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Geithner Gets Bashed in New Book

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Much has been written about “Turbo” Tim Geithner since he first became Treasury Secretary on January 26, 2009.  In his book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote adoringly about Geithner’s athletic expertise.  On the other hand, typing “Turbo Tim Geithner” into the space on the upper-right corner of this page and clicking on the little magnifying glass will lead you to no less than 61 essays wherein I saw fit to criticize the Treasury Secretary.  I first coined the “Turbo” nickname on February 9, 2009 and on February 16 of that year I began linking “Turbo” to an explanatory article, for those who did not understand the reference.

Geithner has never lacked defenders.  The March 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title was meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system were working, although he was not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, the New Yorker piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he had been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the New Yorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

Another article on Geithner, appearing in the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic, was described by Edward Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

In November of 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Neil M. Barofsky to the newly-established position, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  Barofsky was responsible for preventing fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds.  From his first days on that job, Neil Barofsky found Timothy Geithner to be his main opponent.  On March 31 of 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP.  The hearing included testimony by Neil Barofsky, who explained how the Treasury Department had been interfering with his efforts to ascertain what was being done with TARP funds which had been distributed to the banks.  Matthew Jaffe of ABC News described Barofsky’s frustration in attempting to get past the Treasury Department’s roadblocks.

On the eve of his retirement from the position of Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky wrote an op-ed piece for the March 30, 2011 edition of The New York Times entitled, “Where the Bailout Went Wrong”.  Barofsky devoted a good portion of the essay to a discussion of the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”, with a particular focus on the Treasury Department:

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP — which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers — into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals — whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in — may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

It should come as no surprise that in Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, the author pulls no punches in his criticism of Timothy Geithner.  Barofsky has been feeding us some morsels of what to expect from the book by way of some recent articles in Bloomberg News.  Here is some of what Barofsky wrote for Bloomberg on July 22:

More important, the financial markets continue to bet that the government will once again come to the big banks’ rescue.  Creditors still give the largest banks more favorable terms than their smaller counterparts — a direct subsidy to those that are already deemed too big to fail, and an incentive for others to try to join the club.  Similarly, the major banks are given better credit ratings based on the assumption that they will be bailed out.

*   *   *

The missteps by Treasury have produced a valuable byproduct: the widespread anger that may contain the only hope for meaningful reform. Americans should lose faith in their government.  They should deplore the captured politicians and regulators who distributed tax dollars to the banks without insisting that they be accountable.  The American people should be revolted by a financial system that rewards failure and protects those who drove it to the point of collapse and will undoubtedly do so again.

Only with this appropriate and justified rage can we hope for the type of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabanks.

In his review of Barofsky’s new book, Darrell Delamaide of MarketWatch discussed the smackdown Geithner received from Barofsky:

Barofsky may have an axe to grind, but he grinds it well, portraying Geithner as a dissembling bureaucrat in thrall to the banks and reminding us all that President Barack Obama’s selection of Geithner as his top economic official may have been one of his biggest mistakes, and a major reason the White House incumbent has to fight so hard for re-election.

From his willingness to bail out the banks with virtually no accountability, to his failure to make holders of credit default swaps on AIG take a haircut, to his inability to mount any effective program for mortgage relief, Geithner systematically favored Wall Street over Main Street and created much of the public’s malaise in the aftermath of the crisis.

*    *    *

Barofsky, a former prosecutor, relates that he rooted for Geithner to get the Treasury appointment and was initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it emerged that he had misreported his taxes while he worked at the International Monetary Fund.

But as more details on those unpaid taxes came out and Geithner’s explanations seemed increasingly disingenuous, Barofsky had his first doubts about the secretary-designate.

Barofsky, of course, was not alone in his skepticism, and Geithner’s credibility was damaged from the very beginning by the disclosures about his unpaid taxes.

*   *   *

Barofsky concludes his scathing condemnation of Geithner’s “bank-centric policies” by finding some silver lining in the cloud – that the very scale of the government’s failure will make people angry enough to demand reform.

Once Geithner steps down from his position at the end of the year, we may find that his legacy is defined by Neil Barofsky’s book, rather than any claimed rescue of the financial system.


 

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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Revenge Of The Blondes

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My vintage iPhone sputtered, stammered and finally stalled out as I tried to access an article about derivatives trading after clicking on the link.  The process got as far as the appearance of the URL, which indicated that the source was The New York Times.  I assumed that the piece had been written by Gretchen Morgenson and that I could read it once I sat down at my regular computer.  Within moments, I was at The Big Picture website, where I found another link to the same article.  This time it worked and I found that the piece had been written by Louise Story.  “Wrong blonde”, I thought to myself.  It was at that point when I realized how much the world had changed from the days when “dumb blonde” jokes had been so popular.  In fact, a vast amount of the skullduggery that caused and resulted from the financial crisis has been exposed and explained by women with blonde hair.  After a handful of unscrupulous Wall Street bankers brought the world’s financial system to the brink of collapse, an even smaller number of blonde, female sleuths set about unwinding this complex web of deceit for “the Average Joe” to understand.  Here are a few of them:

Yves Smith

All right  .  .  .   It’s an old picture from her days at Goldman Sachs.  Cue-up Duran Duran.  (It’s almost as old as the photo of Ben Bernanke in my fake Chandon ad, based on their  “Life needs bubbles” theme.)  On most days, the first blog I access is Naked Capitalism.  Its publisher and most frequent contributor is Yves Smith (a/k/a Susan Webber).  At the Seeking Alpha website, a review of her recent book, ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism, began this way:

ECONNED is the most deeply researched and empirically validated account of the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 and how its unaddressed causes predict similar crises to come.  As a long-time Wall Street veteran, Yves Smith, through her influential blog “Naked Capitalism” lucidly explains to her over 2500,000 unique visitors each month exactly what games market players use and how their “innovations” evolved over the years to take the rest of us to the cleaners.  Smith is that unusual combination of scholar, expert, participant and teacher, who writes with a clarifying sense of moral outrage and disgust at the decline of ethics on Wall Street and financial markets.

Smith’s daily list of Links at Naked Capitalism, covers a broad range of newsworthy subjects both within and beyond the financial realm.  I usually find myself reading all of the articles linked on that page.

Gretchen Morgenson

Gretchen Morgenson is my favorite reporter for The New York Times.  She has proven herself to be Treasury Secretary Turbo Tim Geithner’s worst nightmare.  Ms. Morgenson has caused Geithner so much agony, I would not be surprised to hear that he named his recent kidney stone after her.  With Jo Becker, Ms. Morgenson wrote the most revealing essay on Geithner back in April of 2009.  Once you’ve read it, you will have a better understanding of why Geithner gave away so many billions to the banksters as president of the New York Fed by way of Maiden Lane III.  Morgenson subsequently wrote her own article on Maiden Lane III here.

Ms. Morgenson has many detractors.  Most prominent among them was the late Tanta (a/k/a Doris Dungey) of the Calculated Risk blog, who wrote the recurring “Morgenson Watch” for that site.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism (see above) accurately summed up the bulk of the criticism directed against Gretchen Morgenson:

Gretchen Morgenson is often a target of heated criticism on the blogosphere, which I have argued more than once is overdone.  While her articles on executive compensation and securities litigation are consistently well reported, she has an appetite for the wilder side of finance, and often looks a bit out of her depth.  Typically, she simply runs afoul of finance pedants, who jump on misapplication of industry jargon or minor errors when those (admittedly disconcerting) errors fail to derail the thrust of the argument.

A noted example of this was Morgenson’s article of March 6 2010, in which she explained that Greece was hiding its financial obligations with “credit default swaps” rather than currency swaps.  The bloggers who vigilantly watch for her to make such a mistake wouldn’t let go of that one for quite a while.  Nevertheless, I like her work.  Nobody is perfect.

Louise Story

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, Louise Story wrote the recent article for The New York Times, concerning anticompetitive practices in the credit derivatives clearing, trading and information services industries.  Discussing that subject in a manner that can make it understandable to the “average reader” (someone with a high school education) is no easy task.  Beyond that, Ms. Story was able to explain the frustrations of regulators, who had hoped that some degree of transparency could be introduced to the derivatives market as a result of the recently enacted, “Dodd-Frank” financial reform bill.  It’s an important article, which has drawn a good deal of well-deserved attention.

Last year, Ms. Story co-authored a New York Times article with Gretchen Morgenson, concerning collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) entitled, “Banks Bundled Bad Debt, Bet Against It and Won”.  As I pointed out at the time:  Pay close attention to the explanation of how Tim Geithner retained a “special counselor” whose previous responsibilities included oversight of the parent company of an investment firm named Tricadia, Inc.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.

These three women, as well as a number of their non-blonde counterparts (including:  Nomi Prins, Janet Tavakoli and Naomi Klein) have exposed a vast amount of the odious activities that caused the financial crisis.  They have helped inform and educate the public on what the “good old boys” network of bankers, regulators and lobbyists have been doing to this country.  The paradigm shift that took us beyond the sexist stereotype of the  “dumb blonde” has brought our society to the point where women – often blonde ones – have intervened to alert the rest of us to the hazards caused by what Paul Farrell of MarketWatch described as “Wall Street’s macho ego trip”.

If you should come across someone who still tells “dumb blonde” jokes – ask that person if he (or she) has read ECONned.


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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

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

*   *   *

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

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

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



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Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “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”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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Demolition Derby

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June 24, 2010

They’re at the starting line, getting ready to trash the economy and turn our “great recession” into a full-on Great Depression II (to steal an expression from Paul Farrell).  Barry Ritholtz calls them the “deficit chicken hawks”.  The Reformed Broker recently wrote a clever piece which incorporated a moniker coined by Mark Thoma, the “Austerians”,  in reference to that same (deficit chicken hawk) group.   The Reformed Broker described them this way:

.  .  .  this gang has found a sudden (upcoming election-related) pang of concern over deficits and our ability to finance them.  Critics say the Austerians’ premature tightness will send the economy off a cliff, a la the 1930’s.

Count me among those who believe that the Austerians are about to send the economy off a cliff – or as I see it:  into a Demolition Derby.  The first smash-up in this derby was to sabotage any potential recovery in the job market.  Economist Scott Brown made this observation at the Seeking Alpha website:

One issue in deficit spending is deciding how much is enough to carry us through.  Removing fiscal stimulus too soon risks derailing the recovery.  Anti-deficit sentiment has already hampered a push for further stimulus to support job growth.  Across the Atlantic, austerity moves threaten to dampen European economic growth in 2011.  Long term, deficit reduction is important, but short term, it’s just foolish.

The second event in the Demolition Derby is to deny the extension of unemployment benefits.  Because the unemployed don’t have any money to bribe legislators, they make a great target.  David Herszenhorn of The New York Times discussed the despair expressed by Senator Patty Murray of Washington after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation extending unemployment compensation:

“This is a critical piece of legislation for thousands of families in our country, who want to know whether their United States Senate and Congress is on their side or is going to turn their back on them, right at a critical time when our economy is just starting to get around the corner,” Mrs. Murray said.

The deficit chicken hawk group isn’t just from the Republican side of the aisle.  You can count Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe “The Tool” Lieberman among their ranks.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lamented Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s preference for maintaining “the markets’ confidence in Washington” at the expense of the unemployed:

Look around at the American economy today.  Unemployment is 9.7 percent.  Inflation in recent months has been zero.  States are cutting their budgets.  Congress is balking at spending the money to prevent state layoffs.  The Fed is standing pat, too.  Bond investors, fickle as they may be, show no signs of panicking.

Which seems to be the greater risk:  too much action or too little?

The Demolition Derby is not limited to exacerbating the unemployment crisis.  It involves sabotaging the economic recovery as well.  In my last posting, I discussed a recent report by Comstock Partners, highlighting ten reasons why the so-called economic rebound from the financial crisis has been quite weak.  The report’s conclusion emphasized the necessity of additional fiscal stimulus:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

In a recent essay, John Mauldin provided a detailed explanation of how premature deficit reduction efforts  can impair economic recovery:

In the US, we must start to get our fiscal house in order.  But if we cut the deficit by 2% of GDP a year, that is going to be a drag on growth in what I think is going to be a slow growth environment to begin with.  If you raise taxes by 1% combined with 1% cuts (of GDP) that will have a minimum effect of reducing GDP by around 2% initially.  And when you combine those cuts at the national level with tax increases and spending cuts of more than 1% of GDP at state and local levels you have even further drags on growth.

Those who accept Robert Prechter’s Elliott Wave Theory for analyzing stock market charts to make predictions of long-term financial trends, already see it coming:  a cataclysmic crash.   As Peter Brimelow recently discussed at MarketWatch, Prechter expects to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop below 1,000:

The clearest statement comes from the Elliott Wave Theorist, discussing a numerological technical theory with which it supplements the Wave Theory’s complex patterns:  “The only way for the developing configuration to satisfy a perfect set of Fibonacci time relationships is for the stock market to fall over the next six years and bottom in 2016.”

*   *   *

There will be a short-term rally at some point, thinks Prechter, but it will be a trap:  “The 7.25-year and 20-year cycles are both scheduled to top in 2012, suggesting that 2012 will mark the last vestiges of self-destructive hope.  Then the final years of decline will usher in capitulation and finally despair.”

So it is written.  The Demolition Derby shall end in disaster.





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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.




The Poisonous Bailout

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June 10, 2010

The adults in the room have spoken.  The Congressional Oversight Panel – headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren – created to oversee the TARP program, has just issued a report disclosing the ugly truth about the bailout of AIG:

The government’s actions in rescuing AIG continue to have a poisonous effect on the marketplace.

Note the present tense in that statement.  Not only did the bailout have a poisonous effect on the marketplace at the time –it continues to have a poisonous effect on the marketplace.  The 300-page report includes the reason why the AIG bailout continues to have this poisonous effect:

The AIG rescue demonstrated that Treasury and the Federal Reserve would commit taxpayers to pay any price and bear any burden to prevent the collapse of America‘s largest financial institutions and to assure repayment to the creditors doing business with them.

And that, dear readers, is precisely what the concept of “moral hazard” is all about.  It is the reason why we should not continue to allow financial institutions to be “too big to fail”.  Bad behavior by financial institutions is encouraged by the Federal Reserve and Treasury with assurance that any losses incurred as a result of that risky activity will be borne by the taxpayers rather than the reckless institutions.  You might remember the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009:

.  .  .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out.  In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

With particular emphasis on the AIG bailout, this is what Senator Bunning said to Bernanke:

Even if all that were not true, the A.I.G. bailout alone is reason enough to send you back to Princeton.  First you told us A.I.G. and its creditors had to be bailed out because they posed a systemic risk, largely because of the credit default swaps portfolio.  Those credit default swaps, by the way, are over the counter derivatives that the Fed did not want regulated.  Well, according to the TARP Inspector General, it turns out the Fed was not concerned about the financial condition of the credit default swaps partners when you decided to pay them off at par.  In fact, the Inspector General makes it clear that no serious efforts were made to get the partners to take haircuts, and one bank’s offer to take a haircut was declined.  I can only think of two possible reasons you would not make then-New York Fed President Geithner try to save the taxpayers some money by seriously negotiating or at least take up U.B.S. on their offer of a haircut.  Sadly, those two reasons are incompetence or a desire to secretly funnel more money to a few select firms, most notably Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and a handful of large European banks.

Hugh Son of Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained how the Congressional Oversight Panel’s latest report does not have a particularly optimistic view of AIG’s ability to repay the bailout:

The bailout includes a $60 billion Fed credit line, an investment of as much as $69.8 billion from the Treasury Department and up to $52.5 billion to buy mortgage-linked assets owned or backed by the insurer through swaps or securities lending.

AIG owes about $26.6 billion on the credit line and $49 billion to the Treasury.  The company returned to profit in the first quarter, posting net income of $1.45 billion.

‘Strong, Vibrant Company’

“I’m confident you’ll get your money, plus a profit,” AIG Chief Executive Officer Robert Benmosche told the panel in Washington on May 26.  “We are a strong, vibrant company.”

The panel said in the report that the government’s prospects for recovering funds depends partly on the ability of AIG to find buyers for its units and on investors’ willingness to purchase shares if the Treasury Department sells its holdings.  AIG turned over a stake of almost 80 percent as part of the bailout and the Treasury holds additional preferred shares from subsequent investments.

“While the potential for the Treasury to realize a positive return on its significant assistance to AIG has improved over the past 12 months, it still appears more likely than not that some loss is inevitable,” the panel said.

Simmi Aujla of the Politico reported on Elizabeth Warren’s contention that Treasury and Federal Reserve officials should have attempted to save AIG without using taxpayer money:

“The negotiations would have been difficult and they might have failed,” she said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.  “But the benefits of crafting a private or even a joint public-private solution were so superior to the cost of a complete government bailout that they should have been pursued as vigorously as humanly possible.”

The Treasury and Federal Reserve are now in “damage control” mode, issuing statements that basically reiterate Bernanke’s “panic” excuse referenced in the above-quoted remarks by Jim Bunning.

The release of this report is well-timed, considering the fact that the toothless, so-called “financial reform” bill is now going through the reconciliation stage.  Now that Blanche Lincoln is officially the Democratic candidate to retain her Senate seat representing Arkansas – will the derivatives reform provisions disappear from the bill?  In light of the information contained in the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, a responsible – honest – government would not only crack down on derivatives trading but would also ban the trading of “naked” swaps.  In other words:  No betting on defaults if you don’t have a potential loss you are hedging – or as Phil Angelides explained it:  No buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house.  Of course, we will probably never see such regulation enacted – until after he next financial crisis.



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Living Up To A Title

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June 7, 2010

It was back on April 9, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his third month in office – when I first referred to him as the “Disappointer-in-Chief”.  I concluded that piece with this gloomy prediction:

If President Obama does not change course and deviate from the Geithner-Summers plan before it’s too late, his legacy will be a ten-year recession rather than a two-year recession without the PPIP.  Worse yet, the toughest criticism and the most pressure against his administration are coming from people he has considered his supporters.  At least he has the people at Fox News to provide some laughable “decoy” reports to keep his hard-core adversaries otherwise occupied.

Just two weeks earlier —  on March 23, 2009 – I had been discussing the widespread apprehension over Obama’s planned bailout of the largest banks (the so-called “Financial Stability Plan” which later morphed into the PPIP).  At that point, Frank Rich of The New York Times made a premature use of the term “Obama’s Katrina moment”.

With the arrival of Obama’s real “Katrina moment” — by way of the Deepwater Horizon blowout –  we are again hearing a chorus of criticism directed against the Obama administration, not unlike what we heard during those first few months.  Now that our new President has established a track record of bad decisions, let’s take a look at some reactions from people the Fox News will insist are loyal Obama supporters.  First we had Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who delivered a one-two punch to the man she has called “Barry” (when mad at him) on May 29 and June 1:

In the campaign, Obama’s fight flagged to the point that his donors openly upbraided him.  In the Oval, he waited too long to express outrage and offer leadership on A.I.G., the banks, the bonuses, the job loss and mortgage fears, the Christmas underwear bomber, the death panel scare tactics, the ugly name-calling of Tea Party protesters.

Too often it feels as though Barry is watching from a balcony, reluctant to enter the fray until the clamor of the crowd forces him to come down.  The pattern is perverse.  The man whose presidency is rooted in his ability to inspire withholds that inspiration when it is most needed.

Ouch!  If that weren’t enough, Ms. Dowd’s June 1 punch had to hurt:

This president has made it clear that he’s not comfortable outside whatever domain he’s defined.  But unless he wants his story to be marred by a pattern of passivity, detachment, acquiescence and compromise, he’d better seize control of the story line of his White House years.  Woe-is-me is not an attractive narrative.

Also at The New York Times, Frank Rich expressed his impatience with the President – now that the real “Katrina moment” has arrived:

We still want to believe that Obama is on our side, willing to fight those bad corporate actors who cut corners and gambled recklessly while regulators slept, Congress raked in contributions, and we got stuck with the wreckage and the bills.  But his leadership style keeps sowing confusion about his loyalties, puncturing holes in the powerful tale he could tell.

*   *   *

No high-powered White House meetings or risk analyses were needed to discern how treacherous it was to trust BP this time.  An intern could have figured it out.  But the credulous attitude toward BP is no anomaly for the administration.  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs was praised by the president as a “savvy” businessman two months before the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Goldman.  Well before then, there had been a flood of journalistic indicators that Goldman under Blankfein may have gamed the crash and the bailout.

It’s this misplaced trust in elites both outside the White House and within it that seems to prevent Obama from realizing the moment that history has handed to him.  Americans are still seething at the bonus-grabbing titans of the bubble and at the public and private institutions that failed to police them.  But rather than embrace a unifying vision that could ignite his presidency, Obama shies away from connecting the dots as forcefully and relentlessly as the facts and Americans’ anger demand.

Back on December 14, I pointed out how the so-called “race card” has not been a free pass for the Disappointer-in-Chief:

As we approach the conclusion of Obama’s first year in the White House, it has become apparent that the Disappointer-in-Chief has not only alienated the Democratic Party’s liberal base, but he has also let down a demographic he thought he could take for granted:  the African-American voters.  At this point, Obama has “transcended race” with his ability to dishearten loyal black voters just as deftly as he has chagrined loyal supporters from all ethnic groups.

The most recent example of this phenomenon appeared in the form of an opinion piece by Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Here is some of what Mr. Norman had to say:

At a Memorial Day dinner I attended, there wasn’t just disappointment with Mr. Obama’s inability to find his inner Huey Long — there was an undercurrent of genuine anger.

It went far beyond the handling of the BP crisis.  As far as anyone can tell, there isn’t much to distinguish Mr. Obama’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq from his predecessor’s.

Beyond the Deepwater Horizon, Mr. Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties, banking reform, military spending, the drug war, Middle East policy, immigration and the environment.  Political gamesmanship and calculation of the rankest kind continue.  Even his latest Supreme Court nominee shows every indication of being as colorless as the president has proven to be in recent months.  It’s too much to expect this president to champion a progressive Supreme Court candidate.

Meanwhile, the corrupt culture of Wall Street continues to set the agenda, thanks to cowardly Democrats and nihilistic Republicans.  Accountability is as much a dirty word for Mr. Obama as it was for President George W. Bush.

*   *   *

Honestly, other than the particularities of the historical record, it no longer makes sense to blame Mr. Bush for much when Mr. Obama has done little — other than improvise a less belligerent foreign policy — to distinguish himself from the 43rd president.

I won’t spoil the rest of Mr. Norman’s article.  Just be sure to read it.  (Hint:  It includes some nice speculation about how the new President was likely pulled aside by some members of the plutocracy, who gave him “The Talk”.)

Meanwhile, the Presidential disappointments continue.  It appears as though we are going to wait for God to stop the oil from gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Since we have left it to God to do the wetlands protection and the clean-up, this shouldn’t be too surprising.   I’m beginning to suspect that President Obama’s religious ideas are even more far-out than those of President Bush. –  It’s just that President Obama doesn’t talk about them.





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Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

Although the cartoon above appeared in my local paper, it came to my attention only because Barry Ritholtz posted it on his website, The Big Picture.  Congratulations to Jim Morin of The Miami Herald for creating one of those pictures that’s worth well over a thousand words.

Forget about all that oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama, Harry Reid and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd are too busy indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation over the Senate’s passage of a so-called “financial reform” bill (S. 3217) to be bothered with “the fishermen’s buzzkill”.  Meanwhile, many commentators are expressing their disappointment and disgust at the fact that the banking lobby has succeeded in making sure that the taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab when the banks go broke trading unregulated derivatives.

Matt Taibbi has written a fantastic essay for Rolling Stone, documenting the creepy battle over financial reform in the Senate.  The folks at Rolling Stone are sure getting their money’s worth out of Taibbi, after his landmark smackdown of Goldman Sachs and his revealing article exposing the way banks such as JP Morgan Chase fleeced Jefferson County, Alabama.  In his latest “must read” essay, Taibbi provides his readers with an understandable discussion of what is wrong with derivatives trading and Wall Street’s efforts to preserve the status quo:

Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei:  no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark.  Nobody has a clue how much a share of  IBM costs or how many of them are being traded.  In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists.  It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.  If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation:  Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of  jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.  Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008.  Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform.  Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson de-mystified how both the Senate’s “financial reform” bill and the bill passed by the House require standardized derivatives to be traded on an exchange or a “swap execution facility”.  Although these proposals create the illusion of reform – it’s important to keep in mind that old maxim about gambling:  “The house always wins.”  In this case, the ability to “front-run” the chumps gives the house the power to keep winning:

But the devil is always in the details — hence, two 1,500-page bills — and problems arise in how the proposals define what constitutes a swap execution facility, and who can own one.

Big banks want to create and own the venues where swaps are traded, because such control has many benefits.  First, it gives the dealers extremely valuable pretrade information from customers wishing to buy or sell these instruments.  Second, depending on how these facilities are designed, they may let dealers limit information about pricing when transactions take place — and if an array of prices is not readily available, customers can’t comparison-shop and the banks get to keep prices much higher than they might be on an exchange.

*   *   *

Finally, lawmakers who are charged with consolidating the two bills are talking about eliminating language that would bar derivatives facilities from receiving taxpayer bailouts if they get into trouble.  That means a federal rescue of an imperiled derivatives trading facility could occur.  (Again, think A.I.G.)

Surely, we beleaguered taxpayers do not need to backstop any more institutions than we do now.  According to Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., only 18 percent of the nation’s financial sector was covered by implied federal guarantees in 1999.  By the end of 2008, his bank’s research shows, the federal safety net covered 59 percent of the financial sector.

In a speech last week, Mr. Lacker said that he feared we were going to perpetuate the cycle of financial crises followed by taxpayer bailouts, in spite of Congressional reform efforts.

“Arguably, we will not break the cycle of regulation, bypass, crisis and rescue,”  Mr. Lacker said, “until we are willing to clarify the limits to government support, and incur the short-term costs of confirming those limits, in the interest of building a stronger and durable foundation for our financial system.  Measured against this gauge, my early assessment is that progress thus far has been negligible.”

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

When one considers what this legislation was intended to address, the dangers posed by failing to extinguish those systemic threats to the economy and what the Senate bill is being claimed to remedy  —  it’s actually just a huge, sleazy disgrace.  Matt Taibbi’s concluding words on the subject underscore the fact that not only do we still need real financial reform, we also need campaign finance reform:

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of  the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth.  “They’re working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill,” one Democratic aid eexplained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed.  But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won’t happen in any meaningful way.  The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash.  The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.  In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight.  In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice.  In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

The sleazy antics by the Democrats who undermined financial reform (while pretending to advance it) will not be forgotten by the voters.  The real question is whether any independent candidates can step up to oppose the tools of Wall Street, relying on the nickels and dimes from “the little people” to wage a battle against the kleptocracy.






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