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Too Important To Ignore

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On March 21, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a fantastic document:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

While reading Harvey Rosenblum’s essay, I was constantly reminded of the creepy “JOBS Act” which is on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Simon Johnson (former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund) recently explained why the JOBS Act poses the same threat as the deregulatory measures which helped cause the financial crisis:

With the so-called JOBS bill, on which the Senate is due to vote Tuesday, Congress is about to make the same kind of mistake again – this time abandoning much of the 1930s-era securities legislation that both served investors well and helped make the US one of the best places in the world to raise capital.  We find ourselves again on a bipartisan route to disaster.

*   *   *

The idea behind the JOBS bill is that our existing securities laws – requiring a great deal of disclosure – are significantly holding back the economy.

The bill, HR3606, received bipartisan support in the House (only 23  Democrats voted against).  The bill’s title is JumpStart Our Business Startup Act, a clever slogan – but also a complete misrepresentation.

The bill’s proponents point out that Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock are way down.  That is true – but that is also exactly what you should expect when the economy teeters on the brink of an economic depression and then struggles to recover because households’ still have a great deal of debt.

*   *   *

Professor John Coates hit the nail on the head:

“While the various proposals being considered have been characterized as promoting jobs and economic growth by reducing regulatory burdens and costs, it is better to understand them as changing, in similar ways, the balance that existing securities laws and regulations have struck between the transaction costs of raising capital, on the one hand, and the combined costs of fraud risk and asymmetric and unverifiable information, on the other hand.” (See p.3 of this December 2011 testimony.)

In other words, you will be ripped off more.  Knowing this, any smart investor will want to be better compensated for investing in a particular firm – this raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  The effect on job creation is likely to be negative, not positive.

Simon Johnson’s last paragraph reminded me of a passage from Harvey Rosenblum’s Dallas Fed essay, wherein he was discussing why the economic recovery from the financial crisis has been so sluggish:

Similarly, the contributions to recovery from securities markets and asset prices and wealth have been weaker than expected.  A prime reason is that burned investors demand higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects. They remain uncertain about whether the financial system has been fixed and whether an economic recovery is sustainable.

To repeat what Simon Johnson said, combined with the above-quoted paragraph:  the demand by “burned investors” for “higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects” raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  How quickly we forget the lessons of the financial crisis!

The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report began with an introductory letter from its president, Richard W. Fisher.  Fisher noted that while “memory fades with the passage of time” it is important to recall the position in which the “too-big-to fail” banks placed our economy, thus leading Congress to pass into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank).  Although Harvey Rosenblum’s essay was primarily focused on the Dodd-Frank Act’s efforts to address the systemic risk posed by the existence of those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks, other measures from Dodd-Frank were mentioned.  More important is the fact that the TBTFs have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why this has happened:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

The ability of the financial sector “to resist the pressures of federal regulation” also happens to be the primary reason for the perverse effort toward de-regulation, known as the JOBS Act.  At the Seeking Alpha website, Felix Salmon reflected on the venality which is driving this bill through the legislative process:

There’s no good reason at all for this:  it’s basically a way for unpopular incumbent lawmakers who voted for Dodd-Frank to try to weasel their way back into the big banks’ good graces and thereby open a campaign-finance spigot they desperately need.

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here.  A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections.  That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear (about) what has changed.  But one thing is coming through loud and clear:  anybody looking to Congress to be helpful in the fight to have effective regulation of financial institutions, is going to be very disappointed.  Much more likely is that Congress will be actively unhelpful, and will do whatever the financial industry wants in terms of hobbling regulators and deregulating as much activity as it possibly can.  Dodd-Frank, it seems, was a brief aberration.  Now, we’re back to business as usual, and a captured Congress.

The next financial crisis can’t be too far down the road   .   .   .


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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Some Quick Takes On The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report

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The official Financial Crisis Inquiry Report by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has become the subject of many turgid commentaries since its January 27 release date.  The Report itself is 633 pages long.  Nevertheless, if you hope to avoid all that reading by relying on reviews of the document, you could easily end up reading 633 pages of commentary about it.  By that point, you might be left with enough questions or curiosity to give up and actually read the whole, damned thing.  (Here it is.)  If you are content with reading the 14 pages of the Commission’s Conclusions, you can find those here.  What follows is my favorite passage from that section:

We conclude widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets. The sentries were not at their posts, in no small part due to the widely accepted faith in the self-correcting nature of the markets and the ability of financial institutions to effectively police themselves.  More than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe.  This approach had opened up gaps in oversight of critical areas with trillions of dollars at risk, such as the shadow banking system and over-the-counter derivatives markets.  In addition, the government permitted financial firms to pick their preferred regulators in what became a race to the weakest supervisor.

In order to help save you some time and trouble, I will provide you with a brief roadmap to some of the commentary that is readily available:

Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times introduced her own 1,257-word discourse in this way:

For those who might find the report’s 633 pages a bit daunting for a weekend read, we offer a Cliffs Notes version.

Let’s begin with the Federal Reserve, the most powerful of financial regulators.  The report’s most important public service comes in its recitation of how top Fed officials, both in Washington and in New York, fiddled while the financial system smoldered and then burned.  It is disturbing indeed that this institution, defiantly inert and uninterested in reining in the mortgage mania, received even greater regulatory powers under the Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to reform our system.

(I find it disturbing that Ms. Morgenson is still fixated on “mortgage mania” as a cause of the crisis after having been upbraided by Barry Ritholtztwice – for “pushing the Fannie-Freddie CRA meme”.)

At her Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith focused more intently on what the FCIC Report didn’t say, as opposed to what it actually said:

The FCIC has also been unduly close-lipped about their criminal referrals, refusing to say how many they made or giving a high-level description of the type of activities they encouraged prosecutors to investigate.  By contrast, the Valukas report on the Lehman bankruptcy discussed in some detail whether it thought civil or criminal charges could be brought against Lehman CEO Richard Fuld and chief financial officers chiefs Chris O’Meara, Erin Callan and Ian I Lowitt, and accounting firm Ernst & Young.  If a report prepared in a private sector action can discuss liability and name names, why is the public not entitled to at least some general disclosure on possible criminal actions coming out of a taxpayer funded effort?  Or is it that the referrals were merely to burnish the image of the report, and are expected to die a speedy death?

At his Calculated Risk blog, Bill McBride corroborated one of the Report’s Conclusions, by recounting his own experience.  After quoting some of the language supporting the point that the crisis could have been avoided if the warning signs had not been ignored, due to the “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, McBride recalled a specific example:

This is absolutely correct.  In 2005 I was calling regulators and I was told they were very concerned – and several people told me confidentially that the political appointees were blocking all efforts to tighten standards – and one person told me “Greenspan is throwing his body in front of all efforts to tighten standards”.

The dissenting views that discount this willful lack of regulation are absurd and an embarrassment for the authors.

William Black wrote an essay criticizing the dissenters themselves – based on their experience in developing the climate of financial deregulation that facilitated the crisis:

The Commission is correct.  Absent the crisis was avoidable.  The scandal of the Republican commissioners’ apologia for their failed anti-regulatory policies was also avoidable.  The Republican Congressional leadership should have ensured that it did not appoint individuals who would be in the impossible position of judging themselves.  Even if the leadership failed to do so and proposed such appointments, the appointees to the Commission should have recognized the inherent conflict of interest and displayed the integrity to decline appointment.  There were many Republicans available with expertise in, for example, investigating elite white-collar criminals regardless of party affiliation.  That was the most relevant expertise needed on the Commission.

At this point, the important question is whether the efforts of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any changes that could help us avoid another disaster.  I’m not feeling too hopeful.



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