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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’ ” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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Federal Reserve Bailout Records Provoke Limited Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

Ivry and Griffin provided this reaction from Bernie Sanders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Dudley.


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The Goldman Fallout

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April 19, 2010

In the aftermath of the disclosure concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, we have heard more than a little reverberation of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid” metaphor, along with plenty of concern about which other firms might find themselves in the SEC’s  crosshairs.

As Jonathan Weil explained for Bloomberg News :

As Wall Street bombshells go, the lawsuit that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is about as big as it gets.

At The Economist, there was a detectable scent of schadenfreude in the discussion, which reminded readers that despite Lloyd Blankfein’s boast of having repaid Goldman’s share of the TARP bailout, not everyone has overlooked Maiden Lane III:

IS THE most powerful and controversial firm on Wall Street about to get the comeuppance that so many think it deserves?

*   *   *

The charges could hardly come at a worse time for Goldman.  The firm has been under fire on a number of fronts, including over the handsome payout it secured from the New York Fed as a derivatives counterparty of American International Group, an insurer that almost failed in 2008.  In a string of negative articles over the past year, Goldman has been accused of everything from double-dealing for its own advantage to planting its own people in the Treasury and other agencies to ensure that its interests were looked after.

At this point, those who criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.

The complaint filed against Goldman by the SEC finally put to rest the tired old lie that nobody saw the financial crisis coming.  The e-mails from Goldman VP, Fabrice Tourre, made it perfectly clear that in addition to being aware of the imminent collapse, some Wall Street insiders were actually counting on it.  Jonathan Weil’s Bloomberg article provided us with the translated missives from Mr. Tourre:

“More and more leverage in the system.  The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs vice president who was sued for his role in putting together the deal, wrote on Jan. 23, 2007.

“Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab …  standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

A few weeks later, Tourre, now 31, e-mailed a top Goldman trader:  “the cdo biz is dead we don’t have a lot of time left.”  Goldman closed the Abacus offering in April 2007.

Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has quoted a number of sources reporting that Goldman may soon find itself defending similar suits in Germany and the UK.

Not surprisingly, there is mounting concern over the possibility that other investment firms could find themselves defending similar actions by the SEC.  As Anusha Shrivastava reported for The Wall Street Journal, the action in the credit markets on Friday revealed widespread apprehension that other firms could face similar exposure:

Credit markets were shaken Friday by the news as investors tried to figure out whether other firms or other structured finance products will be affected.

Investors are concerned that the SEC’s action may create a domino effect affecting other firms and other structured finance products.  There’s also the worry that this regulatory move may rattle the recovery and bring uncertainty back to the market.

“Credit markets are seeing a sizeable impact from the Goldman news,” said Bill Larkin, a portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Mass.  “The question is, has the S.E.C. discovered what may have been a common practice across the industry?  Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

*  *  *

The SEC’s move marks “an escalation in the battle to expose conflicts of interest on Wall Street,” said Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics in a note to clients.  “Once upon a time, Wall Street firms protected clients and observed suitability …  This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another.”

The timing of this suit could not have been better – with the Senate about to consider what (if anything) it will do with financial reform legislation.  Bill Black expects that this scandal will provide the necessary boost to get financial reform enacted into law.  I hope he’s right.



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