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Offering Solutions

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October 22, 2009

Many of us are familiar with the old maxim asserting that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  During the past year we’ve been exposed to plenty of hand-wringing by info-tainers from various mainstream media outlets decrying the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Very few of these people ever seem to offer any significant insight on such interesting topics as:  what really caused the meltdown, how to prevent it from happening again, whether any laws were broken that caused this catastrophe, whether any prosecutions might be warranted or how to solve our nation’s continuing economic ills, which seem to be immune to all the attempted cures.  The painful thorn in the side of Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi, recently raised an important question, reminding people to again scrutinize the vapid media coverage of this pressing crisis:

It’s literally amazing to me that our press corps hasn’t yet managed to draw a distinction between good news on Wall Street for companies like Goldman, and good news in reality.

*   *   *

In fact the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional “market indicators” is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.

That quote inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to write a superb essay about how “access journalism” has created a controlled press.  What follows is just a small nugget of the great analysis in that piece:

So what do we have?  A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to.  Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story.  And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them.

*   *   *

The message, quite overly, is: if you are pissed, you are in a minority.  The country has moved on.  Things are getting better, get with the program. Now I saw the polar opposite today.  There is a group of varying sizes, depending on the topic, that e-mails among itself, mainly professional investors, analysts, economists (I’m usually on the periphery but sometimes chime in).  I never saw such an angry, active, and large thread about the Goldman BS fest today.  Now if people who have not suffered much, and are presumably benefitting from the market recovery are furious, it isn’t hard to imagine that what looks like complacency in the heartlands may simply be contained rage looking for an outlet.

Fortunately, one television news reporter has broken the silence concerning the impact on America’s middle class, caused by Wall Street’s massive Ponzi scam and our government’s response – which he calls “corporate communism”.  I’m talking about MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan.  On Wednesday’s edition of his program, Morning Meeting, he decried the fact that the taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the “parlor game” played by Goldman Sachs and other firms involved in proprietary trading on our coin.  Mr. Ratigan then proceeded to offer a number of solutions available to ordinary people, who would like to fight back against those pampered institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Some of these measures involve:  moving accounts from one of those enshrined banks to a local bank or credit union; paying with cash whenever possible and contacting your lawmakers to insist upon financial reform.

My favorite lawmaker in the battle for financial reform is Congressman Alan Grayson, whose district happens to include Disney World.  His fantastic interrogation of Federal Reserve general counsel, Scott Alvarez, about whether the Fed tries to manipulate the stock markets, was a great event.  Grayson has now co-sponsored a “Financial Autopsy” amendment to the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency bill.  This amendment is intended to accomplish the following:

– Requires the CFPA conduct a “Financial Autopsy” of each state’s bankruptcies and foreclosures (a scientific sampling), and identify financial products that systematically led to a large number of bankruptcies and foreclosures.
– Requires the CFPA report to Congress annually on the top financial products (the companies and individuals that originated the products) that caused consumer bankruptcies and foreclosures.
– Requires the CFPA take corrective action to eliminate or restrict those deceptive products to prevent future bankruptcies and corrections

– The bottom line is to highlight destructive products based on if they are making people “broke”.

From his website, The Market Ticker, Karl Denninger offered his own contributions to this amendment:

This sort of “feel good” legislative amendment will of course be resisted, but it simply isn’t enough.  The basic principle of equity (better said as “fairness under the law”) puts forward the premise that one cannot cheat and be allowed to keep the fruits of one’s outrageous behavior.

So while I like the direction of this amendment, I would put forward the premise that the entirety of the gains “earned” from such toxic products, when found, are clawed back and distributed to the consumers so harmed, and that to the extent this does not fully compensate for that harm such a finding should give rise to a private, civil cause of action for the consumers who are bankrupted or foreclosed.

It’s nice to know that bloggers are no longer the only voices insisting on financial reform.  Ed Wallace of Business Week recently warned against the consequences of unchecked speculation on oil futures:

Is today’s stock market divorced from economic reality?  Probably.  It is a certainty that oil is.  We know that because those in the market are still putting out the same tired and incorrect logic that they used successfully last year to push oil to $147 a barrel while demand was plummeting.

Because oil is not carrying a market price that fairly reflects economic conditions and demand inventories, overpriced energy is siphoning off funds that could be used for corporate expansion, increased consumerism and, in time, the recreation of jobs in America.

Did you think that the “Enron Loophole” was closed by the enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill?  It wasn’t.  The Farm Bill simply gave more authority to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate futures contracts that had been exempted by the loophole.  In case you’re wondering about the person placed in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by President Obama  —  his name is Gary Gensler and he used to work for  …  You guessed it:  Goldman Sachs.



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Here We Go Again

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September 22, 2008

Exactly one year ago, we saw the release of Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.   She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crisis we are going through now.

You may recall former Senator Phil Gramm’s recent appearance in the news for calling the United States a “nation of whiners” and positing that the only recession going on in the United States these days is a “mental recession”.  Gramm is a longtime buddy and mentor to a certain individual named John McCain.  Gramm is the architect of the so called “Enron Loophole” allowing speculators to drive the price of oil to absurd heights.  (Gramm’s wife, Wendy, was a former member of Enron’s Board of Directors.)  Gramm was most notorious for his successes in the deregulation of Wall Street (with the help of McCain) that facilitated the “mortgage crisis” as well as the current economic meltdown.  He sponsored the 1999 bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act.  The repeal of that law allowed “commercial” and “investment” banks to consolidate.  Gramm’s face appears in many campaign videos with McCain, taken earlier this year.  As a result of the outrage generated by Gramm’s remarks, McCain formally dismissed Gramm as his campaign’s economic advisor.  Despite the fact that Gramm no longer has a formal role in the McCain campaign, many believe that he would be McCain’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury in the event that McCain should win the Presidential election.  On September 21, MSNBC’s David Shuster grilled McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, about the possibility that McCain is planning to appoint Phil Gramm as his Secretary of the Treasury, should McCain win.  Tucker Bounds squirmed all over the place, employing his usual tactic of deflecting the subject of the current economic crisis back to the Obama campaign.  Most noticeably, Mr. Bounds never made any attempt to deny that McCain plans to put Gramm in charge of the Treasury.

Our current Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, is on the covers of this week’s newsmagazines, pushing for uncritical acceptance of his (and hence, the Bush Administration’s) solution to the current economic crisis.  This basically amounts to a three-page “bailout” plan for banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers of anywhere from $700 billion to One Trillion Dollars.  The Democrats are providing some “pushback” to this plan.  Barack Obama was quoted by Carrie Brown of Politico.com as saying that the Bush Administration has “offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan”.  Obama went on to insist that the “American people must be assured that the deal reflects the basic principles of transparency, fairness and reform”.

As reported by Stephen Labaton in the September 21 New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that:

… the administration’s proposal did “not include the necessary safeguards. Democrats believe a responsible solution should include independent oversight, protections for homeowners and constraints on excessive executive compensation.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut was quoted in that article as saying:  “We need to offer some assurance to the American taxpayer that Congress is watching.”  Dodd went on to explain:

One of the things that got us into this mess was the lack of accountability and the lack of oversight that was occurring, and I don’t think we want to repeat those mistakes with a program of this magnitude.

The Times article then focused on the point emphasized by Republican Senator Arlen Specter:

I realize there is considerable pressure for the Congress to adjourn by the end of next week  . . .   But I think we must take the necessary time to conduct hearings, analyze the administration’s proposed legislation, and demonstrate to the American people that any response is thoughtful, thoroughly considered and appropriate.

Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Paulson made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to advocate pushing this bailout through quickly, without the safeguards and deliberation suggested by the Democrats and Senator Specter.  As Zachary Goldfarb reported in the September 21 Washington Post:

Paulson urged Congress not to load up the legislation with controversial provisions. “We need this to be clean and quick,” he said.

“Clean and quick”  . . .   Is that anything like “Shock and Awe”?  As usual, there is concern about whether Congressional Democrats will have the spine to resist the “full court press” by the Bush Administration to get this plan approved by Congress and on the President’s desk for signature.  As Robert Kuttner reported in The Huffington Post:

One senior Congressional Democrat told me, “They have a gun to our heads.” Paulson behaved as if he held all the cards, but in fact the Democrats have a lot of cards, too. The question is whether they have the nerve to challenge major flaws in Paulson’s plan as a condition of enacting it.

Here we go again.  Will the Democrats “grow a pair” in time to prevent “the shock doctrine” from being implemented once again?  If not, will we eventually see the day when Treasury Secretary Phil Gramm basks in glory, while presiding over his own manifestation of economic utopia?

This Should Have Happened Last Year

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September 18, 2008

I’m sorry.  What is happening in the financial markets right now, should have happened at this time, last year.  I put my money where my mouth was, in the belief that a laissez-faire Republican government would have let market conditions run their course.  That strategy caused me to lose money for the past year.  When precious metals should have been going up, they were going down.  Something “stinky” was happening.  At this time, last year, Jon Markman of msn.com was discussing the “duct tape and pixie dust” being used to hold the economy together.  In hindsight, I suspect that there may have been an effort to keep the ca-ca from hitting the fan until after Election Day (November 4).  Time will tell whether there was some skullduggery involved in such an effort.  Do you think that the “oil speculators” realized, at some point, that they could manipulate the prices of the small handful of stocks (30) that comprise the Dow Jones Industrials, by manipulating the price of oil?  Are these same “oil speculators” on “good behavior” right now, out of fear that the “Enron Loophole” could be doomed?

I apologize because I have been making (back) lots of money this week, while many people have seen their retirement plans crash and burn.  I stuck to my belief that the emperor was not really wearing any clothes.  It cost me money to adhere to that opinion, although it is now “payback time”.  To no surprise, the Carly Fiorinas of this nosedive will walk away with their golden parachutes intact.  However, will AIG still be free to make crucial decisions about which lawsuits to litigate?  Do they have a right to make those (and other) decisions as they used to, now that you and I own eighty percent of that company?

Meanwhile, John “Keating Five” McCain claims that he will champion the interests of those suckers who vote for him, by bringing “The Good Old Boys of Wall Street” to Alaskan frontier justice.  Why would anyone believe this?  Based on his record, McCain could not expect the voters to consider him as the advocate of the downtrodden.  For some reason, the Obama campaign has expressed an unwillingness to use the “Keating Five” episode of McCain’s life, as fodder for negative ads.  (They may find themselves thinking more clearly in late October.)

Let’s take a look back at the “glory days” of The Keating Five, from what is available on Wikipedia.org:

The Keating Five scandal was prompted by the activities of one particular savings and loan: Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California. Lincoln’s chairman was Charles Keating, who ultimately served five years in prison for his corrupt mismanagement of Lincoln.  In the four years since Keating’s American Continental Corporation (ACC) had purchased Lincoln in 1984, Lincoln’s assets had increased from $1.1 billion to $5.5 billion.  Such savings and loan associations had been deregulated in the early 1980s, allowing them to make highly risky investments with their depositors’ money, a change of which Keating took advantage.  Lincoln’s investments took the form of buying land, taking equity positions in real estate development projects, and buying high-yield junk bonds.

*   *   *

The core allegation of the Keating Five affair is that Keating had made contributions of about $1.3 million to various U.S. Senators, and he called on those Senators to help him resist regulators. The regulators backed off, to later disastrous consequences.

*   *   *

(f)ive senators, Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Donald W. Riegle (D-MI), were accused of improperly aiding Charles H. Keating, Jr., chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB).

*   *   *

After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee determined in 1991 that Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, and Donald Riegle had substantially and improperly interfered with the FHLBB in its investigation of Lincoln Savings. Senators John Glenn and John McCain were cleared of having acted improperly but were criticized for having exercised “poor judgment”.  All five of the senators involved served out their terms. Only Glenn and McCain ran for re-election, and they were both re-elected.

*   *   *

McCain and Keating had become personal friends following their initial contacts in 1981, and McCain was the closest socially to Keating of the five senators. Like DeConcini, McCain considered Keating a constituent as he lived in Arizona. Between 1982 and 1987, McCain had received $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates. In addition, McCain’s wife Cindy McCain and her father Jim Hensley had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators. McCain, his family, and their baby-sitter had made nine trips at Keating’s expense, sometimes aboard Keating’s jet. Three of the trips were made during vacations to Keating’s opulent Bahamas retreat at Cat Cay. McCain did not pay Keating (in the amount of $13,433) for some of the trips until years after they were taken, when he learned that Keating was in trouble over Lincoln. On his Keating Five experience, McCain has said: “The appearance of it was wrong. It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators, because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

So where is the Obama ad using “Poor Judgment” as its theme?  Wouldn’t it be nice to see that phrase repeated under a picture of Sarah Palin?

Keep This On The Front Burner

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June 26, 2008

For the past few weeks, the Senate Commerce Committee has been hearing testimony about the impact of the so-called “Enron loophole” in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, 7 U.S.C. §2(h)(3) and (g), which existed throughout Bill Clinton’s tenure in the Oval Office.  This “Enron loophole” is what has made it possible for speculators to drive the price of gasoline beyond $4 per gallon. Consider the Senate Commerce Committee testimony of Michael Greenberger, former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Director of Trading and Markets.  Mr. Greenberger testified that if the “Enron loophole” were closed, we would see “overnight” a 25-percent drop in the price of crude oil and as much as a 50-percent drop in the price of gasoline.  The Senate Commerce Committee hearing featured testimony by hedge fund managers and other market experts, concerning how the skyrocketing price of gasoline, diesel and heating oil are “breaking the back” of the American economy.  Some of these experts (knowing that their testimony would be falling on the “deaf ears” of bought-off lawmakers and friends of the oil industry) were nearly at the point of tears in describing how the rest of American industry is getting killed for the benefit of the oil industry.  Let’s revisit Mr. Greenberger’s point once again:  if the “Enron loophole” were closed, we would see “overnight” a 25-percent drop in the price of crude oil and as much as a 50-percent drop in the price of gasoline.  “Overnight” may be an exaggeration, although I’m sure he means a lot quicker than waiting for unbuilt and unplanned oil wells to start having an effect on the price of a barrel of crude.  (This turnaround time is considered by most experts to be a 10-year period.)

Our old friend, the Former John McCain, whom we once knew, voted with the Democrats to close the “Enron loophole” in 2002 and 2003.  His comments in the February, 2002 issue of The New Yorker told us much about how we got to where we are now, six years after he gave that interview:

Enron made a sound investment in Washington.  It did them a lot of good.  Where they really do well is around the edges, the insertion of an amendment into an appropriate bill.

McCain is no longer so strident about the sleazy origins of this “Enron loophole”.  This is probably because the loophole owes its existence to Phil Graham and his wife, former CFTC Chair, Wendy of Enron.  Phil is now McCain’s “economic advisor”, so don’t hold your breath waiting for McCain to repeat what he said to The New Yorker in 2002.  He has yet to speak out against this loophole as his new self: McCain 2008.  Nevertheless, a very loud, “hard” right-wing voice, that of Bill O’Reilly, has spoken up on this issue.  A visit to the website: http://closeloophole.org/ recites this quote from O’Reilly on his Factor show:

I want those SOBs [speculators] taken down…let’s work together to save the American consumer at the pump.

My favorite issues are those where “liberals” and “conservatives” can work together to solve the crucial problems faced by society.  It appears as though we have one right here.  If we address it, we may solve it “overnight” according to one expert.  If we do solve it, we will be helping more than the individual consumer.  We will probably save the entire roster of Russell 2000 “small-cap” companies from swirling down the toilet.  Most experts believe these companies are the hardest-hit by the uncontrolled cost of petroleum products.

For his part, Barack Obama has spoken on the record numerous times about his opposition to the “Enron loophole”.  This should come as no surprise since his fellow Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, is a key advocate for closing this loophole.  Obama supporter, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, has a bit of “street cred” on this subject, having served as the former chairman of the investment firm, Goldman Sachs.  Corzine is on the record for blaming this unregulated speculation for the outrageous pricing of petroleum products.

The American public has a notoriously short attention span.  It seems unbelievable that something this important, that erases “discretionary spending” and limits what food can be placed on one’s table, could be overshadowed by the latest celebrity scandal.  Americans must stay focused on this fundamental problem.  A visit to http://closeloophole.org/ will give you the opportunity to send e-mails to your Senators, expressing your opinion on whether our government should perform one of its most important missions:  to save us all from sleazebags.



Women To Watch

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June 19, 2008

Most of the eulogies about Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign have focused on the theme that she was a “groundbreaker”, who proved that a woman could make it to the Senate and become a serious contender for the highest office in the land.  Meanwhile, there are a number of women presently in the Senate, who got there without having been married to a former President (whose surname could be relied upon for recognition purposes).  In fact, two of these women are presently working on closing the so-called “Enron loophole” in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, 7 U.S.C. §2(h)(3) and (g), which existed throughout Bill Clinton’s tenure in the Oval Office.  This “Enron loophole” is what has made it possible for speculators to drive the price of gasoline beyond $4 per gallon.  Surely, the increased demand for oil by China and India has explained part of the soaring cost of gasoline here in the United States.  However all authorities on the subject agree that unchecked speculation in the American markets has greatly facilitated the skyrocketing increase in gas prices.  That speculation owes its existence to the so-called “Enron loophole”, which is once again coming under attack in the Senate.

There is abundant interest focused on whatever Hillary Clinton’s mission will be when she returns to the Senate after her month of R&R and what role she might play if Barack Obama is elected our next President.  I suggest that we turn our sights to the Senate right now, to witness what other women are doing there and find out for ourselves who the real “trailblazers” are.  We should also consider these pioneers when looking toward the day when a woman finally makes it to The White House.

Our first potential future candidate is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, whose role on the Senate Commerce Committee has found her fighting against the “Enron loophole”.  Looking on Wikipedia.org we learn:

She received her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in political science from Yale University in 1982, where she was a member of the Yale College Democrats and the Feminist Caucus.  …  Klobuchar served as an associate editor of the Law Review and received her J.D. in 1985 at the University of Chicago Law School.

Bam!  She has made the prerequisite pilgrimage to Iraq (March, 2007) and voiced her frustration with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki upon her return.  She is a member of the following Senate Committees:  the Agriculture Committee, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Commerce Committee.  She is also a member of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Our second potential future candidate is Senator Maria Cantwell from the State of Washington.  She is also currently working to close the “Enron loophole”. Senator Cantwell received a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration from Miami University of Ohio.  She has served in the Senate since January of 2001.  Although she supported the Joint Resolution for the Use of the Armed Forces in Iraq, she explained the qualifications for her support in an extensive press release the day before the vote on that Resolution.   She is a member of the following Senate Committees:  Finance, Indian Affairs, Finance and Entrepreneurship, Energy and Natural Resources, as well as the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

At this juncture, it remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton will join these two sister Senators in their efforts to close the “Enron loophole”.  It never bothered her husband during his eight years in the White House and she never spoke up about it during that time.

For our third potential future candidate, we can’t forget about Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.  Although she is being promoted as a possible running mate for Barack Obama, her five years as Governor of Kansas are considered by many as a bit short for the position of Vice President.  (She faced that criticism when she had served only one year as Governor and was considered as a possible running mate for John Kerry in 2004.)  She earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Kansas after earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.  (Trinity Washington University is not associated with the late Jerry Falwell, who died and went to hell.  It is a Catholic – affiliated University.)  As Governor of Kansas, she has an established record as an advocate of environmental protection.

As the pundits watch Hillary Clinton’s political future, some of us will be looking toward other American women, one of whom may turn out to become the first female President of the United States.


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