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Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Inviting More Trouble

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I frequently revert to my unending criticism of President Obama for “punting” on the 2009 economic stimulus program.  The most recent example was my June 13 posting, wherein I noted how Stephanie Kelton provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time during the first month of Obama’s Presidency, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

As it turned out – that is exactly what happened.  Obama’s lack of leadership and his apologetic, half-assed use of government power to fight the recession has brought us to where we are today.  It may also bring Barack Obama and his family to a new address in January of 2013.

At this point, the “austerian” economists are claiming that the attenuated stimulus program’s failure to bring us more robust economic growth is “proof” that Keynesian economics “doesn’t work”.  The fact that many of these economists speak the way they do as a result of conflicts of interest – arising from the fact that they are on the payrolls of private firms with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – is lost on the vast majority of Americans.  Unfortunately, President Obama is not concerned with rebutting the arguments of these “hired guns”.  A recent poll by Bloomberg News revealed that the American public has successfully been fooled into believing that austerity measures could somehow revive our economy:

As the public grasps for solutions, the Republican Party is breaking through in the message war on the budget and economy.  A majority of Americans say job growth would best be revived with prescriptions favored by the party:  cuts in government spending and taxes, the Bloomberg Poll shows.  Even 40 percent of Democrats share that view.

*   *   *

Though Americans rate unemployment and the economy as a greater concern than the deficit and government spending, the issues are now closely connected.  Sixty-five percent of respondents say they believe the size of the federal deficit is “a major reason” the jobless rate hasn’t dropped significantly.

*   *   *

Republican criticism of the federal budget growth has gained traction with the public.  Fifty-five percent of poll respondents say cuts in spending and taxes would be more likely to bring down unemployment than would maintaining or increasing government spending, as Obama did in his 2009 stimulus package.

The voters are finally buying the corporatist propaganda that unemployment will recede if the government would just leave businesses alone. Forget about any government “hiring programs” – we actually need to fire more government employees!  With those annoying regulators off their backs, corporations would be free to hire again and bring us all to Ayn Rand heaven.  You are supposed to believe that anyone who disagrees with this or contends that government can play a role in job creation is a socialist.

Nevertheless, prominent individuals from the world of business and finance are making an effort to debunk these myths.  Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently addressed the subject:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.  President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further.  Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams.  The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

Both parties, in fact, are moving to anti-Keynesian policy orientations, which deny additional stimulus and make rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget, “they will come.”  It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market:  Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth.

*   *   *

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz discussed his own ideas for “Jump Starting the U.S. Economy” on his website, The Big Picture.  He concluded the piece by lamenting the fact that the federal debt/deficit debate is sucking all the air out of the room at the very time when people should be discussing job creation:

The focus on Deficits today is absurd, forcing us towards another 1938-type recession.  The time to reduce the government’s economic deficit and footprint is during a robust expansion, not during (or just after) major contractions.

During the de-leveraging following a credit crisis is the worst possible time to be deficit obsessed.

Don’t count on President Obama to say anything remotely similar to what you just read.  You would be expecting too much.


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Goldman Sachs In The Crosshairs

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Last December, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

Fortunately, the tide seems to have turned with the recent release of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee report on the financial crisis.  The two-year, bipartisan investigation, led by Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has given rise to new hope that the banks responsible for causing the financial crisis – particularly Goldman Sachs – could face criminal prosecution.  Tom Braithwaite of the Financial Times put it this way:

The Senate report criticised rating agencies, regulators and other banks.  But Goldman has drawn particular focus.  Eric Holder, attorney-general, said this month the justice department was looking at the report “that deals with Goldman”.

Will Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless initiate criminal proceedings against President Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions?  I doubt it.  Nevertheless, the widespread meme that no laws were violated by Goldman or any of the other Wall Street megabanks, is coming under increased attack.  Matt Taibbi recently wrote an excellent piece for Rolling Stone entitled, “The People vs. Goldman Sachs”, which took a humorous jab at those who deny that the financial crisis resulted from illegal activity:

Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money.  We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit.  Goldman isn’t a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals – it’s an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn’t left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes.  If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana.  Caught, but still free:  above the law.

Taibbi focused on the easiest case to prosecute:  a perjury charge against Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein for his testimony before the Levin-Coburn Senate Subcommittee.  Blankfein denied under oath that his firm had a “short” position, betting against the very Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that Goldman had been selling to its customers.  As Taibbi pointed out, this conflict of interest was the subject of a book by Michael Lewis entitled, The Big Short.  At issue is the response Blankfein gave to the question about whether Goldman Sachs had such a short position:

“Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market.  The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008.  We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.”

As Tom Braithwaite explained in the Financial Times, Senator Levin expressed concern that Blankfein could defend a perjury charge, based on his use of the words “consistently or significantly” in the above-quoted response.  Levin’s concern is that those words could be deemed significantly equivocal as to prevent the characterization of Blankfein’s response as a denial that Goldman had such a short position.  Nevertheless, the last sentence of the response is an unqualified, compound statement, which could support a perjury charge:

We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.

I would be very amused to watch someone make the specious argument that Goldman’s $13 billion short position was not “massive”.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is moving ahead to pursue an investigation concerning the role of the Wall Street banks in causing the financial crisis.  Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times provided this explanation of Schneiderman’s current effort:

The New York attorney general has requested information and documents in recent weeks from three major Wall Street banks about their mortgage securities operations during the credit boom, indicating the existence of a new investigation into practices that contributed to billions in mortgage losses.

*   *   *

It is unclear which parts of the byzantine securitization process Mr. Schneiderman is focusing on. His spokesman said the attorney general would not comment on the investigation, which is in its early stages.

*   *   *

The requests for information by Mr. Schneiderman’s office also seem to confirm that the New York attorney general is operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.

By opening a new inquiry into bank practices, Mr. Schneiderman has indicated his unwillingness to accept one of the settlement’s terms proposed by financial institutions – that is, a broad agreement by regulators not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Schneiderman has said in recent weeks that signing such a release was unacceptable.

*   *   *

It is unclear whether Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation will be pursued as a criminal or civil matter.

Are the banksters running scared yet?  John Carney of CNBC’s NetNet blog, noted some developments, which could signal that some potential “persons of interest” might be seeking cover:

A Warning Sign:  CFOs Resigning

The chief financial officers of both Wells Fargo and Bank of America recently resigned.  JPMorgan Chase replaced its CFO last year.  While each of these moves has been spun as benign news by the banks, it could be a warning sign that something is deeply amiss.

Hope springs eternal!


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Justice Denied

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A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most of us assumed that the Enron scandal had set a precedent for the prosecution of corporate financial crime.  A few Enron executives received prison sentences and the CEO, Ken Lay, died while serving time.  Enron’s auditor, Arthur Andersen & Company, was forced out of business.  In the wake of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s, Charles Keating and a few of his associates were indicted by the State of California.  Keating eventually received a ten-year prison sentence for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.  Keating’s prosecution resulted from pressure brought by William Black, former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.  At one point during Black’s investigation, Keating issued a written memo to one of his minions, with this directive:  “If you can’t get Wright and Congress to get Black . . .  Kill him dead.”

These days, William Black has been doing quite a bit of speaking and writing about the need to initiate criminal proceedings against the culprits responsible for causing the financial crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

*   *   *

Our best bet is to continue to win the scholarly disputes and to continue to push media representatives to take fraud seriously. If the media demands for prosecution of the elite banking frauds expand there is a chance to create a bipartisan coalition in Congress and the administration supporting prosecutions.  In the S&L debacle, Representative Annunzio was one of the leading opponents of reregulation and leading supporters of Charles Keating.  After we brought several hundred successful prosecutions he began wearing a huge button:  “Jail the S&L Crooks!”  Bringing many hundreds of enforcement actions, civil suits, and prosecutions causes huge changes in the way a crisis is perceived.  It makes tens of thousands of documents detailing the frauds public.  It generates thousands of national and local news stories discussing the nature of the frauds and how wealthy the senior officers became through the frauds.  All of this increases the saliency of fraud and increases demands for serious reforms, adequate resources for the regulators and criminal justice bodies, and makes clear that elite fraud poses a severe danger.  Collectively, this creates the political space for real reform, vigorous regulators, and real prosecutors.

Hedge fund manager, David Einhorn (author of  Fooling Some of the People All of the Time) was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose.  At one point during the interview, Charlie Rose asked Einhorn to address the argument that regulators lacked the tools necessary for preventing the financial crisis.  Mr. Einhorn gave this response:

I would actually disagree with that.  I think that the problem was that the laws were not enforced.  After Enron you had Sarbanes Oxley.  And there have been hardly any prosecutions under Sarbanes Oxley.  You put in a tough anti-fraud law.  The CEO has to sign there is no fraud.

The CFO has to sign that the financial statements are correct.  If it’s not, there are going to be criminal consequences to all of this.  And the result was that effectively you passed a law but then they didn’t enforce the law.

And once the bad guys figured out that the law wasn’t being enforced, it effectively provided cover because everybody said, look we have the tough antifraud law.  The fraud must have gone away.

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products — who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

While many people have been getting excited about the “insider trading” investigation currently underway, I have been sitting here, wearing my tinfoil hat, viewing the entire episode as a diversionary tactic to direct public attention away from the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  Fortunately, I am not the only cynic with such an outlook.  Jesse Eisenger recently wrote a piece for the DealBook blog at The New York Times entitled, “The Feds Stage a Sideshow While the Big Tent Sits Empty”.  Here is some of what Eisenger had to say about the “insider trading” investigation:

In fact, plenty of people on Wall Street are happy about the investigation.  The ones with clean consciences like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason:  They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness.  Everyone is wondering:  Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders, “Have they committed the resources in the right place?  Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything.  No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted.  All former American International Group executives are running free.  No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

There’s an old saying:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  The government has demonstrated that it is in no hurry to bring any significant criminal charges against the perpetrators of the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly obvious that those crimes will go unpunished.  The cause of justice is simply no match for the ability of certain individuals to operate “above the law”.  In fact, it never has been.


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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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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  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.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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A 9-11 Commission For The Federal Reserve

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January 7, 2010

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-306, establishing The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission).  The Commission was chartered to create a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.  The Commission was also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.  The Commission eventually published a report with those recommendations.  The failure to implement and adhere to those recommendations is now being discussed as a crucial factor in the nearly-successful attempt by The Undiebomber to crash a jetliner headed to Detroit on Christmas Day.

On January 3, 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association in Atlanta, entitled: “Monetary Policy and the Housing Bubble”.  The speech was a transparent attempt to absolve the Federal Reserve from culpability for causing the financial crisis, due to its policy of maintaining low interest rates during Bernanke’s tenure as Fed chair as well as during the regime of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan.  Bernanke chose instead, to focus on a lack of regulation of the mortgage industry as being the primary reason for the crisis.

Critical reaction to Bernanke’s speech was swift and widespread.  Scott Lanman of Bloomberg News discussed the reaction of an economist who was unimpressed:

“It sounds a little bit like a mea culpa,” said Randall Wray, an economics professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, who was in Atlanta and didn’t attend Bernanke’s speech. “The Fed played a role by promoting the most dangerous financial innovations used by institutions to fuel the housing bubble.”

Nomi Prins attended the speech and had this to say about it for The Daily Beast:

But having watched his entire 10-slide presentation (think: Economics 101 with a political twist), I had a different reaction: fear.

My concern is straightforward:  Bernanke doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the very recent past.  The flip side of Bernanke’s conclusion — we need stronger regulation to avoid future crises — is that the Fed’s monetary, or interest-rate, policy was just fine.  That the crisis that brewed for most of the decade was merely a mistake of refereeing, versus the systemic issue of mega-bank holding companies engaged in reckless practices, many under the Fed’s jurisdiction.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, justifying past monetary policy rather than acknowledging the real-world link between Wall Street practices and general economic troubles suggests that Bernanke will power the Fed down the path of the same old mistakes.  Focusing on lending problems is important, but leaving goliath, complex banks to their worst practices (albeit with some regulatory tweaks) is to miss the world as it is.

As the Senate takes on the task of further neutering the badly compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) — supposedly drafted to prevent another financial crisis — the need for a better remedy is becoming obvious.  Instead of authorizing nearly $4 trillion for the next round of bailouts which will be necessitated as a result of the continued risky speculation by those “too big to fail” financial institutions, Congress should take a different approach.  What we really need is another 9/11-type of commission, to clarify the causes of the financial catastrophe of September 2008 (which manifested itself as a credit crisis) and to make recommendations for preventing another such event.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times explained that Greenspan and Bernanke failed to realize that they were inflating a housing bubble because they had become “trapped in an echo chamber of conventional wisdom” that home prices would never drop.  Leonhardt expressed concern that allowing the Fed chair to remain in such an echo chamber for the next bubble could result in another crisis:

What’s missing from the debate over financial re-regulation is a serious discussion of how to reduce the odds that the Fed — however much authority it has — will listen to the echo chamber when the next bubble comes along.  A simple first step would be for Mr. Bernanke to discuss the Fed’s recent failures, in detail.  If he doesn’t volunteer such an accounting, Congress could request one.

In the future, a review process like this could become a standard response to a financial crisis.  Andrew Lo, an M.I.T. economist, has proposed a financial version of the National Transportation Safety Board — an independent body to issue a fact-finding report after a crash or a bust.  If such a board had existed after the savings and loan crisis, notes Paul Romer, the Stanford economist and expert on economic growth, it might have done some good.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, argued that Bernanke’s failure to understand what really caused the credit crisis is just another reason for a proper investigation addressing the genesis of that event:

Unfortunately, it appears to me that the Fed Chief is defending his institution and the judgment of his immediate predecessor, rather than making an honest appraisal of what went wrong.

As I have argued in this space for nearly 2 years, one cannot fix what’s broken until there is a full understanding of what went wrong and how.  In the case of systemic failure, a proper diagnosis requires a full understanding of more than what a healthy system should look like.  It also requires recognition of all of the causative factors — what is significant, what is incidental, the elements that enabled other factors, the “but fors” that the crisis could not have occurred without.

Ritholtz contended that an honest assessment of the events leading up to the credit crisis would likely reveal a sequence resembling the following time line:

1.  Ultra low interest rates led to a scramble for yield by fund managers;

2.  Not coincidentally, there was a massive push into subprime lending by unregulated NONBANKS who existed solely to sell these mortgages to securitizers;

3.  Since they were writing mortgages for resale (and held them only briefly) these non-bank lenders collapsed their lending standards; this allowed them to write many more mortgages;

4.  These poorly underwritten loans — essentially junk paper — was sold to Wall Street for securitization in huge numbers.

5.  Massive ratings fraud of these securities by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P led to a rating of this junk as Triple AAA.

6.  That investment grade rating of junk paper allowed those scrambling bond managers (see #1) to purchase higher yield paper that they would not otherwise have been able to.

7.  Increased leverage of investment houses allowed a huge securitization manufacturing process; Some iBanks also purchased this paper in enormous numbers;

8.  More leverage took place in the shadow derivatives market.  That allowed firms like AIG to write $3 trillion in derivative exposure, much of it in mortgage and credit related areas.

9.  Compensation packages in the financial sector were asymmetrical, where employees had huge upside but shareholders (and eventually taxpayers) had huge downside.  This (logically) led to increasingly aggressive and risky activity.

10.  Once home prices began to fall, all of the above fell apart.

As long as the Federal Reserve chairman keeps his head buried in the sand, in a state of denial or delusion about the true cause of the financial crisis, while Congress continues to facilitate a system of socialized risk for privatized gain, we face the dreadful possibility that history will repeat itself.



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