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Geithner Gets Bashed in New Book

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Much has been written about “Turbo” Tim Geithner since he first became Treasury Secretary on January 26, 2009.  In his book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote adoringly about Geithner’s athletic expertise.  On the other hand, typing “Turbo Tim Geithner” into the space on the upper-right corner of this page and clicking on the little magnifying glass will lead you to no less than 61 essays wherein I saw fit to criticize the Treasury Secretary.  I first coined the “Turbo” nickname on February 9, 2009 and on February 16 of that year I began linking “Turbo” to an explanatory article, for those who did not understand the reference.

Geithner has never lacked defenders.  The March 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title was meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system were working, although he was not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, the New Yorker piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he had been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the New Yorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

Another article on Geithner, appearing in the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic, was described by Edward Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

In November of 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Neil M. Barofsky to the newly-established position, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  Barofsky was responsible for preventing fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds.  From his first days on that job, Neil Barofsky found Timothy Geithner to be his main opponent.  On March 31 of 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP.  The hearing included testimony by Neil Barofsky, who explained how the Treasury Department had been interfering with his efforts to ascertain what was being done with TARP funds which had been distributed to the banks.  Matthew Jaffe of ABC News described Barofsky’s frustration in attempting to get past the Treasury Department’s roadblocks.

On the eve of his retirement from the position of Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky wrote an op-ed piece for the March 30, 2011 edition of The New York Times entitled, “Where the Bailout Went Wrong”.  Barofsky devoted a good portion of the essay to a discussion of the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”, with a particular focus on the Treasury Department:

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP — which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers — into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals — whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in — may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

It should come as no surprise that in Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, the author pulls no punches in his criticism of Timothy Geithner.  Barofsky has been feeding us some morsels of what to expect from the book by way of some recent articles in Bloomberg News.  Here is some of what Barofsky wrote for Bloomberg on July 22:

More important, the financial markets continue to bet that the government will once again come to the big banks’ rescue.  Creditors still give the largest banks more favorable terms than their smaller counterparts — a direct subsidy to those that are already deemed too big to fail, and an incentive for others to try to join the club.  Similarly, the major banks are given better credit ratings based on the assumption that they will be bailed out.

*   *   *

The missteps by Treasury have produced a valuable byproduct: the widespread anger that may contain the only hope for meaningful reform. Americans should lose faith in their government.  They should deplore the captured politicians and regulators who distributed tax dollars to the banks without insisting that they be accountable.  The American people should be revolted by a financial system that rewards failure and protects those who drove it to the point of collapse and will undoubtedly do so again.

Only with this appropriate and justified rage can we hope for the type of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabanks.

In his review of Barofsky’s new book, Darrell Delamaide of MarketWatch discussed the smackdown Geithner received from Barofsky:

Barofsky may have an axe to grind, but he grinds it well, portraying Geithner as a dissembling bureaucrat in thrall to the banks and reminding us all that President Barack Obama’s selection of Geithner as his top economic official may have been one of his biggest mistakes, and a major reason the White House incumbent has to fight so hard for re-election.

From his willingness to bail out the banks with virtually no accountability, to his failure to make holders of credit default swaps on AIG take a haircut, to his inability to mount any effective program for mortgage relief, Geithner systematically favored Wall Street over Main Street and created much of the public’s malaise in the aftermath of the crisis.

*    *    *

Barofsky, a former prosecutor, relates that he rooted for Geithner to get the Treasury appointment and was initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it emerged that he had misreported his taxes while he worked at the International Monetary Fund.

But as more details on those unpaid taxes came out and Geithner’s explanations seemed increasingly disingenuous, Barofsky had his first doubts about the secretary-designate.

Barofsky, of course, was not alone in his skepticism, and Geithner’s credibility was damaged from the very beginning by the disclosures about his unpaid taxes.

*   *   *

Barofsky concludes his scathing condemnation of Geithner’s “bank-centric policies” by finding some silver lining in the cloud – that the very scale of the government’s failure will make people angry enough to demand reform.

Once Geithner steps down from his position at the end of the year, we may find that his legacy is defined by Neil Barofsky’s book, rather than any claimed rescue of the financial system.


 

Banksters Live Up to the Nickname

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Matt Taibbi has done it again.  His latest article in Rolling Stone focused on the case of United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm, in which the Obama Justice Department actually prosecuted some financial crimes.  The three defendants worked for GE Capital (the finance arm of General Electric) and were involved in a bid-rigging conspiracy wherein the prices paid by banks to bond issuers were reduced (to the detriment of the local governments who issued those bonds).

The broker at the center of this case was a firm known as CDR.  CDR would be hired by a state or local government which was planning a bond issue.  Banks would then submit bids which are interest rates paid to the issuer for holding the money until payments became due to the various contractors involved in the project which was the subject of the particular bond.  The brokers would tip off a favored bank about the amounts of competing bids in return for a kickback based on the savings made by avoiding an unnecessarily high bid.  In the Carollo case, the GE Capital employees were supposed to be competing with other banks who would submit bids to CDR.  CDR would then inform the bidders on how to coordinate their bids so that the bid prices could be kept low and the various banks could agree among themselves as to which entity would receive a particular bond issue.  Four of the banks which “competed” against GE Capital in the bidding were UBS, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.  Those four banks paid a total of $673 million in restitution after agreeing to cooperate in the government’s case.

The brokers would also pay-off politicians who selected their firm to handle a bond issue.  Matt Taibbi gave one example of how former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson received $100,000 in campaign contributions from CDR.  In return, CDR received $1.5 million in public money for services which were actually performed by another broker – at an additional cost.

Needless to say, the mainstream news media had no interest in covering this case.  Matt Taibbi quoted a remark made to the jury at the outset of the case by the trial judge, Harold Baer:  “It is unlikely, I think, that this will generate a lot of media publicity”.  Although the judge’s remark was intended to imply that the subject matter of the case was too technical and lacking in the “sex appeal” of the usual evening news subject, it also underscored the aversion of mainstream news outlets to expose the wrongdoing of their best sponsors:  the big banks.

Beyond that, this case exploded a myth – often used by the Justice Department as an excuse for not prosecuting financial crimes.  As Taibbi explained at the close of the piece:

There are some who think that the government is limited in how many corruption cases it can bring against Wall Street, because juries can’t understand the complexity of the financial schemes involved.  But in USA v. Carollo, that turned out not to be true.  ”This verdict is proof of that,” says Hausfeld, the antitrust attorney.  ”Juries can and do understand this material.”

One important lesson to be learned from the Carollo case is a simple fact that the mainstream news media would prefer to ignore:  This is but one tiny example of the manner in which business is conducted by the big banks.  As Matt Taibbi explained:

The men and women who run these corrupt banks and brokerages genuinely believe that their relentless lying and cheating, and even their anti-competitive cartel­style scheming, are all legitimate market processes that lead to legitimate price discovery.  In this lunatic worldview, the bid­rigging scheme was a system that created fair returns for everyone.

*   *   *

That, ultimately, is what this case was about.  Capitalism is a system for determining objective value.  What these Wall Street criminals have created is an opposite system of value by fiat. Prices are not objectively determined by collisions of price information from all over the market, but instead are collectively negotiated in secret, then dictated from above

*   *   *

Last year, the two leading recipients of public bond business, clocking in with more than $35 billion in bond issues apiece, were Chase and Bank of America – who combined had just paid more than $365 million in fines for their role in the mass bid rigging. Get busted for welfare fraud even once in America, and good luck getting so much as a food stamp ever again.  Get caught rigging interest rates in 50 states, and the government goes right on handing you billions of dollars in public contracts.

By now we are all familiar with the “revolving door” principle, wherein prosecutors eventually find themselves working for the law firms which represent the same financial institutions which those prosecutors should have dragged into court.  At the Securities and Exchange Commission, the same system is in place.  Worst of all is the fact that our politicians – who are responsible for enacting laws to protect the public from such criminal enterprises as what was exposed in the Carollo case – are in the business of lining their pockets with “campaign contributions” from those entities.  You may have seen Jon Stewart’s coverage of Jamie Dimon’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee.  How dumb do the voters have to be to reelect those fawning sycophants?

Yet it happens  .  .  .  over and over again.  From the Great Depression to the Savings and Loan scandal to the financial crisis and now this bid-rigging scheme.  The culprits never do the “perp walk”.  Worse yet, they continue on with “business as usual” partly because the voting public is too brain-dead to care and partly because the mainstream news media avoid these stories.  Our political system is incapable of confronting this level of corruption because the politicians from both parties are bought and paid for by the banking cabal.  As  Paul Farrell of MarketWatch explained:

Seriously, folks, the elections are relevant.  Totally.  Oh, both sides pretend it matters.  But it no longer matters who’s president.  Or who’s in Congress.  Money runs America.  And when it comes to the public interest, money is not just greedy, but myopic, narcissistic and deaf.  Money from Wall Street bankers, Corporate CEOs, the Super Rich and their army of 261,000 highly paid mercenary lobbyists.  They hedge, place bets on both sides.  Democracy is dead.

Why would anyone expect America to solve any of its most pressing problems when the officials responsible for addressing those issues have been compromised by the villains who caused those situations?


 

Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared 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.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’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.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

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

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

When Pat Robertson Gets It Right and Obama Gets It Wrong

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Of course, televangelist Pat Robertson says lots of strange things.  The host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s program, The 700 Club has drawn criticism for such absurd statements as his claim that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to punish America for leaglized abortion as well as his 2003 suggestion that State Department headquarters should be blown-up with a nuclear weapon.

Given that background, it must be particularly painful for President Obama when Pat Roberson is congratulated for speaking out sensibly on an issue which Obama is too timid to address.  Beyond that, when Robertson asserts a position which is supported by clear-thinking, prominent members of society, it must be particularly embarrassing for a President who has abdicated the “bully pulpit”.

Pat Robertson turned some heads in March, when he spoke out in favor of marijuana legalization.  Jesse McKinley of The New York Times discussed the reaction to a pro-legalization statement made by Robertson during a broadcast of The 700 Club:

Mr. Robertson’s remarks were hailed by pro-legalization groups, who called them a potentially important endorsement in their efforts to roll back marijuana penalties and prohibitions, which residents of Colorado and Washington will vote on this fall.

“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war.  “He’s singing my song.”

*   *   *

Mr. Franklin, who is a Christian, said Mr. Robertson’s position was actually in line with the Gospel.  “If you follow the teaching of Christ, you know that Christ is a compassionate man,” he said.  “And he would not condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”

*   *   *

And while Mr. Robertson said his earlier hints at support for legalization had led to him being “assailed by those who thought that it was terrible that I had forsaken the straight and narrow,” he added that he was not worried about criticism this time around.

“I just want to be on the right side,” he said.  “And I think on this one, I’m on the right side.”

It appears as though Pat Robertson is on the right side of another issue, with his recent comment about the Obama Justice Department’s failure to prosecute those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  While reading a great posting on Washington’s Blog about institutional corruption, I encountered a link to a piece by James Crugnale of the Mediaite blog, which focused on Robertson’s praise of Iceland for prosecuting its banksters and setting an example for countries such as the United States:

 “Guess what country is getting itself out of a financial problem by some draconian measures?” Robertson asked his co-host Terry Meeuwsen.  “Greece?” she asked.  “No, not even close.  Iceland!”  Robertson exclaimed.  “They are putting people in jail.  Prime ministers are being indicted.  They are going after banks.  The people said the banks are ripping us off.  We don’t like what they did, and they brought our country to ruin.  Suddenly, Iceland is turning around and they look like a big success story!”

“Think we could learn something?” Meeuwsen asked.

“We sure could!” Roberson continued.  “We could start putting all of those bankers in jail.  There was not one banker prosecuted and so many people were lying, and so-called “no-doc loans” and liars’ loans, and none of them have been held accountable.  I’m not for putting people in jail.  I’m sick of these – we’ve got too many penalties.  Too many penalties, too many criminal sanctions, too many people in prison.  But here is an opportunity for the people who wanted, you know, to enforce laws, to enforce that one.  There must be some laws against lying on documents.  I’m sure there are.”

“Lying to banks is a super no-no,” he added.  “It has criminal sanctions, but nobody so far has had to pay the price, but Iceland is leading the way and their GDP is growing, and all of a sudden, they were in a terrible mess, terrible mess, and look what is happening!”

With the release of the Department of Labor’s non-farm payrolls report for April, attention is again being focused on the issue of whether President Obama did enough to help the country recover from the financial crisis.  As the aforementioned Washington’s Blog essay made clear, the institutional corruption facilitated by the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute the culprits who caused the financial meltdown has brought even more harm to the American economy.  Consider this passage from the Washington’s Blog piece:

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that we have to prosecute fraud or else the economy won’t recover:

The legal system is supposed to be the codification of our norms and beliefs, things that we need to make our system work.  If the legal system is seen as exploitative, then confidence in our whole system starts eroding.  And that’s really the problem that’s going on.

***

I think we ought to go do what we did in the S&L [crisis] and actually put many of these guys in prison.  Absolutely.  These are not just white-collar crimes or little accidents.  There were victims.  That’s the point.  There were victims all over the world.

***

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

Think about it:  Joe Stiglitz and Pat Robertson are on the same page, while President Obama is somewhere else.  Yikes!


 

Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

Geithner Redeems Himself – For Now

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I’ve never been a fan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Nevertheless, I have to give the guy credit for delivering a great speech at the Economic Club of Chicago on April 4.  The event took place in a building which was formerly home to an off-track betting parlor, with an “upscale” section called The Derby Club (where Gene Siskel spent lots of time and money)  – in an era before discretionary income became an obsolete concept.

At a time when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suffering from “buyer’s remorse” after bankrolling the election of ideologues opposed to infrastructure spending, Geithner spoke out in favor of common sense.  We have come a long, painful way from the days when the Chamber of Commerce aligned itself against the interests of the “little people”.  As Keith Laing reported for The Hill, the Chamber no longer considers “stimulus” to be such a dirty word.  Laing discussed the joint efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO executive Edward Wytkind to advance the transportation bill through a Congressional roadblock:

“We’re going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they’ve got to check their party at the door,” Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate’s transportation bill.

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic.  U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess.

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said.  “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.”

The timing could not have been better for someone in a position of national leadership to deliver a warning that premature austerity policies (implemented before economic recovery gains traction) can have the same destructive consequences as we are witnessing in Europe.  To his credit, Tim Geithner stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  Here are his most important remarks, delivered in Chicago on Wednesday:

Much of the political debate and the critiques of business lobbyists misread the underlying dynamics of the economy today.  Many have claimed that the basic foundations of American business are in crisis, critically undermined by taxes and regulation.

And yet, business profits are higher than before the crisis and have recovered much more quickly than overall growth and employment.  Business investment in equipment and software is up by 33 percent over the past 2 ½ years.  Exports have grown 24 percent in real terms over the same period.  And manufacturing is coming back, with factory payrolls up by more than 400,000 since the start of 2010.

The business environment in the United States is in numerous ways better than that of many of our major competitors, as measured by international comparisons of regulatory burden, the tax burden on workers, the quality of legal protections of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the availability of capital, and the broader flexibility of the economy.

The challenges facing the American economy today are not primarily about the vibrancy or efficiency of the business community.  They are about the barriers to economic opportunity and economic security for many Americans and the political constraints that now stand in the way of better economic outcomes.

These challenges can only be addressed by government action to help speed the recovery and repair the remaining damage from the crisis and reforms and investments to lay the foundation for stronger future growth.

This means taking action to support growth in the short-term – such as helping Americans refinance their mortgages and investing in infrastructure projects – so that we don’t jeopardize the gains our economy has made over the last three years.

And it means making the investments and reforms necessary for a stronger economy in the future. Investments in things like education, to help Americans compete in the global economy.  Investments in innovation, so that our economy can offer the best jobs possible.  Investments in infrastructure, to reduce costs and increase productivity.  Policies to expand exports. And reforms to improve incentives for investing in the United States – including reform of our business tax system.

A growth strategy for the American economy requires more than promises to cut taxes and spending.

We have to be willing to do things, not just cut things.

To expand exports, we have to support programs like the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing at no cost to the government for American businesses trying to compete in foreign markets.

To make us more competitive, we have to be willing to make larger long-term investments in infrastructure, not just limp forward with temporary extensions.

Any credible growth agenda has to recognize that there are parts of the economy, like the financial system, that need reform and regulation.  Businesses need to be able to rely on a more stable source of capital, with a financial system that allocates resources to their most productive uses, not misallocating them to an unsustainable real estate boom.

Cutting government investments in education and infrastructure and basic science is not a growth strategy.  Cutting deeply into the safety net for low-income Americans is not financially necessary and cannot plausibly help strengthen economic growth. Repealing Wall Street Reform will not make the economy grow faster – it would just make us more vulnerable to another crisis.

This strategy is a recipe to make us a declining power – a less exceptional nation.  It is a dark and pessimistic vision of America.

Is this simply another example of the Obama administration’s habit of  “doing the talk” without “doing the walk”?  Time will tell.


 

From Cover-up to Bailout

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It has been one year since the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe.  From the very beginning (March 14, 2011) I suspected a cover-up:

Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.

Throughout the year following the Fukushima disaster, there has been an unending series of accounts concerning efforts by the plant operator, Tepco, as well as by governmental officials to cover-up the true extent of this tragedy.  The hazardous radiation levels to which local residents were subjected, have become the focus of the most recent news reports exposing cover-up tactics.  Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar was recently interviewed for Russia Today.  Escobar reported that Fukushima officials concealed radiation data vital to safely evacuate people from that area.  This was accomplished by the deletion of e-mails detailing the spread of radiation.  An unidentified official (or several officials) from Fukushima prefecture should face responsibility for the loss of that data.  At one point during the interview, Escobar remarked that the situation “sounds and looks and quacks like a major cover-up”.  He expects that ultimately, “a low-level official” will take the fall for this transgression, with no consequences other than a generous severance package.

The Mainichi Daily News report on this suspicious situation revealed that officials from Fukushima prefecture deleted five days of early radiation dispersion data.  In typical bureaucratic fashion, Fukushima prefecture officials claimed that “it was the responsibility of the central government to release the data”.

The obfuscation tactics employed by the plant operator, Tepco, have been apparent since the onset of this disaster.  Nevertheless, Tepco continues to “play dumb”.  In a March 28 report by Karen Sloan of the Associated Press, Tepco characterized the situation with the explanation that “conditions could be worse than officials had pictured”.  The report pointed out that there are “fatally–high radiation levels” at the #2 reactor with less water than anticipated available  for cooling the reactor.  The damage is so severe that Tepco will need to “develop special equipment and technology” to decommission the plant.  Worse yet, the other reactors which experienced meltdowns “could be in worse shape”.  You can watch the video version of Karen Sloan’s report here.  As for those “fatally–high radiation levels”, Anne Sewell of the Digital Journal pointed out that measurements revealed those levels to be “up to 10 times the lethal dose”.  Beyond that, Ms. Sewell didn’t hesitate to remind her readers of the continuing problems encountered by those who have reported on this crisis:

Japanese authorities and Tepco representatives have been caught lying about the true situation at Fukushima on numerous occasions, which adds to the overwhelming stress on the residents.

First-hand accounts of the situation in Fukushima prefecture are provided by blogger Lori Mochizuki and her cohorts at the Fukushima Diary website.  Their motto appears on the masthead of the site:  “We are against the media blackout – Please support us so that we may inform the world.”

Those interested in keeping-up with the slow trickle of truth about this tragedy can follow the Fukushima Update website.   Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, is another source who provides regular updates on Fukushima.

As we have witnessed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, those entities responsible for the world’s worst disasters always find themselves rewarded with taxpayer-funded bailouts.  The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is yet another example of this principle.  On March 29, Kentaro Hamada of Reuters reported that Tepco has asked the Japanese government for a $12.6 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.  (This amounts to 1 trillion yen.)  This amount would be in addition to the 850 billion yen which Tepco requested from the government in order to provide victim compensation.  That’s right – a free $10.7 billion insurance policy!  Is that coverage available to other companies?  I’m afraid to ask!  Nevertheless, some Japanese officials insist that the indemnity should come at a price – as the Reuters article explained:

The government is keen to obtain an initial majority stake in Tepco in return for the fund injection, with an option to boost the stake to two-thirds if the firm drags its feet on corporate reforms.  A final decision, however, would have to wait until the company finds a new chairman, a second source with knowledge of the matter said.

*   *   *

Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who is responsible for approving a public fund injection, has said he wants the government to have a significant say in managing Tepco, but the two sides have differed over how big the government stake should be.

Moral hazard and nuclear radiation hazard make such a wonderful combination!


 

Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.