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Banking Lobby Tools In Senate Subvert Reform

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May 20. 2010

The financial pseudo-reform bill is being exposed as a farce.  Thanks to its tools in the Senate, the banking lobby is on the way toward defeating any significant financial reform.  Although Democrats in the Senate (and the President himself) have been posing as reformers who stand up to those “fat cat bankers”, their actions are speaking much louder than their words.  What follows is a list of the Senate Democrats who voted against both the Kaufman – Brown amendment (to prevent financial institutions from being “too big to fail”) as well as the amendment calling for more Federal Reserve transparency (sponsored by Republican David Vitter to comport with Congressman Ron Paul’s original “Audit the Fed” proposal – H.R. 1207 – which was replaced by the watered-down S. 3217 ):

Akaka (D-HI), Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Bennet (D-CO), Carper (D-DE), Conrad (D-ND), Dodd (D-CT), Feinstein (D-CA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Hagan (D-NC), Inouye (D-HI), Johnson (D-SD), Kerry (D-MA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Kohl (D-WI), Landrieu (D-LA), Lautenberg (D-NJ), Lieberman (ID-CT), McCaskill (D-MO), Menendez (D-NJ), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Reed (D-RI), Schumer (D-NY), Shaheen (D-NH), Tester (D-MT), Udall (D-CO) and Mark Warner (D-VA).

I wasn’t surprised to see Senator Chuck Schumer on this list because, after all, Wall Street is located in his state.  But how about Senator Claire McCaskill?  Remember her performance at the April 27 hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations?   She really went after those banksters – didn’t she?  Why would she suddenly turn around and support the banks in opposing those two amendments?   I suppose the securities and investment industry is entitled to a little payback, after having given her campaign committee $265,750.

I was quite disappointed to see Senator Amy Klobuchar on that list.  Back on June 19, 2008, I included her in a piece entitled “Women to Watch”.  Now, almost exactly two years later, we are watching her serve as a tool for the securities and investment industry, which has given her campaign committee $224,325.  On the other hand, another female Senator whom I discussed in that same piece, Maria Cantwell of Washington, has been standing firm in opposing attempts to leave some giant loopholes in Senator Blanche Lincoln’s amendment concerning derivatives trading reform.  The Huffington Post described how Harry Reid attempted to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Other amendments offered by Democrats would ban banks from proprietary trading, cap ATM fees at 50 cents, impose new limits on the payday lending industry, prohibit naked credit default swaps and reinstate Glass-Steagall regulations that prohibit banks from owning investment firms.

“We need to eliminate the risk posed to our economy by ‘too big to fail’ financial firms and to reinstate the protective firewalls between Main Street banks and Wall Street firms,” said Feingold in a statement after the vote.  Feingold supported the amendment to reinstate Glass-Steagall, among others.

“Unfortunately, these key reforms are not included in the bill,” he said.  “The test for this legislation is a simple one — whether it will prevent another financial crisis.  As the bill stands, it fails that test.  Ending debate on the bill is finishing before the job is done.”

Russ Feingold’s criticisms of the bill were consistent with those voiced by economist Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis).  Barbara Stcherbatcheff of CNBC began her report on Dr. Roubini’s May 18 speech with this statement:

Current efforts to reform financial regulation are “cosmetic” and won’t prevent another crisis, economist Nouriel Roubini told an audience on Tuesday at the London School of Economics.

The current mid-term primary battles have fueled a never-ending stream of commentary following the same narrative:  The wrath of the anti-incumbency movement shall be felt in Washington.  Nevertheless, Dylan Ratigan seems to be the only television commentator willing to include “opposition to financial reform” as a political liability for Congressional incumbents.  Yves Smith raised the issue on her Naked Capitalism website with an interesting essay focused on this theme:

Why have political commentators been hesitant to connect the dots between the “no incumbent left standing” movement and the lack of meaningful financial reform?

Her must-read analysis of the “head fakes” going on within the financial reform wrangling concludes with this thought:

So despite the theatrics in Washington, I recommend lowering your expectations greatly for the result of financial reform efforts.  There have been a few wins (for instance, the partial success of the Audit the Fed push), but other measures have for the most part been announced with fanfare and later blunted or excised.  Even though the firestorm of Goldman-related press stiffened the spines of some Senators and produced a late-in-process flurry of amendments, don’t let a blip distract you from the trend line, that as the legislative process proceeds apace, the banks will be able to achieve an outcome that leaves their dubious business models and most important, the rich pay to industry incumbents, largely intact.

As always, it’s up to the voting public with the short memory to unseat those tools of the banking lobby.  Our only alternative is to prepare for the next financial crisis.



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Ron Paul Criticizes Fed Audit Compromise

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May 13, 2010

The Federal Reserve had two big wins this week.  At least their most recent win made some sense.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek put it this way:

U.S. senators voted 90-9 yesterday to void a provision in regulatory-overhaul legislation that would have stripped the Fed of oversight of 5,000 banks with less than $50 billion in assets.  A day earlier, senators rejected a measure to allow continuous congressional audits of Fed policies.

*   *   *

Bernanke may now have a freer hand to decide when and how fast to unwind record monetary stimulus begun during the financial crisis, while being less vulnerable to criticism that the Fed favors large Wall Street financial institutions.  The Senate votes also removed a threat to the 12 regional Fed banks from a provision that would have limited the supervision of many of them to a few banks or none at all.

The amendment to the financial reform bill allowing the 12 regional Federal Reserve banks to maintain oversight of banks with less than $50 billion in assets was a bipartisan effort by Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Amy Klobuchar (D- Minnesota).  The downside to the passage of this amendment is that it has provided the Fed with back-to-back legislative victories.  One day earlier, Congressman Ron Paul’s “Audit the Fed” amendment was replaced by a rewritten, compromise amendment, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders.  Senator Sanders is now being criticized for caving in to pressure exerted by President Obama, who opposed ongoing scrutiny of the Federal Reserve, under the pretext that continuous audits would interfere with the Fed’s purported “independence” in setting monetary policy.  The Sanders compromise proposed a one-time audit of the Fed to uncover information including the loans made to financial institutions by the Fed in response to the financial crisis of 2008.  The Sanders amendment was passed in a 96-0 vote.  Subsequently, Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) proposed an amendment (#3760) containing the stronger language of Ron Paul’s H.R. 1207, allowing for repeated audits of the Fed.  The Vitter amendment was defeated by 62 Senators opposing the measure, with only 37 Senators supporting it.  You can see how each Senator voted here.  Ultimately, the complete financial reform bill — S. 3217 (Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010) —  will be subject to approval by the Senate and reconciliation with the House version (H.R. 4173) before it can be signed into law by the President.

On May 11, Congressman Ron Paul expressed his displeasure with the Sanders compromise in a statement from the floor of the House of Representatives.  The New American website has the video and text of Congressman Paul’s statement here.  Ron Paul emphasized that the Fed’s use of currency swaps to facilitate the bailout fund for the sovereign debt crisis in the European Union, has provided the latest example of the need for a continuous audit of the Fed’s activities:

The reason this is so disturbing is because of the current events going on in the financial markets. We are right now involved in bailing out Europe and especially bailing out Greece, and we’re doing this through the Federal Reserve.  The Federal Reserve does this with currency swaps and they do this literally by giving loans and guarantees to other central banks, and they can even give loans to governments.  So this is placing the burden on American taxpayers — not by direct taxation, but by expanding the money supply this is a tax on the American people because this will bring economic hardship to this country. And because we’ve been doing this for so many years the economic hardship is already here [and] we’ve been suffering from it.

But the problem comes that once you have a system of money where you can create it out of thin air there’s no restraint whatsoever on the spending in the Congress.  And then the debt piles up and they get into debt problems as they are in Greece and other countries in Europe.  And how they want to bail them out?  With more debt.  But what is so outrageous is that the Federal Reserve can literally deal in trillions of dollars.  They don’t get the money authorized, they don’t get the money appropriated, they just create it and they get involved in bailing out their friends, as they have been doing for the last two years, and now they’re doing it in Europe.  So, my contention is that they deserve oversight.  Actually they deserve to be reined in where they can’t do what they’re doing.

*   *   *

Now, what has this led to?  It has led to tremendous pressure on the dollar.  The dollar is the reserve currency of the world; we bail out all the banks and all the corporations.  We’ve been doing it for the last couple years to the tune of trillions of dollars….

The real truth is that the dollar is very, very weak, because the only true measurement of the value of a currency is its relationship to gold. …  In the last ten years, our dollar has been devalued 80 percent in terms of gold.  That means, literally, that just means that we have printed way too much money, and right now we’re just hanging on, the world is hanging on to the fact that the dollar is still usable. …

So we face a very serious crisis.  To me it is very unfortunate that we are not going to have this audit the Fed bill in the Senate.  It has passed in the House, possibly we can salvage it in conference and make sure this occurs.  But since the Federal Reserve is responsible for the business cycle and the inflation and for all the problems we have it is vital that we stand up and say, you know, its time for us to assume the responsibility because it is the Congress under the Constitution that has been authorized to be responsible for the value of the currency.

At the Financial Times, John Taylor pointed out that not only is the Fed’s decision to provide currency swaps a bad idea – it might actually aggravate the EU’s problems:

Making matters worse for the future of monetary policy is the Fed’s active participation in the European bail-out.  The US central bank agreed to provide loans – technically called swaps – to the ECB so that the ECB can more easily make dollar loans in the European markets.  In order to loan dollars to the ECB, the Fed will have to increase the size of its own balance sheet.  Such swap loans were made to the ECB back in December 2007, but they did not help end the crisis or prevent the panic of autumn 2008.  Instead, they merely delayed inevitable action to deal with deteriorating bank balance sheets, thereby making the panic worse.

Was it necessary for the Fed to participate in the European bail-out?  At least as evidenced by quantitative measures such as the spread between 3-month Libor and the overnight index swap (OIS), the funding problem in the interbank markets is far less severe now than in December 2007.  The international loans also raise questions about the Fed’s independence at a time when many in Congress are calling for a complete audit of the Fed.  Even though monetary policy does not warrant such an audit, extraordinary measures such as the loans to the ECB do.  By taking these extraordinary measures, the Fed is losing some of its independence as well as adding to the perception that the ECB is losing its independence.

At some point, everyone will be forced to admit that “Fed independence” is a myth.



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The Battle Over Bernanke

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January 25, 2010

Ben Bernanke’s four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve ends on January 31.  There is presently no vote scheduled to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Bernanke to that post because four Senators (Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C. and David Vitter, R-La.) have placed holds on Bernanke’s nomination.  In order for the Senate to proceed to a vote on the nomination, 60 votes will be required.  At this point, there is a serious question as to whether the pro-Bernanke faction can produce those 60 votes.  A number of commentators have described last week’s win by Scott Brown as a “chill factor” for those Senators considering whether to vote for confirmation.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post put it this way:

Opposition to the reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is growing in the Senate in the wake of a Republican Scott Brown’s victory, fueled by populist rage, in the Massachusetts Senate race.

James Pethokoukis of Reuters explained the situation in these terms:

Liberals in Congress want him gone.  Then again, they want pretty much the whole Obama economic team gone.  But Geithner and Summers aren’t up for a Senate vote.  Bernanke is.  And if Dems start bailing, don’t expect Republicans to save him.  No politician in America gains anything by voting for Bernanke.  A “no” vote is a free vote.  Wall Street still loves him, though.  Geithner, too.

At The Hill, Tony Romm reported:

Bernanke has taken heat as Wall Street’s profits have soared while unemployment has become stuck in double digits, and the wave of economic populism soaring through Washington in the wake of a stunning Democratic loss in the Massachusetts Senate races comes at a bad time for his confirmation.

If Bernanke is not confirmed, he will continue to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors because each Fed Governor is appointed to a 14-year term.  Donald Kohn, the vice chairman, would serve as the interim chairman until Bernanke’s successor is nominated and confirmed.

The forces pushing for Bernanke’s confirmation have now resorted to scare tactics, warning that dire consequences will result from a failure to re-confirm Bernanke.  Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd warned that if Bernanke is not confirmed, the economy will go into a “tailspin”.  An Associated Press report, written by Jennine Aversa and carried by The Washington Post, warned that a failure to confirm Bernanke could raise the risk of a double-dip recession.  At The Atlantic, Megan McArdle exploited widespread concern over already-depleted retirement savings:

Spiking his nomination may have grim effects on 401(k)s throughout the land.

Not to be outdone, Judge Richard Posner issued this warning from his perch at The Atlantic:

If he is not confirmed, the independence of the Fed will take a terrible hit, because the next nominee will have to make outright promises to Congress of bank bashing, and of keeping interest rates way down regardless of inflation risk, in order to be confirmed.

I guess that these people forgot to mention that if Bernanke is not confirmed:

A plague of locusts shall be visited upon us,

The earth will be struck by a Texas-sized asteroid,

An incurable venereal disease will be spread via toilet seats,

The Internet will vanish, and   . . .

Osama bin Laden will become the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

At the Think Progress website, Matthew Yglesias pondered the issue:

What happens if Ben Bernanke isn’t reconfirmed?  Well, some folks seem to think it will send markets into a tailspin.  But it’s worth emphasizing that in literal terms almost nothing will happen.

Beyond that, as Sudeep Reddy and Damian Paletta explained in The Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Open Market Committee — which consists of the presidentially appointed Fed governors in Washington and the presidents of the regional Fed banks — meets Jan. 26-27 and traditionally elects a chairman and vice chairman at its first meeting of the year.  The committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, is set to elect Mr. Bernanke as its chairman at that meeting, a move that doesn’t require approval of the White House or the Senate.

Min Zeng of The Wall Street Journal filled us in as to what else we can expect from the FOMC this week:

Next week, the two-day FOMC meeting will end Wednesday afternoon with a statement on an interest-rate decision and policymakers’ latest outlook on the economy and inflation.

The FOMC is widely expected by market participants to keep its main policy rate — the fed-funds target rate — at ultra-low levels near zero as recent data haven’t demonstrated a persistent and strong economic recovery, with a jobless rate still hovering around the highest level in more than two decades.

Fed policymakers are also likely to stick to their plan to end the $1.25 trillion mortgage-backed securities purchases program at the end of March.  The central bank should also reiterate its plan to let some emergency lending programs expire Feb. 1.

The Fed could soon hike the rate it charges on emergency loans, known as the discount rate, but that would largely be symbolic now that banks have been borrowing less and less from it as financial markets stabilized.

Meanwhile, the battle against the Bernanke confirmation continues.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has urged his readers to contact the “undecided” Senators and voice opposition to Bernanke.  Mish has also provided the names and contact information for those Senators, as well as the names of those Senators who are currently on record as either supporting or opposing Bernanke.

I’d like to see Bernanke lose, regardless of the consequences.  The rationale for this opinion was superbly articulated by Senator Jim Bunning during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  If you’re not familiar with it — give it a read.  Here is Senator Bunning’s conclusion to those remarks, delivered directly to Bernanke:

From monetary policy to regulation, consumer protection, transparency, and independence, your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.  You stated time and again during the housing bubble that there was no bubble.  After the bubble burst, you repeatedly claimed the fallout would be small.  And you clearly did not spot the systemic risks that you claim the Fed was supposed to be looking out for.  Where I come from we punish failure, not reward it.  That is certainly the way it was when I played baseball, and the way it is all across America.  Judging by the current Treasury Secretary, some may think Washington does reward failure, but that should not be the case.  I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible.  We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.

Amen.



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