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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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Democrats Share The Blame

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January 21 brought us Episode 199 of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  At the end of the program, Bill went through his popular “New Rules” segment.  On this occasion, he wound it up with a rant about how the Republicans were exclusively at fault for the financial crisis.  Aside from the fact that this claim was historically inaccurate, it was not at all fair to David Stockman (a guest on that night’s show) who had to sit through Maher’s diatribe without an opportunity to point out the errors.  (On the other hand, I was fine with watching Stephen Moore twist in the wind as Maher went through that tirade.)

That incident underscored the obvious need for Bill Maher to invite William Black as a guest on the show in order to clarify this issue.  Prior to that episode, Black had written an essay, which appeared on The Big Picture website.  Although the theme of that piece was to debunk the “mantra of the Republican Party” that “regulation is a job killer”, Black emphasized that Democrats had a role in “deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization (the three ‘des’)” which created the “criminogenic environment” precipitating the financial crisis:

The Great Recession was triggered by the collapse of the real estate bubble epidemic of mortgage fraud by lenders that hyper-inflated that bubble.  That epidemic could not have happened without the appointment of anti-regulators to key leadership positions.  The epidemic of mortgage fraud was centered on loans that the lending industry (behind closed doors) referred to as “liar’s” loans — so any regulatory leader who was not an anti-regulatory ideologue would (as we did in the early 1990s during the first wave of liar’s loans in California) have ordered banks not to make these pervasively fraudulent loans.

*   *   *

From roughly 1999 to the present, three administrations have displayed hostility to vigorous regulation and have appointed regulatory leaders largely on the basis of their opposition to vigorous regulation.  When these administrations occasionally blundered and appointed, or inherited, regulatory leaders that believed in regulating, the administration attacked the regulators.  In the financial regulatory sphere, recent examples include Arthur Levitt and William Donaldson (SEC), Brooksley Born (CFTC), and Sheila Bair (FDIC).

Similarly, the bankers used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) into trashing the accounting rules so that the banks no longer had to recognize their losses.  The twin purposes of that bit of successful thuggery were to evade the mandate of the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) law and to allow banks to pretend that they were solvent and profitable so that they could continue to pay enormous bonuses to their senior officials based on the fictional “income” and “net worth” produced by the scam accounting.  (Not recognizing one’s losses increases dollar-for-dollar reported, but fictional, net worth and gross income.)

When members of Congress (mostly Democrats) sought to intimidate us into not taking enforcement actions against the fraudulent S&Ls we blew the whistle.

President Obama’s January 18 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal prompted a retort from Bill Black.  The President announced that he had signed an executive order requiring “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive”.  Obama’s focus on “regulations that stifle job creation” seemed to exemplify what Black had just discussed one day earlier.  Accordingly, Bill Black wrote an essay for The Huffington Post on January 19, which began this way:

I get President Obama’s “regulatory review” plan, I really do.  His game plan is a straight steal from President Clinton’s strategy after the Republican’s 1994 congressional triumph. Clinton’s strategy was to steal the Republican Party’s play book.  I know that Clinton’s strategy was considered brilliant politics (particularly by the Clintonites), but the Republican financial playbook produces recurrent, intensifying fraud epidemics and financial crises.  Rubin and Summers were Clinton’s offensive coordinators.  They planned and implemented the Republican game plan on finance.  Rubin and Summers were good choices for this role because they were, and remain, reflexively anti-regulatory.  They led the deregulation and attack on supervision that began to create the criminogenic environment that produced the financial crisis.

Bill Clinton’s role in facilitating the financial crisis would have surely become an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee.  Instead, the Democrats got behind a “Trojan horse” candidate, disguised in the trappings of  “Change” who, once elected, re-installed the very people who implemented the crucial deregulatory changes which caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black provided this explanation:

The zeal, crude threats, and arrogance they displayed in leading the attacks on SEC Chair Levitt and CFTC Chair Born’s efforts to adopt regulations that would have reduced the risks of fraud and financial crises were exceptional.  Just one problem — they were wrong and Levitt and Born were right.  Rubin and Summers weren’t slightly wrong; they put us on the path to the Great Recession.  Obama knows that Clinton’s brilliant political strategy, stealing the Republican play book, was a disaster for the nation, but he has picked politics over substance.

*   *   *

Obama’s proposal and the accompanying OMB releases do not mention the word or the concept of fraud.  Despite an “epidemic” of fraud led by the bank CEOs (which caused the greatest crisis of his life), Obama cannot bring itself to use the “f” word. The administration wants the banks’ senior officers to fund its reelection campaign.  I’ve never raised political contributions, but I’m certain that pointing out that a large number of senior bank officers were frauds would make fundraising from them awkward.

Black targeted Obama’s lame gesture toward acknowledgement of some need for regulation, encapsulated in the statement that “(w)here necessary, we won’t shy away from addressing obvious gaps …”:

Huh?  The vital task is to find the non-obvious gaps.  Why, two years into his presidency, has the administration failed to address “obvious gaps”?  The administration does not need Republican approval to fill obvious gaps in regulation.  Even when Obama finds “obvious gaps” in regulatory protection he does not promise to act.  He will act only “where necessary.”  We know that Summers, Rubin, and Geithner rarely believe that financial regulation is “necessary.”  Even if Obama decides it is “necessary” to act he only promises to “address” “obvious gaps” — not “end” or “fill” them.

At the conclusion of his Huffington Post essay, Black provided his own list of  “obvious gaps” described as the “Dirty Dozen”  —  “. . .  obvious gaps in financial regulation which have persisted and grown during this, Obama’s first two years in office.”

Bill Black is just one of many commentators to annotate the complicity of Democrats in causing the financial crisis.  Beyond that, Black has illustrated how President Obama has preserved – and possibly enhanced — the “criminogenic” milieu which could bring about another financial crisis.

The first step toward implementing “bipartisan solutions” to our nation’s ills should involve acknowledging the extent to which the fault for those problems is bipartisan.


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Tool-Trashing Time

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I never liked Joe “The Tool” Lieberman.  If you run that name (nickname included) on the search bar at the upper-right corner of this page, you will find a total of 13 previous entries wherein I discussed him in uncomplimentary terms.  What bugs me most about Lieberman is that so many people consider him as the personification of centrism.  I believe that Lieberman gives centrism a bad name because he is simply an opportunist.    The guy doesn’t really appear to stand for anything in particular – he is simply a tool for whatever lobbyist or other interest group is willing to play his quid pro quo game.  After Lieberman lost the Democratic Primary for his Senate seat in 2006, he chose to run as an Independent and in the process, he betrayed those individuals who contributed to his election campaign, believing that Lieberman would champion the causes he advanced before he had to sell his soul to Bush and Cheney in order to save his political hide.  It was only because Ned Lamont (the man who defeated him in the Democratic Primary) came down with a bad case of  The Smug – spending more time vacationing than campaigning for the November election – that Lieberman managed to win a fourth term as junior Senator from Connecticut.

Needless to say, Emily Bazelon’s recent article for Slate, “Good Riddance, Joe Lieberman – Why I loathe my Connecticut Senator” was a real treat.  It was nice to see that a good number of people were as thrilled as I to hear that The Tool was calling it quits.  While discussing the celebratory outpouring of enthusiasm by anti-Lieberman-ites Ms. Bazelon mentioned this:

Another friend, Judy Chevalier, burned up her iPad tonight when I asked her to enumerate why she hates Joe Lieberman.  She ticked off a half-dozen reasons and then said, “The thing is, I did not come up with most of these myself.  They come from many rounds of playing the peculiar Connecticut liberal cocktail party game ‘I hated Joe Lieberman before you hated Joe Lieberman.’ ”  Longtime Lieberman haters, she says, look all the way back to 1993, when Lieberman led a hedge-fund-friendly charge in the Senate against the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which at the time wanted to close the accounting loophole that let corporations duck the recording of stock options on their balance sheets.

As an aside, the first half of that passage was characterized as “the money quote” by the Red State blog and other far-right commentators, anxious to avenge Sarah Palin since her “crosshairs” SarahPac campaign ad was criticized after the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  The magic word, “hate” gave the hard right the opportunity to argue that “liberals hate politicians, too”.  Actually, the real “money quote” can be found by clicking on the highlighted language discussing the fight over the Financial Accounting Standards Board rules:

Corporate America aligned with the accounting industry to fight the FASB proposal, with the result that in 1994, the Senate, led by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), passed a non-binding resolution condemning the proposal by a vote of 88-to-9.

“It wasn’t an accounting debate,” says Jim Leisenring, the vice chairman of FASB from 1988 to 2000.  “We switched from talking about, ‘Have we accurately measured the option?’ or, ‘Have we expensed the option on the proper date?’ to things like, ‘Western civilization will not exist without stock options,’ or, ‘There won’t be jobs anymore for people without stock options.’ … People tried to take the argument away from the accounting to be just plainly a political argument.”

Does that rhetoric sound familiar?

After his 2006 victory, Lieberman continued to betray the people of Connecticut by abandoning his duties in the Senate to follow John McCain all along the 2008 campaign trail (including McCain’s trip to Afganistan) in the hope of securing a place for himself in the would-be McCain administration.  The Tool knew he would never win a fifth term in the Senate.  His only hope was to latch on to McCain’s pantsleg and hang on for dear life.  In the wake of that fiasco, The Tool’s approval rating continued to slide and by October of 2010, it was down to 31 percent.  A fifth term in the Senate was definitely out of the question.  His campaign war chest could be put to better uses – such as buying “friendships” before beginning a new career as a lobbyist.

Despite Lieberman’s crucial effort in the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy, it is interesting to observe how many gay people are willing to overlook that good deed while celebrating Lieberman’s retirement.  A review of the comments at the joemygod blog exposes these reactions:

Good riddance.  DADT capped an otherwise awful career as a spoiler.

*   *   *

Thanks for DADT, but not terribly sorry you’re leaving the Senate.  And I really didn’t want the anxiety of watching a 3-way race in CT, which might have sent a wingnut from the Right to the Senate.

*   *   *

good riddance to the man who killed the public option to satisfy his insurance industry friends in Connecticut. a terrible person

So much for that legacy thing   .   .   .

Daniela Altimari of The Hartford Courant’s CapitolWatch blog, revealed a wide spectrum of reactions to Lieberman’s announcement.  As one might expect, the remarks from politicians were painfully cordial, polite and not worth our time here.  I’ll provide you with two of the more interesting quotes:

“Joe Lieberman took millions from insurance companies, Wall Street banks, and other corporate interests – and then did their dirty work in Congress, including killing the public option.  As a result, Lieberman’s poll numbers were disastrous in Connecticut.  His decision to quit in the face of assured defeat is a huge victory for the progressive movement and all Americans who want Democrats to put regular families ahead of corporate interests.”

—  Keauna Gregory, Progressive Change Campaign Committee

*   *   *

“Of all the horrible things Joe Lieberman has done in his hideous career, depriving everyone of the joy at seeing him lose is near the top”

—  Glenn Greenwald of Salon (via Twitter)

The Connecticut Mirror provided these reactions:

“It’s the first thing he’s done in 10 years to make Connecticut Democrats completely happy.”

—  Bill Curry, former state comptroller, as quoted in The New York Times

*   *   *

“He couldn’t leave the Senate fast enough as far as I’m concerned. He’s not only driving Democrats nuts down here, but he’s become a right-wing extremist on everything except the environment and gay rights.”

—  Ralph Nader, as quoted in The Hartford Courant

*   *   *

“He will leave behind a long list of achievements, from helping to consolidate the nation’s intelligence gathering services in a way that appears to make it more difficult to gather intelligence, to threatening to filibuster the health care reform act until it had been watered down to suit his own high principles.  You will find it all in my upcoming book, ‘Everything Bad Is Joe Lieberman’s Fault.’ ”

—  Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times

As we approach The Tool’s final days in the Senate, I will be looking forward to similar tributes.


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