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Financial Crisis Inquiry Disappointment

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April 15, 2010

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has been widely criticized for its lame efforts at investigating the causes of the financial crisis.  As I pointed out on January 11, a number of commentators had been expressing doubt concerning what the FCIC could accomplish before the commission held its first hearing.  At this point — just three months later — we are already hearing the question of whether it might be “time to pull the plug on the FCIC”.   Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.org website, Mary Bottari posed that question as the title to her critical piece, documenting the commission’s “lackluster performance”:

The FCIC is a 10-person panel assembled to report on the meltdown to President Obama later this year.  The New York Times reported last week what was becoming increasingly obvious: the commission was in shambles.  The commission waited eight months before having its first hearing.  A top investigator resigned due to delays in hiring staff, no subpoenas have been issued and partisan infighting means few new documents have been released that would aid reporters in piecing together the crime scene, even if  FCIC investigators are not up to the task.  Worse, it seems like the majority of staff  have been borrowed from the complicit Federal Reserve.

These problems were on full display in last week’s hearings.  The three days of hearings were marked by some heat, but little light.

The FCIC’s failure to issue any subpoenas became a major point of criticism by Eliot Spitzer, who had this to say in a recent posting for Slate :

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has so far been a waste.  Some momentary theater has been provided by the witnesses who have tried to excuse, explain, or occasionally admit their role in the cataclysm of the past two years.  While this has ginned up some additional public outrage, it hasn’t deepened our knowledge about what critical players knew or did.  There is a simple reason for this:  The commission has not issued a single subpoena.  Any investigator will tell you that you must get the documentary evidence before you examine the witnesses.  The evidence is waiting to be seized from the Fed, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and on down the line.  Yet not one subpoena.

Rather than accept Robert Rubin’s simple disclaimers about Citigroup, why hasn’t the FCIC combed through the actual communications among the board, the executive committee, the audit committee, and the risk-management committee?  Why hasn’t the FCIC collected AIG’s e-mails with the Fed and Goldman Sachs?  Unless the subpoenas are issued, we will lose the chance to make the record.

As Binyamin Appelbaum pointed out in The Washington Post back on January 8, if a financial reform bill is eventually passed, it will likely be signed into law before the mid-term elections in November – one month before the FCIC is required to publish its findings.  As a result, there is a serious question as to whether the commission’s efforts will contribute anything to financial reform legislation.  Given the FCIC’s unwillingness to exercise its subpoena power, we are faced with the question of why the commission should even bother wasting its time and the taxpayers’ money on an irrelevant, ineffective exercise.

Although Mary Bottari’s essay discussed the possibility that the FCIC might still “get its act together”, the cynicism expressed by Eliot Spitzer provided a much more realistic assessment of the situation:

Americans have been betrayed by Washington over financial reform.  Our leaders have failed to get the evidence, failed to push back when clearly inadequate explanations were provided, and failed to explore the structural reforms that will work.  Pretend tears will drip from bankers’ eyes after the consumer protection agency is created.  Then their wolfish teeth will slowly break into a grin, the pure delight that Washington has failed to do anything meaningful to restructure the banking sector.

Just when it was beginning to appear as though we might actually see some meaningful financial reform find its way into law, we have been reminded that Washington has its own ways – which benefit the American public only by rare coincidence.




Deceptive Oversight

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March 17, 2010

March 16 brought us a few more provocative essays about the Lehman Brothers scandal.  The most prominent subject discussed in the reactions to the Valukas Report has been the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Does that sound like a conflict of interest to anyone besides me?  The Securities and Exchange Commission (under the direction of Christopher Cox at the time) has become another subject of scrutiny for its own dubious semblance of oversight.

Eliot Spitzer and William Black (a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City) recently posted a great article at the New Deal 2.0 website.  Among the memorable points from that piece is the assertion that accounting is “the weapon of choice” for financial deception.  The Valukas Report has exposed such extensive accounting fraud at Lehman, it will be impossible for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to feign ignorance of that activity.  Another memorable aspect of the Spitzer – Black piece is its reference to those “too big to fail” financial institutions as “SDIs” or systemically dangerous institutions.  Here is some of what Spitzer and Black had to say about how the FRBNY became enmeshed in Lehman’s sleazy accounting tactics:

The FRBNY knew that Lehman was engaged in smoke and mirrors designed to overstate its liquidity and, therefore, was unwilling to lend as much money to Lehman.  The FRBNY did not, however, inform the SEC, the public, or the OTS  (which regulated an S&L that Lehman owned) of what should have been viewed by all as ongoing misrepresentations.

The Fed’s behavior made it clear that officials didn’t believe they needed to do more with this information. The FRBNY remained willing to lend to an institution with misleading accounting and neither remedied the accounting nor notified other regulators who may have had the opportunity to do so.

*   *   *

The FRBNY acted shamefully in covering up Lehman’s inflated asset values and liquidity.

The consequences of the New York Fed’s involvement in this scam were discussed in an article by Andrew Ross Sorkin from the March 16 edition of The New York Times.  (You may recall that Andrew Ross Sorkin is the author of the book, Too Big To Fail.)  He pointed out that the consequences of the Lehman scandal could be very far-reaching:

Indeed, it now appears that the federal government itself either didn’t appreciate the significance of what it saw (we’ve seen that movie before with regulators waving off tips about Bernard L. Madoff).  Or perhaps they did appreciate the significance and blessed the now-suspect accounting anyway.

*   *   *

There’s a lot riding on the government’s oversight of these accounting shenanigans.  If Lehman Brothers executives are sued civilly or prosecuted criminally, they may actually have a powerful defense:  a raft of government officials from the S.E.C. and Fed vetted virtually everything they did.

On top of that, Lehman’s outside auditor, Ernst &Young, and a law firm, Linklaters, signed off on the transactions.

The problems at Lehman raise even larger questions about the vigilance of the SEC and Fed in overseeing the other Wall Street banks as well.

The question as to whether similar accounting tricks were being performed at “other Wall Street banks as well” opens a very huge can of worms.  It’s time for the government to step back and assess the larger picture of what the systemic problem really is.  In a speech before the Senate, Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

We can only hope that a continued investigation into the Lehman scandal will result in a very bright light directed on those privileged plutocrats who consider themselves above the law.



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The Outrage Continues

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February 1, 2010

The news reports of the past few days have brought us enough fuel to keep us outraged for the next decade.  Let’s just hope that some of this lasts long enough for the November elections.  I will touch on just three of the latest stories that should get the pitchfork-wielding mobs off their asses and into the streets.  Nevertheless, we have to be realistic about these things.  With the Super Bowl coming up, it’s going to be tough to pry those butts off the couches.

The first effrontery should not come as too much of a surprise.  The Times of London has reported that Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein (a/k/a Lloyd Bankfiend) is expecting to receive a $100 million bonus this year:

Bankers in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) told The Times yesterday they understood that Lloyd Blankfein and other top Goldman bankers outside Britain were set to receive some of the bank’s biggest-ever payouts.  “This is Lloyd thumbing his nose at Obama,” said a banker at one of Goldman’s rivals.

Blankfein is also thumbing his nose at the American taxpayers.  Despite widespread media insistence that Goldman Sachs “paid back the government” there is a bit of unfinished business arising from something called Maiden Lane III — for which Goldman should owe us billions.

That matter brings us to our second item:  the recently-released Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  The report is 224 pages long, so I’ll refer you to the handy summary prepared by Michael Shedlock (“Mish”).  Mish’s headline drove home the point that there are currently 77 ongoing investigations of fraud, money laundering and insider trading as a result of the TARP bank bailout program.  Here are a few more of his points, used as introductions to numerous quoted passages from the SIGTARP report:

The Report Blasts Geithner and the NY Fed.  I seriously doubt Geithner survives this but the sad thing is Geithner will not end up in prison where he belongs.

*   *   *

Please consider a prime conflict of interest example in regards to PPIP, the Public-Private-Investment-Plan, specifically designed to allow banks to dump their worst assets onto the public (taxpayers) shielding banks from the risk.

*   *   *

Note the refutation of the preposterous claims that taxpayers will be made whole.

*   *   *

TARP Tutorial:  How Taxpayers Lose Money When Banks Fail

My favorite comment from Mish appears near the conclusion of his summary:

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

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

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

Mish’s last remark (and his link to an earlier posting) brings us to the third disgrace to be covered in this piece:  The AIG bailout cover-up.  On January 29, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg News (and Business Week) concerning last Wednesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

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

David Reilly began the Bloomberg/Business Week piece this way:

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

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

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

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

This impenetrability comes in handy since the bank is the preferred vehicle for many of the Fed’s bailout programs.  It’s as though the New York Fed was a black-ops outfit for the nation’s central bank.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks that operate under the supervision of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, chaired by Ben Bernanke.  Member-bank presidents are appointed by nine-member boards, who themselves are appointed largely by other bankers.

As Representative Marcy Kaptur told Geithner at the hearing:  “A lot of people think that the president of the New York Fed works for the U.S. government.  But in fact you work for the private banks that elected you.”

The “cover-up” aspect to this caper involved intervention by the New York Fed that included editing AIG’s communications to investors and pressuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep secret the details of the bailouts of AIG’s counterparties (Maiden Lane III).  The Fed’s opposition to disclosure of such documentation to Congress was the subject of a New York Times opinion piece in December.  The recent SIGTARP report emphasized the disingenuous nature of the Fed’s explanation for keeping this information hidden:

SIGTARP’s audit also noted that the now familiar argument from Government officials about the dire consequences of basic transparency, as advocated by the Federal Reserve in connection with Maiden Lane III, once again simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Federal Reserve officials initially refused to disclose the identities of the counterparties or the details of the payments, warning that disclosure of the names would undermine AIG’s stability, the privacy and business interests of the counterparties, and the stability of the markets.  After public and Congressional pressure, AIG disclosed the identities of its counterparties, including its eight largest:  Societe Generale, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, UBS, Calyon Corporate and Investment Banking (a subsidiary of Credit Agricole S.A.), Barclays PLC, and Bank of America.

Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s warnings, the sky did not fall; there is no indication that AIG’s disclosure undermined the stability of AIG or the market or damaged legitimate interests of the counterparties.

The SIGTARP investigation has revealed some activity that most people would never have imagined possible given the enormous amounts of money involved in these bailouts and the degree of oversight (that should have been) in place.  The bigger question becomes:  Will any criminal charges be brought against those officials who breached the public trust by facilitating this monumental theft of taxpayer dollars?



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The Dishonesty Behind The Bernanke Vote

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January 28. 2010

While reading a recent Huffington Post piece by Jason Linkins, wherein he criticized President Obama’s proposed spending freeze, I was struck by Linkins’ emphasis on the notion that this proposal signaled a return to “institutionalized infantilism”:

One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people — deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults.

Linkins referred to a recent essay about the freeze, written by Ryan Avent of The Economist, which underscored the greater, underlying problem motivating politicians such as Obama to believe they can “slip one by” the gullible public:

This is yet another move toward the infantilisation of the electorate; whatever the gamesmanship behind the proposal, Mr. Obama has apparently concluded that the electorate can’t be expected to handle anything like a real description of the tough decisions which must be made.

Matt Taibbi made a similar observation about our President, while pondering whether the announced reliance on the wisdom of Paul Volcker meant an end to Tim Geithner’s days as Treasury Secretary:

Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict.  His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.

We are now witnessing another example of this “infantilisation of the electorate” as it takes place with the dishonest maneuvering to get Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term past a filibuster.  Here’s how this scam was exposed by Josh Rosner at The Big Picture website:

Sources have suggested that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) intends to vote “yes” on Chairman Bernanke’s cloture vote and “no” on the floor.  The cloture vote requires 60 “yes” votes to approve and really is THE vote to confirm.  The floor vote only requires a simple majority to pass and therefore is a less important vote requiring fewer “yes” votes.

Get it?  These Senators believe they can go back to their constituents with a straight face and tell the chumps that they voted against Bernanke’s confirmation when, in fact, they facilitated his confirmation by voting for cloture to give Bernanke a boost over the potentially insurmountable, 60-vote hurdle.  This sleight-of-hand comes along at the precise moment when we are learning about Bernanke’s true role in the AIG bailout.  As Ryan Grim reported for The Huffington Post:

A Republican senator said Tuesday that documents showing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernake covered up the fact that his staff recommended he not bailout AIG are being kept from the public.  And a House Republican charged that a whistleblower had alerted Congress to specific documents provide “troubling details” of Bernanke’s role in the AIG bailout.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Bernanke critic, said on CNBC that he has seen documents showing that Bernanke overruled such a recommendation.  If that’s the case, it raises questions about whether bailing out AIG was actually necessary, and what Bernanke’s motives were.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism disclosed that Congressman Darrell Issa, who has been investigating the AIG bailout in his role as ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “believes there is evidence that says Bernanke overruled his staff and authorized the rescue”.  Ms. Smith explained how Issa is pushing ahead to investigate:

Rep. Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee has asked to Committee Chairman Towns to subpoena more documents from the Fed regarding its decision-making process in the AIG bailout.

*   *   *

In addition, Issa has noted that the Fed had failed to comply in full with previous subpoenas, and has not released any documents relative to AIG prior to September 2008 or after May 2009, even though they fall within the scope of previous subpoenas.

Congressman Issa’s letter can be viewed in its entirety here.

You may recall that the fight against the Fed for release of the AIG bailout documents became the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose confirmation of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Fed chair.  Senator Jim Bunning did a fantastic job articulating many of those points during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  Beyond that, economist Randall Wray gave us “3 Reasons to Fear Bernanke’s Reappointment” at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 website.  Dr. Wray concluded his essay with this statement:

To be clear, I would prefer to replace Bernanke with someone who actually understands monetary policy and who advocates regulation and supervision of financial institutions.

The really pressing issue at this point is whether the withheld AIG bailout documents, which are the subject of Congressman Issa’s latest inquiry, might actually reveal some malefaction on the part of Bernanke himself.  A revelation of that magnitude would certainly kill the confirmation effort.  If Bernanke is confirmed prior to the release of documents indicating malfeasance on his part, I’ll be wishing I had a dollar for every time a Senator would say:  “I just voted for cloture –but I voted against confirmation.”



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Turning Up The Heat

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December 21, 2009

By now you should be aware of the fact that for his 56th birthday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Were the folks at Time so arrogant as to believe that this honor would insure the confirmation of Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve?  More than a few commentators expressed the view that Time’s “Person of the Year” award might actually jeopardize Bernanke’s chance at confirmation.  For example, take a look at what Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) had to say:

That Bernanke is on the cover of Time Magazine means one thing “Bernanke’s Time Is Limited” He is on his way out.  And that is good news.

*   *   *

The quicker this blows up, the quicker we can recover.  And knowing what we know about Time Magazine, Central Banking will blow up sooner rather than later.  Moreover, Bernanke will not be part of the solution, and that is a good thing.

I thank Time Magazine for the information and their kiss of death warning. However, I must also remind readers that Stalin made the cover twice, so immediate results just might be expecting too much.

When Bernanke was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee during the confirmation hearing on December 3, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky gave him a magnificent pummeling, most notable for the assertion:  “You are the definition of a moral hazard!”  My only criticism of Bunning’s diatribe was that he should have said:  “You are the personification of a moral hazard” or “You are the epitome of a moral hazard”  —  otherwise, it was perfect.  If that weren’t enough, Senator Bunning demanded that Bernanke answer seventy written questions submitted by Bunning himself.  Those of you who have ever been a party to a lawsuit might recall having to provide signed answers to written interrogatories.  Most jurisdictions place a limit on the number of such interrogatories to the extent of approximately 35.  Senator Bunning propounded twice that many to Bernanke and the nominee answered all of them.  Don Luskin of Smart Money analyzed one of these answers in a way that underscored the necessity of removing Bernanke from the Fed chairmanship.

On December 18, Victoria McGrane reported for Politico that the Bernanke nomination “could be in more trouble than previously thought”.  Although the Senate Banking Committee voted to confirm the nomination, ultimately the entire Seante must vote on the matter.  The fact that six Republicans and one Democrat from the Banking Committee voted against the nomination was portrayed as an ominous signal, casting doubt on the likelihood of confirmation.  Ms. McGrane discussed the reaction to the confirmation hearings expressed by Brian Gardner, a bank analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods:

Two aspects of the two-hour debate that preceded the committee vote struck Gardner as worrisome for Bernanke:  the unenthusiastic — even apologetic — tone from some of the senators who voted yes and a dispute over the Fed’s refusal to release documents about the bailout of insurance giant American International Group to senators on the committee.

The article explained that the AIG bailout documents were available for review by “some banking committee staffers” although the documents have been withheld by the Fed from individual senators and the public, based on the Fed’s claim that the documents are “protected”.

This is apparently an assertion by the Fed that there is some sort of privilege protecting the AIG bailout documents from disclosure.  Nevertheless, if the fight over these records ever gets before a court, it is likely that production of the documents would be compelled, since any claim of privilege was waived once the Fed allowed the “banking committee staffers” to review the items.

The Politico report noted the significance of this matter:

That spat could have legs, Gardner said, and if it resonates with a public already fuming at the Fed, it could sway the votes of yes-leaning senators.

The battle over the AIG bailout documents was also the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

No doubt, some of the e-mail messages contain privileged conversations among lawyers.  Others probably include private information that is irrelevant to A.I.G.’s role in the crisis. But the vast majority of these documents could be made public without legal concern.  So why haven’t the Treasury and the Federal Reserve already made sure the public could see this information?  Do they want to protect A.I.G., or do they worry about shining too much sunlight on their own performance leading up to and during the crisis?

What will these e-mails reveal about the actions of Ben Bernanke and “Turbo” Tim Geithner during the AIG bailout phase of the financial crisis?  Were laws violated or do they simply exhibit some poor decision-making and cronyism?

Most of us are now getting ready for the coldest month of the year – but for Ben Bernanke, the heat is being turned up  —  full blast.



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Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

*   *   *

Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

DISCLAIMER: NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES OR OTHER INVESTMENTS ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.

More Bad Press For Goldman Sachs

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July 16, 2009

They can’t seem to get away from it, no matter how hard they try.  Goldman Sachs is finding itself confronted with bad publicity on a daily basis.

It all started with Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone.  As I pointed out on June 25, I liked the article as well as Matt’s other work.  His blog can be found here.  His article on Goldman Sachs employed a good deal of hyperbolic rhetoric which I enjoyed  —  especially the metaphor of Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  Nevertheless, many commentators took issue with the article, especially focusing on the subtitle’s claim that “Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression”.  I took that remark as hyperbole, since it would obviously require over 120 megabytes of space to document “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression” — so I wasn’t disappointed about being unable to read all that.  Some of Taibbi’s critics include Megan McArdle from The Atlantic and Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock.

On the other hand, Taibbi did get a show of support from Eliot “Socks” Spitzer during a July 14 interview on Bloomberg TV.  Mr. Spitzer made some important points about Goldman’s conduct that we are now hearing from a number of other sources.  Spitzer began by emphasizing that because of the bank bailouts “Goldman’s capital was driven to virtually nothing — because we as taxpayers gave them access to capital — they made a bloody fortune” (another vampire squid reference).  Spitzer voiced the concern that Goldman is simply going back to proprietary trading and taking advantage of spreads, following its old business model.  He argued that, a result of the bailouts:

. . . their job should be, from a macroeconomic perspective, to raise capital and put it into sectors that create jobs.  If they’re not getting that done, then why are we supporting them the way we have been?

This sentiment seems to be coming from all directions, in light of the fact that on July 14, Goldman reported second-quarter profits of 3.44 billion dollars — while on the following day, another TARP recipient, CIT Group disclosed that it would likely file for bankruptcy on July 17.  On July 16, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled:  “A Tale of Two Bailouts” comparing Goldman’s fate with that of CIT.  The article pointed out that since Goldman’s risk is subsidized by the taxpayers, the company might be more appropriately re-branded as “Goldie Mac”:

We like profits as much as the next capitalist.  But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business.  Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail.  But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future.  Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

If there is a lesson in this week’s tale of two banks, it’s that it won’t be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to “monitor” systemic risk.  Last fall’s bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share.  Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer’s dime.

Robert Reich voiced similar concern over the fact that “Goldman’s high-risk business model hasn’t changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street.”  He went on to explain:

Value-at-risk — a statistical measure of how much the firm’s trading operations could lose in a day — rose to an average of  $245 million in the second quarter from $240 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, VaR averaged $184 million.

Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman’s high-risk operations.

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So the fact that Goldman has reverted to its old ways in the market suggests it has every reason to believe it can revert to its old ways in politics, should its market strategies backfire once again — leaving the rest of us once again to pick up the pieces.

At The Huffington Post, Mike Lux reminded Goldman that despite its repayment of $10 billion in TARP funds, we haven’t overlooked the fact that Goldman has not repaid the $13 billion it received for being a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper or the “unrevealed billions” it received from the Federal Reserve.  This raises a serious question as to whether Goldman should be allowed to pay record bonuses to its employees, as planned.  Didn’t we go through this once beforePaul Abrams is mindful of this, having issued a wake-up call to “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Congress.

As long as we keep reading the news, each passing day provides us with yet another reminder to feel outrage over the hubris of the people at Goldman Sachs.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

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As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

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Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?