financial reform bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives.  The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (HR 4173) was described by Reilly this way:

The baby of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, the House bill is meant to address everything from too-big-to-fail banks to asleep-at-the-switch credit-ratings companies to the protection of consumers from greedy lenders.

After reading the bill, David Reilly wrote a commentary piece for Bloomberg entitled:  “Bankers Get $4 Trillion Gift from Barney Frank”.  Reilly seemed surprised that banks opposed this legislation, emphasizing that “they should cheer for its passage by the full Congress in the New Year” because of the bill’s huge giveaways to the banking industry and Wall Street.  Here are some of Reilly’s observations on what this bill provides:

—  For all its heft, the bill doesn’t once mention the words “too-big-to-fail,” the main issue confronting the financial system.  Admitting you have a problem, as any 12-stepper knows, is the crucial first step toward recovery.

— Instead, it supports the biggest banks.  It authorizes Federal Reserve banks to provide as much as $4 trillion in emergency funding the next time Wall Street crashes.  So much for “no-more-bailouts” talk.  That is more than twice what the Fed pumped into markets this time around.  The size of the fund makes the bribes in the Senate’s health-care bill look minuscule.

— Oh, hold on, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary can’t authorize these funds unless “there is at least a 99 percent likelihood that all funds and interest will be paid back.”   Too bad the same models used to foresee the housing meltdown probably will be used to predict this likelihood as well.

More Bailouts

— The bill also allows the government, in a crisis, to back financial firms’ debts.  Bondholders can sleep easy  — there are more bailouts to come.

— The legislation does create a council of regulators to spot risks to the financial system and big financial firms. Unfortunately this group is made up of folks who missed the problems that led to the current crisis.

— Don’t worry, this time regulators will have better tools.  Six months after being created, the council will report to Congress on “whether setting up an electronic database” would be a help. Maybe they’ll even get to use that Internet thingy.

— This group, among its many powers, can restrict the ability of a financial firm to trade for its own account.  Perhaps this section should be entitled, “Yes, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., we’re looking at you.”

My favorite passage from Reilly’s essay concerned the proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

— The bill isn’t all bad, though.  It creates a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, currently head of a panel overseeing TARP.  And the first director gets the cool job of designing a seal for the new agency.  My suggestion:  Warren riding a fiery chariot while hurling lightning bolts at Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

The cover story for the December 30 edition of Business Week explained how this bill became so badly compromised.  Alison Vekshin and Dawn Kopecki wrote the piece, explaining how the New Democrat Coalition, which “has 68 fiscally conservative, pro-business members who fill 15 of the party’s 42 seats on the House Financial Services Committee” reshaped this bill.  The New Democrats fought off proposed changes to derivatives trading and included an amendment to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency legislation giving federal regulators more discretion to override state consumer protection laws than what was initially proposed.  Beyond that, “non-financial” companies such as real estate agencies and automobile dealerships will not be subject to the authority of the new agency.  The proposed requirement for banks to offer “plain-vanilla” credit-card and mortgage contracts was also abandoned.

One of my pet peeves involves Democrats’ claiming to be “centrists” or “moderates” simply because they enjoy taking money from lobbyists.  Too many people are left with the impression that a centrist is someone who lacks a moral compass.  The Business Week story provided some insight about how the New Democrat Coalition gets … uh … “moderated”:

Since the start of the 2008 election cycle, the financial industry has donated $24.9 million to members of the New Democrats, some 14% of the total funds the lawmakers have collected, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  Representative Melissa Bean of Illinois, who has led the Coalition’s efforts on regulatory reform, was the top beneficiary, with donations of $1.4 million.

As the financial reform bill is being considered by the Senate, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has stepped up its battle against the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  The Business Week article concluded with one lawmaker’s perspective:

“My greatest fear for the last year has been an economic collapse,” says Representative Brad Miller (D-N.C), who sits on Frank’s House Financial Services Committee.  “My second greatest fear was that the economy would stabilize and the financial industry would have the clout to defeat the fundamental reforms that our nation desperately needs.  My greatest fear seems less likely … but my second greatest fear seems more likely every day.”

The dysfunction that preserves this unhealthy status quo was best summed up by Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics:

The big banks pay the big money in Washington, the members of Congress pass new laws to enable the theft from the public purse, and the servile Fed prints money to keep the game going for another day.

As long as Congress is going through the motions of passing “reform” legislation, they should do us all a favor and take on the subject of lobbying reform.  Of course, the chances of that ever happening are slim to none.



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Offering Solutions

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October 22, 2009

Many of us are familiar with the old maxim asserting that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  During the past year we’ve been exposed to plenty of hand-wringing by info-tainers from various mainstream media outlets decrying the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Very few of these people ever seem to offer any significant insight on such interesting topics as:  what really caused the meltdown, how to prevent it from happening again, whether any laws were broken that caused this catastrophe, whether any prosecutions might be warranted or how to solve our nation’s continuing economic ills, which seem to be immune to all the attempted cures.  The painful thorn in the side of Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi, recently raised an important question, reminding people to again scrutinize the vapid media coverage of this pressing crisis:

It’s literally amazing to me that our press corps hasn’t yet managed to draw a distinction between good news on Wall Street for companies like Goldman, and good news in reality.

*   *   *

In fact the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional “market indicators” is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.

That quote inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to write a superb essay about how “access journalism” has created a controlled press.  What follows is just a small nugget of the great analysis in that piece:

So what do we have?  A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to.  Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story.  And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them.

*   *   *

The message, quite overly, is: if you are pissed, you are in a minority.  The country has moved on.  Things are getting better, get with the program. Now I saw the polar opposite today.  There is a group of varying sizes, depending on the topic, that e-mails among itself, mainly professional investors, analysts, economists (I’m usually on the periphery but sometimes chime in).  I never saw such an angry, active, and large thread about the Goldman BS fest today.  Now if people who have not suffered much, and are presumably benefitting from the market recovery are furious, it isn’t hard to imagine that what looks like complacency in the heartlands may simply be contained rage looking for an outlet.

Fortunately, one television news reporter has broken the silence concerning the impact on America’s middle class, caused by Wall Street’s massive Ponzi scam and our government’s response – which he calls “corporate communism”.  I’m talking about MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan.  On Wednesday’s edition of his program, Morning Meeting, he decried the fact that the taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the “parlor game” played by Goldman Sachs and other firms involved in proprietary trading on our coin.  Mr. Ratigan then proceeded to offer a number of solutions available to ordinary people, who would like to fight back against those pampered institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Some of these measures involve:  moving accounts from one of those enshrined banks to a local bank or credit union; paying with cash whenever possible and contacting your lawmakers to insist upon financial reform.

My favorite lawmaker in the battle for financial reform is Congressman Alan Grayson, whose district happens to include Disney World.  His fantastic interrogation of Federal Reserve general counsel, Scott Alvarez, about whether the Fed tries to manipulate the stock markets, was a great event.  Grayson has now co-sponsored a “Financial Autopsy” amendment to the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency bill.  This amendment is intended to accomplish the following:

– Requires the CFPA conduct a “Financial Autopsy” of each state’s bankruptcies and foreclosures (a scientific sampling), and identify financial products that systematically led to a large number of bankruptcies and foreclosures.
– Requires the CFPA report to Congress annually on the top financial products (the companies and individuals that originated the products) that caused consumer bankruptcies and foreclosures.
– Requires the CFPA take corrective action to eliminate or restrict those deceptive products to prevent future bankruptcies and corrections

– The bottom line is to highlight destructive products based on if they are making people “broke”.

From his website, The Market Ticker, Karl Denninger offered his own contributions to this amendment:

This sort of “feel good” legislative amendment will of course be resisted, but it simply isn’t enough.  The basic principle of equity (better said as “fairness under the law”) puts forward the premise that one cannot cheat and be allowed to keep the fruits of one’s outrageous behavior.

So while I like the direction of this amendment, I would put forward the premise that the entirety of the gains “earned” from such toxic products, when found, are clawed back and distributed to the consumers so harmed, and that to the extent this does not fully compensate for that harm such a finding should give rise to a private, civil cause of action for the consumers who are bankrupted or foreclosed.

It’s nice to know that bloggers are no longer the only voices insisting on financial reform.  Ed Wallace of Business Week recently warned against the consequences of unchecked speculation on oil futures:

Is today’s stock market divorced from economic reality?  Probably.  It is a certainty that oil is.  We know that because those in the market are still putting out the same tired and incorrect logic that they used successfully last year to push oil to $147 a barrel while demand was plummeting.

Because oil is not carrying a market price that fairly reflects economic conditions and demand inventories, overpriced energy is siphoning off funds that could be used for corporate expansion, increased consumerism and, in time, the recreation of jobs in America.

Did you think that the “Enron Loophole” was closed by the enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill?  It wasn’t.  The Farm Bill simply gave more authority to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate futures contracts that had been exempted by the loophole.  In case you’re wondering about the person placed in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by President Obama  —  his name is Gary Gensler and he used to work for  …  You guessed it:  Goldman Sachs.



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Obama Unveils His Most Ambitious Plan

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June 18, 2009

On Wednesday, June 18, President Obama released his anxiously-awaited, 88-page proposal to reform the financial regulatory system.  An angry public, having seen its jobs and savings disappear as home values took a nosedive, has been ready to set upon the culprits responsible for the economic meltdown.  Nevertheless, the lynch mobs don’t seem too anxious to string up former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan.  Perhaps because he is so old, they might likely prefer to see him die a slow, painful death from some naturally-occurring degenerative disease.  Meanwhile, a website, Greenspan’s Body Count, has been keeping track of the number of suicides resulting from the recent financial collapse.  (The current total is 96.)  As usual, President Obama has been encouraging us all to “look forward”.  (Sound familiar?  . . . as in:   “Forget about war crimes prosecutions because some Democrats might also find themselves wearing orange jumpsuits.”)

In reacting to Obama’s new financial reform initiative, some critics have observed that the failure to oust those officials responsible for our current predicament, could set us up for a repeat experience.  For example, The Hill quoted the assessment of Dean Baker, Co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research:

However, the big downside to this reform proposal is the implication that the problem was the regulations and not the regulators.  The reality is that the Fed had all the power it needed to rein in the housing bubble, which is the cause of the current crisis.  However, they chose to ignore its growth, either not recognizing or not caring that its collapse would devastate the economy. If regulators are not held accountable for such a monumental failure (e.g., by getting fired), then they have no incentive to ever stand up to the financial industry.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine provided some similarly-skeptical criticisms of this plan:

Influential bank analyst Richard Bove of Rochedale Securities believes the Obama rules will only add costs to the system and will not lead to more effective oversight.  After all, a regulatory framework is already in place, Bove says, but the political will to enforce it has been absent — and that’s just the way Washington wants it.  Indeed, the only truly aggressive SEC director since the Kennedy administration was Harvey Pitt, Bove says. “[And] when he got religion about regulation, he got removed.”

Dr. Walter Gerasimowicz of New York-based Meditron Asset Management is dubious about a number of proposals, especially that of expanding the Fed’s role.  “What I find to be very disconcerting is the fact that our Federal Reserve is going to have extensive power over much of the industry,” Gerasimowicz says.  “Why would we give the Fed such powers, especially when they’ve failed over the past 10 years to monitor, to warn, or to bring these types of speculative bubbles under control?”

Our government was kind enough to provide us with an Executive Summary of the financial reform proposal.  Here is how that summary explains the “five key objectives” of the plan, along with the general recommendations for achieving those objectives:

(1)  Promote robust supervision and regulation of financial firms.  Financial institutions that are critical to market functioning should be subject to strong oversight.  No financial firm that poses a significant risk to the financial system should be unregulated or weakly regulated.  We need clear accountability in financial oversight and supervision.  We propose:

  • A new Financial Services Oversight Council of financial regulators to identify emerging systemic risks and improve interagency cooperation.
  • New authority for the Federal Reserve to supervise all firms that could pose a threat to financial stability, even those that do not own banks.
  • Stronger capital and other prudential standards for all financial firms, and even higher standards for large, interconnected firms.
  • A new National Bank Supervisor to supervise all federally chartered banks.
  • Elimination of the federal thrift charter and other loopholes that allowed some depository institutions to avoid bank holding company regulation by the Federal Reserve.
  • The registration of advisers of hedge funds and other private pools of capital with the SEC.

(2)  Establish comprehensive supervision of financial markets. Our major financial markets must be strong enough to withstand both system-wide stress and the failure of one or more large institutions. We propose:

  • Enhanced regulation of securitization markets, including new requirements for market transparency, stronger regulation of credit rating agencies, and a requirement that issuers and originators retain a financial interest in securitized loans.
  • Comprehensive regulation of all over-the-counter derivatives.
  • New authority for the Federal Reserve to oversee payment, clearing, and settlement systems.

(3)  Protect consumers and investors from financial abuse.  To rebuild trust in our markets, we need strong and consistent regulation and supervision of consumer financial services and investment markets.  We should base this oversight not on speculation or abstract models, but on actual data about how people make financial decisions.  We must promote transparency, simplicity, fairness, accountability, and access. We propose:

  • A new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect consumers across the financial sector from unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices.
  • Stronger regulations to improve the transparency, fairness, and appropriateness of consumer and investor products and services.
  • A level playing field and higher standards for providers of consumer financial products and services, whether or not they are part of a bank.

(4)  Provide the government with the tools it needs to manage financial crises.  We need to be sure that the government has the tools it needs to manage crises, if and when they arise, so that we are not left with untenable choices between bailouts and financial collapse.  We propose:

  • A new regime to resolve nonbank financial institutions whose failure could have serious systemic effects.
  • Revisions to the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending authority to improve accountability.

(5)  Raise international regulatory standards and improve international cooperation.  The challenges we face are not just American challenges, they are global challenges.  So, as we work to set high regulatory standards here in the United States, we must ask the world to do the same.  We propose:

  • International reforms to support our efforts at home, including strengthening the capital framework; improving oversight of global financial markets; coordinating supervision of internationally active firms; and enhancing crisis management tools.

In addition to substantive reforms of the authorities and practices of regulation and supervision, the proposals contained in this report entail a significant restructuring of our regulatory system.  We propose the creation of a Financial Services Oversight Council, chaired by Treasury and including the heads of the principal federal financial regulators as members.  We also propose the creation of two new agencies. We propose the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which will be an independent entity dedicated to consumer protection in credit, savings, and payments markets. We also propose the creation of the National Bank Supervisor, which will be a single agency with separate status in Treasury with responsibility for federally chartered depository institutions.  To promote national coordination in the insurance sector, we propose the creation of an Office of National Insurance within Treasury.

So there you have it.  Most commentators expect that the real fighting over this plan won’t begin until this fall, with healthcare reform taking center stage until that time.  Regardless of whatever form this financial reform initiative takes by the time it is enacted, it will ultimately be seen by history as Barack Obama’s brainchild.  If this plan turns out to be a disaster, it could overshadow whatever foreign policy accomplishments may lie ahead for this administration.