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The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

Newsweek’s Daniel Gross is back at it again.  His cover story for Newsweek’s April 9 issue is another attempt to make a preemptive strike at writing history.  You may remember his cover story for the magazine’s July 25 issue, entitled:  “The Recession Is Over”.  During the eight months since the publication of that article, the sober-minded National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER —  which is charged with making the determination that a recession has ended – has yet to make such a proclamation.

The most recent cover story by Daniel Gross, “The Comeback Country” has drawn plenty of criticism.  (The magazine cover used the headline “America’s Back” to introduce the piece.)  At The Huffington Post, Dan Dorfman discussed the article with Olivier Garret, the CEO of Casey Research, an economic and investment consulting firm.  Garret described the Newsweek cover story as “fantasy journalism” and he shared a number of observations with Dan Dorfman:

“You know when a magazine like Newsweek touts a bullish economic recovery on its cover, just the opposite is likely to be the case,” he says.  “It sees superficial signs of improvement, but it’s ignoring the big picture.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Garret sees additional signs of economic anguish.  Among them:  More foreclosures and delinquencies of real estate properties will plague construction spending; banks haven’t yet cleaned up their balance sheets; private debt is no longer going down as it did in 2009; both short and long term rates should be headed higher, and many companies, he says, tell him they’re reluctant to invest and hire.

He also sees some major corporate bankruptcies, worries about the country’s ability to repay its debt, looks for rising cost of capital, which should further slow the economy, and expects a spreading sovereign debt crisis.

*  *  *

Many economists are projecting GDP growth in the range of 3% to 4% in the first quarter and similar growth for the entire year.  Much too optimistic, Garret tells me.  His outlook (which would clobber the stock market if he’s right):  up 0.4%-0.5% in the first quarter after revisions and between 0% and 1% for all of 2010.

“Fantasy economies only work in the mind, not in real life,” he says.

Given his bleak economic outlook, Garret expects a major market adjustment, say about a 10% to 20% decline in stock prices over the next six months.  He figures it could be triggered by one event, such as as an extension of the sovereign debt crisis.

David Cottle of The Wall Street Journal had this reaction to the Newsweek article:

Therefore, when you see a cover such as Newsweek’s recent effort, yelling “America’s Back” in no uncertain terms, it’s quite tempting to stock up on bonds, cash, tinned goods and ammunition.

Now, in fairness to the author, Daniel Goss, he makes the good point that the U.S. economy is growing at a clip that has consistently surprised gloomy forecasters.  It is.  The turnaround we’ve seen since Lehman Brothers imploded has been remarkable, if not entirely satisfying, he says, and he is quite right.  At the very least, U.S. growth is all-too-predictably leaving the European version in the dust.  Goss is also pretty upfront about the corners of the U.S. economy that have so far failed to keep up:  job creation and the housing market being the most obvious.

However, the problem with all these ‘back to normal’ pieces, and Goss’s is only one of many creeping out as the sky resolutely fails to fall in, is that the ‘normal’ they want to go back to was, in reality, anything but.

The financial sector remains unreformed, the global economy remains dangerously unbalanced.  The perilous highways that brought us to 2007 have not been sealed off in favor of straighter, if slower, roads.  Of course it would be great for us all if America were ‘back’ and so we must hope Newsweek’s cover doesn’t join the ranks of those which cruel history renders unintentionally hilarious .

But back where?  That’s the real question.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has turned to Americans themselves to find out just how “back” America really is.  This report from April 20 didn’t seem to resonate so well with the rosy picture painted by Daniel Gross:

Americans are united in the belief that the economy is in bad shape (92% give it a negative rating), and for many the repercussions are hitting close to home.  Fully 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.  Jobs have become difficult to find in local communities for 85% of Americans.  A majority now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work (54%); just 39% said this in February 2009. Only a quarter reports receiving a pay raise or a better job in the past year (24%), while almost an equal number say they have been laid off or lost a job (21%).

As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for middle-class Americans, the first few months of 2009 are already looking like “the good old days”.   The “comeback” isn’t looking too good.



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Getting It Reich

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April 8, 2010

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has been hitting more than a few home runs lately.   At a time when too many commentators remain in lock-step with their favorite political party, Reich pulls no punches when pointing out the flaws in the Obama administration’s agenda.  I particularly enjoyed his reaction to the performance of Larry Summers on ABC television’s This Week on April 4:

I’m in the “green room” at ABC News, waiting to join a roundtable panel discussion on ABC’s weekly Sunday news program, This Week.

*   *   *

Larry Summers was interviewed just before Greenspan. He said the economy is expanding, that the Administration is doing everything it can to bring jobs back, and that the regulatory reform bills moving on the Hill will prevent another financial crisis.

What?

*   *   *

If any three people are most responsible for the failure of financial regulation, they are Greenspan, Larry Summers, and my former colleague, Bob Rubin.

*   *   *

I dislike singling out individuals for blame or praise in a political system as complex as that of the United States but I worry the nation is not on the right economic road, and that these individuals — one of whom advises the President directly and the others who continue to exert substantial influence among policy makers — still don’t get it.

The direction financial reform is taking is not encouraging.  Both the bill that emerged from the House and the one emerging from the Senate are filled with loopholes that continue to allow reckless trading of derivatives.  Neither bill adequately prevents banks from becoming insolvent because of their reckless trades.  Neither limits the size of banks or busts up the big ones.  Neither resurrects the Glass-Steagall Act. Neither adequately regulates hedge funds.

More fundamentally, neither bill begins to rectify the basic distortion in the national economy whose rewards and incentives are grotesquely tipped toward Wall Street and financial entrepreneurialism, and away from Main Street and real entrepreneurialism.

Is it because our elected officials just don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent another repeat of the financial crisis – or is the unwillingness to take preventative action the result of pressure from lobbyists?  I think they’re just playing dumb while they line their pockets with all of that legalized graft. Meanwhile, Professor Reich continued to function as the only adult in the room, with this follow-up piece:

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again.  In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks.  In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so.

*   *   *

But the only way to make sure no bank it too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big.  If Congress and the White House fail to do this, you have every reason to believe it’s because Wall Street has paid them not to.

Reich’s recent criticism of the Federal Reserve was another sorely-needed antidote to Ben Bernanke’s recent rise to media-designated sainthood.  In an essay quoting Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reich transcended the polarized political climate to focus on the fact that the mysterious Fed enjoys inappropriate authority:

The Fed has finally came clean.  It now admits it bailed out Bear Stearns – taking on tens of billions of dollars of the bank’s bad loans – in order to smooth Bear Stearns’ takeover by JP Morgan Chase.  The secret Fed bailout came months before Congress authorized the government to spend up to $700 billion of taxpayer dollars bailing out the banks, even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The Fed also took on billions of dollars worth of AIG securities, also before the official government-sanctioned bailout.

The losses from those deals still total tens of billions, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook.  But the public never knew.  There was no congressional oversight.  It was all done behind closed doors. And the New York Fed – then run by Tim Geithner – was very much in the center of the action.

*   *   *

The Fed has a big problem.  It acts in secret.  That makes it an odd duck in a democracy.  As long as it’s merely setting interest rates, its secrecy and political independence can be justified. But once it departs from that role and begins putting billions of dollars of taxpayer money at risk — choosing winners and losers in the capitalist system — its legitimacy is questionable.

You probably thought that Ron Paul was the only one who spoke that way about the Federal Reserve.  Fortunately, when people such as Robert Reich speak out concerning the huge economic and financial dysfunction afflicting America, there is a greater likelihood that those with the authority to implement the necessary reforms will do the right thing.  We can only hope.



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Elizabeth Warren To The Rescue

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March 4, 2010

We reached the point where serious financial reform began to look like a lost cause.  Nothing has been done to address the problems that caused the financial crisis.  Economists have been warning that we could be facing another financial crisis, requiring another round of bank bailouts.  The watered-down financial reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, HR 4173, is about to become completely defanged by the Senate.

The most hotly-contested aspect of the proposed financial reform bill — the establishment of an independent, stand-alone, Consumer Financial Protection Agency — is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Back on January 18, Elizabeth Warren (Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA) explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

The latest effort to sabotage the proposed CFPA involves placing it under the control of the Federal Reserve.  As Craig Torres and Yalman Onaran explained for Bloomberg News:

Putting it inside the Fed, instead of creating a standalone bureau, was a compromise proposed by Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

*   *   *

Banking lobbyists say the Fed’s knowledge of the banking system makes it well-suited to coordinate rules on credit cards and other consumer financial products.

*   *   *

The financial-services industry has lobbied lawmakers to defeat the plan for a consumer agency.  JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon called the agency “just a whole new bureaucracy” on a December conference call with analysts.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, recently discussed the importance of having an independent CFPA:

Currently, there are several proposals floating around to change the basic concept of a consumer protection agency.  For the most part, these proposals are meaningless, watered down foolishness, bordering on idiotic.  Let the Fed do it? They were already charged with doing this, and under Greenspan, committed Nonfeasance — they failed to do their duty.

The Fed is the wrong agency for this.

In an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, Congressman Barney Frank expressed a noteworthy reaction to the idea:

“It’s like making me the chief judge of the Miss America contest,” Frank said.

On Tuesday, March 2, Elizabeth Warren spent the day on the phone with reform advocates, members of Congress and administration officials, as she explained in an interview with Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post.  The key point she stressed in that interview was the message:  “Pass a strong bill or nothing at all.”  It sounds as though she is afraid that the financial reform bill could suffer the same fate as the healthcare reform bill.  That notion was reinforced by the following comments:

My first choice is a strong consumer agency  . . .  My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.

*   *   *

“The lobbyists would like nothing better than for the story to be the [proposed] agency has died and everyone has given up,” Warren said.  “The lobbyists’ closest friends in the Senate would like nothing better than passing an agency that has a good name but no real impact so they have something good to say to the voters — and something even better to say to the lobbyists.”

Congratulations, Professor Warren!  At last, someone with some cajones is taking charge of this fight!

On Wednesday, March 3, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration was getting involved in the financial reform negotiations, with Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the charge for an independent Consumer Financial Protection agency.  I suspect that President Obama must have seen the “Ex-Presidents” sketch from the FunnyOrDie.com website, featuring the actors from Saturday Night Live portraying former Presidents (and ghosts of ex-Presidents) in a joint effort toward motivating Obama to make sure the CFPA becomes a reality.  When Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase reunited, joining Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond in promoting this cause, Obama could not have turned them down.



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Three New Books For March

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February 24, 2010

The month of March brings us three new books about the financial crisis.  The authors are not out to make apologies for anyone.  To the contrary, they point directly at the villains and expose the systemic flaws that were exploited by those who still may yet destroy the world economy.  All three of these books are available at the Amazon widget on the sidebar at the left side of this page.

Regular fans of the Naked Capitalism blog have been following the progress of Yves Smith on her new book, ECONned:  How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism.  It will be released on March 2.  Here is some information about the book from the product description at the Amazon website:

ECONned is the first book to examine the unquestioned role of economists as policy-makers, and how they helped create an unmitigated economic disaster.

Here, Yves Smith looks at how economists in key policy positions put doctrine before hard evidence, ignoring the deteriorating conditions and rising dangers that eventually led them, and us, off the cliff and into financial meltdown.  Intelligently written for the layman, Smith takes us on a terrifying investigation of the financial realm over the last twenty-five years of misrepresentations, naive interpretations of economic conditions, rationalizations of bad outcomes, and rejection of clear signs of growing instability.

In eConned (sic), author Yves Smith reveals:

–why the measures taken by the Obama Administration are mere palliatives and are unlikely to pave the way for a solid recovery

–how economists have come to play a profoundly anti-democratic role in policy

–how financial models and concepts that were discredited more than thirty years ago are still widely used by banks, regulators, and investors

–how management and employees of major financial firms looted them, enriching themselves and leaving the mess to taxpayers

–how financial regulation enabled predatory behavior by Wall Street towards investors

–how economics has no theory of financial systems, yet economists fearlessly prescribe how to manage them

Michael Lewis is the author of the wildly-popular book, Liar’s Poker, based on his experience as a bond trader for Solomon Brothers in the mid-80s.  His new book, The BigShort: Inside the Doomsday Machine, will be released on March 15.  Here is some of what Amazon’s product description says about it:

A brilliant account — character-rich and darkly humorous — of how the U.S. economy was driven over the cliff.

*   *   *

Michael Lewis’s splendid cast of characters includes villains, a few heroes, and a lot of people who look very, very foolish:  high government officials, including the watchdogs; heads of major investment banks (some overlap here with previous category); perhaps even the face in your mirror.  In this trenchant, raucous, irresistible narrative, Lewis writes of the goats and of the few who saw what the emperor was wearing, and gives them, most memorably, what they deserve.  He proves yet again that he is the finest and funniest chronicler of our times.

Our third author, Simon Johnson, recently co-authored an article for CenterPiece with Peter Boone entitled, “The Doomsday Cycle” which explains how “we have let a ‘doomsday cycle’ infiltrate our economic system”.  The essay contains a number of proposals for correcting this problem.  Here is one of them:

We believe that the best route to creating a safer system is to have very large and robust capital requirements, which are legislated and difficult to circumvent or revise.  If we triple core capital at major banks to15-25% of assets, and err on the side of requiring too much capital for derivatives and other complicated financial structures, we will create a much safer system with less scope for “gaming” the rules.

Simon Johnson is a professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  From 2007-2008, he was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.  With James Kwak, he is the co-publisher of The Baseline Scenario website.  Johnson and Kwak have written a new book entitled, 13 Bankers:  The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown.  Although this book won’t be released until March 30, the Amazon website has already quoted from reviews by the following people:  Bill Bradley, Robert Reich, Arianna Huffington, Bill Moyers, Alan Grayson, Brad Miller, Elizabeth Warren and others.  Professor Warren must be a Democrat, based on the affiliation of nearly everyone else who reviewed the book.

Here is some of what can be found in Amazon’s product description:

.  .  .  a wide-ranging, meticulous, and bracing account of recent U.S. financial history within the context of previous showdowns between American democracy and Big Finance: from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, from Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  They convincingly show why our future is imperiled by the ideology of finance (finance is good, unregulated finance is better, unfettered finance run amok is best) and by Wall Street’s political control of government policy pertaining to it.

As these authors make the talk show circuit to promote their books during the coming weeks, the American public will hearing repeated pleas to demand that our elected officials take action to stop the mercenary financial behemoths from destroying the world.  Perhaps the message will finally hit home.

If you are interested in any of these three books, they’re available on the right side of this page.



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An Early Favorite For 2010

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February 11, 2010

It appears as though the runner-up for TheCenterLane.com’s 2009 Jackass of the Year Award is well on his way to winning the title for 2010.  After reading an op-ed piece by Ross Douthat of The New York Times, I decided that as of December 31, 2009, it was too early to determine whether our new President was worthy of such a title.

Since Wednesday morning, we have been bombarded with reactions to a story from Bloomberg News, concerning an interview Obama had with Bloomberg BusinessWeek in the Oval Office.  In case you haven’t seen it, here is the controversial passage from the beginning of that article:

President Barack Obama said he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus awarded to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon or the $9 million issued to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. CEO Lloyd Blankfein, noting that some athletes take home more pay.

The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is “an extraordinary amount of money” for Main Street, “there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.”

“I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” Obama said in the interview yesterday in the Oval Office with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands Friday.  “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.  That is part of the free-market system.”

Many commentators have expounded upon what this tells us about our President.  I’d like to quote the reactions from a couple of my favorite bloggers.  Here’s what Yves Smith had to say at Naked Capitalism:

There are only two, not mutually exclusive, conclusions one can reach from reading this tripe:  that Obama is a lackey of the financiers, and putting the best spin he can on their looting, or he is a fool.

The salient fact is that, their protests to the contrary, the wealth of those at the apex of the money machine was not the result of the operation of  “free markets” or any neutral system.  The banking industry for the better part of two decades has fought hard to create a playing field skewed in their favor, with it permissible to sell complex products with hidden bad features to customers often incapable of understanding them.  By contrast, one of the factors that needs to be in place for markets to produce desirable outcomes is for buyers and sellers to have the same information about the product and the objectives of the seller.

Similarly, the concentrated capital flows, often too-low interest rates, and asymmetrical Federal Reserve actions (cutting rates fast when markets look rocky, being very slow to raise rates and telegraphing that intent well in advance) that are the most visible manifestations of two decades of bank-favoring policies, are the equivalent of massive subsidies.

And that’s before we get to the elephant in the room, the massive subsidies to the banksters that took place during the crisis and continue today.

We have just been through the greatest looting of the public purse in history, and Obama tries to pass it off as meritocracy in action.

Obama is beyond redemption.

At his Credit Writedowns website, Edward Harrison made this observation:

The problem is not that we have free markets in America, but rather that we have bailouts and crony capitalism.  So Americans actually do begrudge people this kind of monetary reward.  It has been obvious to me that the bailouts are a large part of why Obama’s poll numbers have been sinking.  It’s not just the economy here — so unless the President can demonstrate he understands this, he is unlikely to win back a very large number of voters who see this issue as central to their loss of confidence in Obama.

Is it just me or does this sound like Obama just doesn’t get it?

Victoria McGrane of Politico gave us a little background on Obama’s longstanding relationship with The Dimon Dog:

Dimon is seen as one of the Wall Street executives who enjoys the closest relationship with the president, along with Robert Wolf, head of the American division of Swiss bank UBS.  A longtime Democratic donor, Dimon first met Obama in Chicago, where Dimon lived and worked from the late 1990s until 2007.

And both Dimon and Blankfein have met with the president several times.  In their most recent meeting, Obama invited Dimon to Washington for lunch right before the State of the Union, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

Some commentators have expressed the view that Obama is making a transparent attempt to curry favor with the banking lobby in time to get those contributions flowing to Democratic candidates in the mid-term elections.  Nevertheless, for Obama, this latest example of trying to please both sides of a debate will prove to be yet another “lose/lose” situation.  As Victoria McGrane pointed out:

But relations between most Democrats and Wall Street donors aren’t as warm this cycle as the financial industry chafes against the harsh rhetoric and policy prescriptions lawmakers have aimed at them.

As for those members of the electorate who usually vote Democratic, you can rest assured that a large percentage will see this as yet another act of betrayal.  They saw it happen with the healthcare reform debacle and they’re watching it happen again in the Senate, as the badly-compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) is being completely defanged.  A bad showing by the Democrats on November 2, 2010 will surely be blamed on Obama.

As of February 11, we already have a “favorite” in contention for the 2010 Jackass of the Year Award.  It’s time for the competition to step forward!



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This Fight Is Far From Over

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December 24, 2009

On November 26, I mentioned how apologists for controversial Wall Street giant, Goldman Sachs, were attempting to characterize Goldman’s critics as “conspiracy theorists” in the apparent hope that the use of such a term would discourage continued scrutiny of that firm’s role in causing the financial crisis.  The name-calling tactic didn’t work.  Since that time, my favorite reporter for The New York Times — Pulitzer Prize winner, Gretchen Morgenson — has continued to dig down into a dirty, sickening story about how Goldman Sachs (as well as some other firms) through their deliberate bets against their own financial products, known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) caused the financial crisis and ruined the lives of most Americans.  Ms. Morgenson had previously discussed the opinion of derivatives expert, Janet Tavakoli, who argued that Goldman Sachs “should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books”.  Although the Goldman apologists have been quick to point out that the firm repaid the bailout money it received under TARP, the $13 billion received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, has not been repaid.

On December 23, The New York Times published the latest report written by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story revealing how Goldman and other firms created those Collateralized Debt Obligations, sold them to their own customers and then used a new Wall Street index, called the ABX (a way to invest in the direction of mortgage securities) to bet that those same CDOs would fail.  Here’s a passage from the beginning of that superb Morgenson/Story article:

Goldman was not the only firm that peddled these complex securities — known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s — and then made financial bets against them, called selling short in Wall Street parlance.  Others that created similar securities and then bet they would fail, according to Wall Street traders, include Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, as well as smaller firms like Tricadia Inc., an investment company whose parent firm was overseen by Lewis A. Sachs, who this year became a special counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

Wait a minute!  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner has retained a “special counselor” whose responsibilities included oversight of Tricadia’s parent company.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Our President apparently sees nothing wrong with it.  At this point, that’s not too surprising.

Anyway  . . .  Let’s get back to the Times article:

How these disastrously performing securities were devised is now the subject of scrutiny by investigators in Congress, at the Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, according to people briefed on the investigations.  Those involved with the inquiries declined to comment.

While the investigations are in the early phases, authorities appear to be looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them, people briefed on the matter say.

We can only hope that the investigations by Congress, the SEC and FINRA might result in some type of sanctions.  At this juncture, that sort of accountability just seems like a wild fantasy.

Janet Tavakoli did a follow-up piece of her own for The Huffington Post on December 22.  She is now more critical of the November 17 report prepared by the Special Inspector General of Tarp (SIGTARP) and she continues to demand that Goldman should pay back the billions it received as an AIG counterparty:

The TARP Inspector General’s November 17 report missed the most damaging facts.  Intentionally or otherwise, it was evasive action or just plain whitewash.  The report failed to clarify Goldman’s role in AIG’s near collapse, and that of all the settlement deals, the U.S.taxpayers’ was by far the worst.

*   *   *

Goldman paid mega bonuses in past years subsidized by selling hot air.  Now it proposes to again pay billions in bonuses based on earnings made possible by taxpayer dollars.

Now that the crisis is over, we should ask Goldman Sachs — and all of AIG’s other trading partners involved in these trades — to buy back these mortgage assets at full price.  Alternatively, we can impose a special tax.  Instead of calling it a windfall profits tax, we might label it a “hot air” profits tax.

It was refreshing to read the opinion of someone who felt that Janet Tavakoli was holding back on her criticism of Goldman Sachs in the above-quoted piece.  Thomas Adams is a banking law attorney at Paykin, Kreig and Adams, LLP as well a former managing director of Ambac Financial Group, a bond insurer that is managing to crawl its way out from under the rubble of the CDO catastrophe.  Mr. Adams obviously has no warm spot in his heart for Goldman Sachs.  I continue to take delight in the visual image of a Goldman apologist, blue-faced with smoke coming out of his ears while reading the essay Mr. Adams wrote for Naked Capitalism:

. . .  Ms. Tavakoli stops short of telling the whole story.  While she is very knowledgeable of this market, perhaps she is unaware of the full extent of the wrongdoings Goldman committed by getting themselves paid on the AIG bailout.  The Federal Reserve and the Treasury aided and abetted Goldman Sachs in committing financial and ethical crimes at an astounding level.

*   *   *

But Ms. Tavakoli fails to note that the collapse of the CDO bonds and the collapse of AIG were a deliberate strategy by Goldman.  To realize on their bet against the housing market, Goldman needed the CDO bonds to collapse in value, which would cause AIG to be downgraded and lead to AIG posting collateral and Goldman getting paid for their bet.  I am confident that Goldman Sachs did not reveal to AIG that they were betting on the housing market collapse.

*   *   *

Goldman goes quite a few steps further into despicable territory with their other actions and the body count from Goldman’s actions is so enormous that it crosses over into criminal territory, morally and legally, by getting taxpayer money for their predation.

Goldman made a huge bet that the housing market would collapse.  They profited, on paper, from the tremendous pain suffered by homeowners, investors and taxpayers across the country, they helped make it worse.  Their bet only succeeded because they were able to force the government into bailing out AIG.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, by helping Goldman Sachs to profit from homeowner and investor losses, conceal their misrepresentations to shareholders, destroy insurers by stuffing them with toxic bonds that they marketed as AAA, and escape from the consequences of making a risky bet, committed a grave injustice and, very likely, financial crimes.  Since the bailout, they have actively concealed their actions and mislead the public.  Goldman, the Fed and the Treasury should be investigated for fraud, securities law violations and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.  Based on what I have laid out here, I am confident that they will find ample evidence.

The backlash against the repugnant activities of Goldman Sachs has come a long way from Matt Taibbi’s metaphor describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  With three investigations underway, the widely-despised icon of Wall Street greed might have more to worry about than its public image.





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The Pushback Against Bernanke

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November 30, 2009

This week brings us the confirmation hearings on President Obama’s nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve.  The recent progress in Congressional efforts to audit the Federal Reserve will certainly spice up the confirmation hearings.  If that weren’t enough, Bernanke saw fit to write a commentary piece for Sunday’s edition of The Washington Post, expressing his opposition to any attempts to limit the Fed’s power and subject it to an audit.  Here is some of what he had to say in that column:

These measures are very much out of step with the global consensus on the appropriate role of central banks, and they would seriously impair the prospects for economic and financial stability in the United States.  The Fed played a major part in arresting the crisis, and we should be seeking to preserve, not degrade, the institution’s ability to foster financial stability and to promote economic recovery without inflation.

Well, he should have known what would be coming next  . . .  the avalanche of criticism pointing out how the Fed played a major role in causing the crisis.  As you will see below, that response was swift.  Worse yet, Bernanke’s theme of “we learned our lesson” will surely inspire harsh interrogation at the confirmation hearings:

The Federal Reserve, like other regulators around the world, did not do all that it could have to constrain excessive risk-taking in the financial sector in the period leading up to the crisis.  We have extensively reviewed our performance and moved aggressively to fix the problems.

Dean Baker did not waste any time before ripping into Bernanke’s essay.  Baker’s Beat the Press blog at The American Prospect website regularly upbraids Bernanke for his responsibility in causing the economic crisis.  Baker’s retort to the Washington Post piece was published at the Talking Points Memo website.  The final paragraph of Baker’s essay reflected his outrage that the Post would publish Bernanke’s rant without an opposing response:

The arrogance of this column is almost beyond belief.  This man is incredibly lucky to still have his job at time when millions of other workers have lost theirs as a direct result of his incompetence.  A serious news outlet would not have printed such a ridiculously self-serving piece without at least securing an opposing opinion.  Of course, Bernanke’s piece appeared in the Washington Post.

Dean Baker’s primary criticism of Bernanke is based on the Fed chair’s failure to control the 8-trillion-dollar housing bubble before it burst, nearly destroying the entire economy:

We had further losses in demand associated with the bursting of a bubble in non-residential real estate.  In total, the loss in bubble-driven demand was well over $1 trillion a year.  All of it an entirely predictable outcome of the collapse of a housing bubble.

The simple reality is that there is nothing in the Fed’s bag of tricks that will allow it to easily replace over $1 trillion in annual demand.  In short, the bubble guaranteed the economic disaster that we are now experiencing, end of story.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith dealt a hefty load of thorough criticism on the Bernanke article.  She began with the verdict against Bernanke and built an impressive argument supporting her opinion:

What is interesting is how much the tables have turned.  The Obama effort to make the Fed into the uber bank regulator has become a rout, with decent odds that the Fed will have its powers reduced, and an increasing possibility that Bernanke might not be reconfirmed (which is frankly the right outcome, no CEO who presided over a similar disaster would still be in charge).

Smith did not restrict her criticism to the Fed’s failure to control the housing bubble.  Here are some of her points:

For instance, the Fed was the architect of the “let a thousand flowers bloom” policy towards derivatives, and made inadequate (one might say no) effort to understand new financial technology.  Bernanke himself rationalized burgeoning consumer debt, claiming that consumer balance sheets were in good shape.  Hun?  This is Japan circa 1989 thinking.

*   *   *

Yes, I am told the Fed is now making all the banks disclose their derivatives positions to them, but the Fed lacks the analytical capacity to do much with this information (and I am further told the Fed staff understands that too).  So that does not fit my notion of “tougher oversight.”  And the rest is just empty promises.

In response to Bernanke’s claim that Congressional efforts to rein-in the authority of the Fed are “very much out of step with the global consensus on the appropriate role of central banks,” Ms. Smith pounced:

Notice how Bernanke invokes a “global consensus,” which is wonderfully vague and ignores the fact that the pre-crisis “global consensus” of minimally regulated markets and financial institutions, is precisely what caused the crisis.  Moreover, even if the Fed’s mandate in theory was appropriate, its governance structure is not.  The Bank of England and the ECB are not peculiar largely private institutions, accountable to almost no one, as the Fed now is.  The Fed’s insistence on secrecy regarding many of its emergency operations is unwarranted and deeply troubling.  And “the Fed played a major role in arresting the crisis” ignores the fact that the Fed played a major role in creating it, namely, via negative real interest rates for a protracted period.  And he is declaring the Fed’s policies to be successful when the jury is still out.

Brenanke’s claim that the idiotic bank stress tests “marked a turning point in public confidence in the banking system” invited a well-deserved attack.  Here’s how Yves Smith handled it:

The worst is the folks at the Fed clearly believe the bogus stress tests were a meaningful exercise.  That alone should disqualify them from getting a bigger role in bank supervision.  And if you read their pronouncements, they plan to continue to use them, and have the process run by …  monetary economists!  Pray tell, what do they know about bank operations?  Help me!  And some of the help the Fed has enlisted in the stress test exercise includes the consulting firm McKinsey, which has the biggest banking practice in the consulting industry.  Think McKinsey is going to devise anything that might be rough on its biggest meal tickets?

Remember that these negative reactions to the Bernanke article are just what appeared on Sunday.  By the time the confirmation hearings begin on December 3, you can be sure that Bernanke’s own words from the Post column will be used against him.  We may find that his decision to write this piece was a crucial turning point leading to a decision against his confirmation.



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Compare And Contrast

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November 26, 2009

We have seen and heard so much discussion during the past week concerning the dismal performance of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner while testifying before the Joint Economic Committee — I won’t repeat it.  At this point, there appears to be a consensus that Turbo Tim has to go.  The scary part comes when pundits start tossing around names for a possible replacement.  One would expect that President Obama might be wise enough to avoid the appointment of another “Wall Street insider” as Treasury Secretary.  Rumors are circulating that The Dimon Dog (Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase) is being considered for the post.  This buzz gained more traction when bank analyst, Dick Bove, recently voiced support for Dimon as Treasury Secretary.  The handful of Geithner supporters deny that Turbo Tim ever was a “Wall Street insider”.  This assertion is contradicted by the fact that Geithner was the President of the New York Federal Reserve at the time of the financial crisis, when he served as architect of the more-than-generous bailouts of those “too big to fail” financial institutions — at taxpayer expense.

These days, the most vilified beneficiary of government largesse resulting from the financial crisis is the widely-despised investment bank, Goldman Sachs — often referred to as the “giant vampire squid” — thanks to Matt Taibbi’s metaphor, describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refutes the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

On November 21, one of my favorite reporters for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Gretchen Morgenson, wrote an informative piece concerning the recent SIGTARP Report.  Compare and contrast Ms. Morgenson’s discussion of the report’s disclosures, with the spin provided by James Stewart.  Here is some of what Ms. Morgenson had to say:

The Fed, under Mr. Geithner’s direction, caved in to A.I.G.’s counterparties, giving them 100 cents on the dollar for positions that would have been worth far less if A.I.G. had defaulted.  Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale and other banks were in the group that got full value for their contracts when many others were accepting fire-sale prices.

On the question of whether this payout was what the report describes as a “backdoor bailout” of A.I.G.’s counterparties, Mr. Barofsky concluded:  “The very design of the federal assistance to A.I.G. was that tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.’s counterparties.”  The report noted that this was money the banks might not otherwise have received had A.I.G. gone belly-up.

*   *   *

Finally, Mr. Barofsky pokes holes in arguments made repeatedly over the past 14 months by Goldman Sachs, A.I.G.’s largest trading partner and recipient of $12.9 billion in taxpayer money in the bailout, that it had faced no material risk in an A.I.G. default — that, in effect, had A.I.G. cratered, Goldman wouldn’t have suffered damage.

*   *   *

Rather than forcing the banks to accept a steep discount, or “haircut,” the Fed gave the banks $27 billion in taxpayer cash and allowed them to keep an additional $35 billion in collateral already posted by A.I.G.  That amounted to about $62 billion for the contracts, which the report describes as “far above their market value at the time.”

*   *   *

As Goldman prepares to pay out nearly $17 billion in bonuses to its employees in one of its most profitable years ever, it is important that an authoritative, independent voice like Mr. Barofsky’s reminds us how the taxpayer bailout of A.I.G. benefited Goldman.

*   *   *

The inspector noted in his report that Goldman made several arguments for why it believed it was not materially at risk in an A.I.G. default, but he is skeptical of the firm’s reasoning.

So is Janet Tavakoli, an expert in derivatives at Tavakoli Structured Finance, a consulting firm.

*   *   *

Ms. Tavakoli argues that Goldman should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books — and to do so before it begins showering bonuses on its taxpayer-protected employees.

“A.I.G., a sophisticated investor, foolishly took this risk,” she said.  “But the U.S. taxpayer never agreed to be the victim of investments that should undergo a rigorous audit.”

After reading James Stewart’s November 19 blog posting and Gretchen Morgenson’s November 21 article from The New York Times, ask yourself this:  Are Gretchen Morgenson and Janet Tavakoli “conspiracy theorists”      . . .  or is James Stewart just a tool?



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The Federal Reserve Is On The Ropes

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November 23, 2009

Last February, Republican Congressman Ron Paul introduced HR 1207, the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009, by which the Government Accountability Office would be granted authority to audit the Federal Reserve and present a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida, wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill. The bill eventually gained over 300 co-sponsors.  By October 30, Congressman Mel Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina, basically “gutted” the bill according to Congressman Paul, in an interview with Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News.  Watt subsequently proposed a competing measure, which was aided by the circulation of a letter by eight academics, who were described as a “political cross-section of prominent economists”.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post disclosed on November 18 that the purportedly diverse, independent economists were actually paid stooges of the Federal Reserve:

But far from a broad cross-section, the “prominent economists” lobbying on behalf of the Watt bill are in fact deeply involved with the Federal Reserve.  Seven of the eight are either currently on the Fed’s payroll or have been in the past.

After HR 1207 had been undermined by Watt, an amendment calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve was added as amendment 69B to HR3996, the Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009.  The House Finance Committee voted to approve that amendment on November 19.  This event was not only a big win for Congressmen Paul and Grayson — it also gave The Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim the opportunity for a “victory lap”:

In an unprecedented defeat for the Federal Reserve, an amendment to audit the multi-trillion dollar institution was approved by the House Finance Committee with an overwhelming and bipartisan 43-26 vote on Thursday afternoon despite harried last-minute lobbying from top Fed officials and the surprise opposition of Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who had previously been a supporter.

*   *   *

“Today was Waterloo for Fed secrecy,” a victorious Grayson said afterwards.

Scott Lanman of Bloomberg News pointed out that this battle was just one of many legislative onslaughts against the Fed:

The Fed’s powers and rate-setting independence are under threat on several fronts in Congress.  Separately yesterday, the Senate Banking Committee began debate on legislation that would strip the Fed of bank-supervision powers and give lawmakers greater say in naming the officials who vote on monetary policy.

*   *   *

Paul and other lawmakers have accused the Fed of lax oversight of banks and failing to avert the financial crisis.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is feeling even more heat because the Senate Banking Committee will begin hearings concerning Bernanke’s reappointment as Fed Chair.  The hearings will begin on December 3, the same day as President Obama’s jobs summit.  Senate Banking Committee chair, Chris Dodd, revealed to videoblogger Mike Stark that Bernanke’s reappointment is “not necessarily” a foregone conclusion.

Let’s face it:  the public has finally caught on to the fact that the mission of the Fed is to protect the banking industry and if that is to be accomplished at the public’s expense — then so be it.  Back at The Huffington Post, Tom Raum explained how this heightened awareness of the Fed’s activities has resulted in some Congressional pushback:

Many lawmakers question whether the Fed’s money machine has mainly benefited financial markets and not the broader economy.  Lawmakers are also peeved that the central bank acted without congressional involvement when it brokered the 2008 sale of failed investment bank Bear Stearns and engineered the rescue of insurer American International Group.

Tom Raum echoed concern about the how the current increase in “anti-Fed” sentiment might affect the Bernanke confirmation hearings:

Should Bernanke be worried?

“Not only should be worried, he’s clearly ratcheted up his game in terms of his communications with Congress,” said Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ornstein said the Fed bashing this time is different from before, with “a broader base of support.  And it’s coming from people who in the past would not have hit the Fed.  There’s a lot of populist anger out there — on the left, in the center and on the right.  And politicians are responsive to that.”

Populist anger with the Fed will certainly change the way history will regard former Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan.  Fred Sheehan’s new book:  Panderer to Power:  The True Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession, could not have been released at a better time.  At his blog, Sheehan responded to five questions about Greenspan, providing us with a taste of what to expect in the new book.  Here is one of the interesting points, demonstrating how Greenspan helped create our current crisis:

The American economy’s recovery from the early 1990s was financial.  This was a first.  The recovery was a product of banks borrowing, leveraging and lending to hedge funds.  The banks were also creating and selling complicated and very profitable derivative products.  Greenspan needed the banks to grow until they became too-big-to-fail.  It was evident the “real” economy — businesses that make tires and sell shoes — no longer drove the economy.  Thus, finance was given every advantage to expand, no matter how badly it performed.  Financial firms that should have died were revived with large injections of money pumped by the Federal Reserve into the banking system.

It’s great to see Congress step up to the task of exposing the antics of the Federal Reserve.  Let’s just hope these efforts meet with continued success.



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