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A Preemptive Strike By Tools Of The Plutocracy

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  As I pointed out on April 15, more than a few commentators had been expressing their disappointment with the FCIC.  Section (5)(h)(1) of  the FERA established a deadline for the FCIC to submit its report:

On December 15, 2010, the Commission shall submit to the President and to the Congress a report containing the findings and conclusions of the Commission on the causes of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States.

In light of the fact that it took the FCIC eight months to conduct its first hearing, one shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that their report had not been completed by December 15.  The FCIC expects to have the report finalized in approximately one month.  This article by Phil Mattingly and Robert Schmidt of Bloomberg News provides a good history of the partisan struggle within the FCIC.  On December 14, Sewell Chan of The New York Times disclosed that the four Republican members of the FCIC would issue their own report on December 15:

The Republican members of the panel were angered last week when the commission voted 6 to 4, along partisan lines, to limit individual comments by the commissioners to 9 pages each in a 500-page report that the commission plans to publish next month with Public Affairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group, one Republican commissioner said.

Beyond that, Shahien Nasiripour of the Huffington Post revealed more details concerning the dissent voiced by Republican panel members:

During a private commission meeting last week, all four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases “Wall Street” and “shadow banking” and the words “interconnection” and “deregulation” from the panel’s final report, according to a person familiar with the matter and confirmed by Brooksley E. Born, one of the six commissioners who voted against the proposal.

I gave those four Republican members more credit than that.  I was wrong.  Commission Vice-Chairman Bill Thomas, along with Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Peter Wallison, and Keith Hennessey issued their own propaganda piece as a preemptive strike against whatever less-than-complimentary things the FCIC might ultimately say about the Wall Street Plutocrats.  The spin strategy employed by these men in explaining the cause of the financial crisis is to blame Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for the entire episode.  (That specious claim has been debunked by Mark Thoma and others many times.)  This remark from the “Introduction” section of the Republicans’ piece set the tone:

While the housing bubble, the financial crisis, and the recession are surely interrelated events, we do not believe that the housing bubble was a sufficient condition for the financial crisis. The unprecedented number of subprime and other weak mortgages in this bubble set it and its effect apart from others in the past.

Many economists and other commentators will have plenty of fun ripping this thing to shreds.  One of the biggest lies that jumped right out at me was this statement from page 5 of the so-called Financial Crisis Primer:

Put simply, the risk of a housing collapse was simply not appreciated.  Not by homeowners, not by investors, not by banks, not by rating agencies, and not by regulators.

That lie can and will be easily refuted —  many times over —  by the simple fact that a large number of essays had been published by economists, commentators and even dilettantes who predicted the housing collapse.

Yves Smith provided a refreshing retort to the Plutocracy’s Primer at her Naked Capitalism website:

This whole line of thinking is garbage, the financial policy equivalent of arguing that the sun revolves around the earth.  Yes, the US and other countries provide overly generous subsidies to housing, and curtailing them over time would not be a bad idea.  But that’s been our policy for decades.  Calling that a major, let alone primary, cause of the crisis, is simply a highly coded “blame the poor” strategy.  In reality, both the run-up to the crisis and its aftermath were one of the greatest wealth transfers from the citizenry at large to a comparatively small group of rentiers in the history of man.

*   *   *

This pathetic development shows how deeply this country is in thrall to lobbyists.  But these so-called commissioners, who are really no more than financial services minions out to misbrand themselves as independent, look to have overplayed their hand.  This stunt shows more than a tad of desperation on the part of banks and their operatives in their excessive efforts block any remotely accurate, and therefore critical, report on the industry.

Perversely, this development may be a positive indicator on several fronts.  First, the FCIC report may be tougher and more probing than I dared hope.

The fact that a pre-emptive strike by the Plutocratic “Gang of Four” has been initiated with the release of their Primer could indeed suggest that that their patrons are worried about the ultimate conclusions to be published by the FCIC next month.  The release of this Primer will surely draw plenty of criticism and attract more attention to the FCIC’s final report.  Nevertheless, will the resulting firestorm motivate the public to finally demand some serious action beyond the lame “financial reform” fiasco?  Adam Garfinkle’s recent essay in The American Interest suggests that such hope could be misplaced:

Obsessed with vacuous celebrity, Americans make it easier than ever for plutocrats to sail under the radar.  Corporate heavyweights and bankers may be suborning Congress and ripping off  “we the people” left and right, but we’re too busy dancing with the stars to notice.

Will this situation ever change?



Lev Is The Drug

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January 14, 2010

The first day of hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was as entertaining as I expected.  The stars of the show:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, “The Dimon Dog” of JP Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan from Bank of America presented themselves as likeable guys.  However, in the case of Blankfein, whenever he wasn’t talking he would sit there with that squinting, perplexed look on his face that seemed to mime the question:  “WTF?”  A large segment of the viewing public has already been primed to view these gentlemen as “The Four Horsemen of The Financial Apocalypse”.  Nevertheless, there were four more Horsemen absent from the “stage” on Wednesday:  Messrs. Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner.  Beyond that, Brian Moynihan didn’t really belong there, since he was not such a significant “player” as the other panel members, in events of 2008.  In fact, history may yet view his predecessor, Ken Lewis, as more of a victim in this drama, due to the fact that he was apparently coerced by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke into buying Merrill Lynch with instructions to remain silent about Merrill’s shabby financial status.  I would have preferred to see Vikram Pandit of Citigroup in that seat.

As I watched the show, I tried to imagine what actors would be cast to play which characters on the panel in a movie about the financial crisis.  Mike Myers would be the obvious choice to portray Lloyd Blankfein.  Myers could simply don his Dr. Evil regalia and it would be an easy gig.  The Dimon Dog should be played by George Clooney because he came off as a “regular guy”, lacking the highly-polished, slick presentation one might expect from someone in that position.  Brian Moynihan could be portrayed by Robin Williams, in one of his rare, serious roles.  John Mack should be portrayed by Nicholas Cage, if only because Cage needs the money.

Although many reports have described their demeanor as “contrite”, the four members of the first panel gave largely self-serving presentations, characterizing their firms in the most favorable light.  Blankfein emphasized that Goldman Sachs still believes in marking its assets to market.  As expected, his theme of  “if we knew then what we knew now  . . .” got heavier rotation than a Donna Summer record at a party for Richard Simmons.  John Mack, who was more candid and perhaps the most contrite panel member, made a point of mentioning that some assets cannot be “marked to market” because there really is no market for them.  Excuse me   . . .  but isn’t that the definition of the term, “worthless”?

Throughout the session, the panel discussed the myriad causes that contributed to the onset of the financial crisis.  Despite that, nobody seemed interested in implicating the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as a factor.  “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the order of the day.  All four panelists described the primary cause of the crisis as excessive leverage.  They acted as a chorus, singing “Lev Is The Drug”.  Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a 23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.  Dimon went on to make the specious claim that overleveraging by consumers was a contributing element in causing the crisis.  Although many commentators whom I respect have made the same point, I just don’t buy it.  Why blame people who were led to believe that their homes would continue to print money for them until they died?  Dimon himself admitted at the hearing that no consideration was ever given to the possibility that home values would slump.  Worse yet, for a producer or purveyor of the so-called “financial weapons of mass-destruction” to implicate overleveraged consumers as sharing a role in precipitating this mess is simply absurd.

The second panel from Wednesday’s hearing was equally, if not more entertaining.  Michael Mayo of Calyon Securities seemed awfully proud of himself.  After all, he did a great job on his opening statement and he knew it.  Later on, he refocused his pride with an homage to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.  Nevertheless, the star witness from the second panel was Kyle Bass of Hayman Advisors, who gave the most impressive performance of the day.  Bass made a point of emphasizing (in so many words) that Lloyd Blankfein’s 23-to-1 leverage ratio was nearly 100 percent higher than what prudence should allow.  If you choose to watch the testimony of just one witness from Wednesday’s hearing, make sure it’s Kyle Bass.

I didn’t bother to watch the third panel for much longer than a few minutes.  The first two acts were tough to follow.  Shortly into the opening statement by Mark Zandy of Moody’s, I decided that I had seen enough for the day.  Besides, Thursday’s show would hold the promise of some excitement with the testimony of Sheila Bair of the FDIC.  I wondered whether someone might ask her:  “Any hints as to what banks are going to fail tomorrow?”  On the other hand, I had been expecting the testimony of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to help cure me of the insomnia caused by too much Cuban coffee.

The Commissioners themselves have done great work with all of the witnesses.  Phil Angelides has a great style, combining a pleasant affect with incisive questioning and good witness control.  Doug Holtz-Eakin and Brooksley Born have been batting 1000.  Heather Murren is more than a little easy on the eyes, bringing another element of “star quality” to the show.

Who knows?  This commission could really end up making a difference in effectuating financial reform.  They’re certainly headed in that direction.



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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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In Pursuit Of The TARP Thieves

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February 12, 2009

On Wednesday, February 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a subject of concern to many taxpayers: “The Need for Increased Fraud Enforcement in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”.  With trillions of dollars being expended in bailouts while the corporate beneficiaries of this government largesse allow their executives to line their pockets with those very dollars, the outrage felt by the working (or unemployed) public has found its way to Capitol Hill.  What we learned from this hearing is that there is plenty of fraud taking place while the FBI and other branches of law enforcement are understaffed to cope with the immense rise in reported fraud cases.

The Committee heard testimony from John Pistole, Deputy Director of the FBI.  Pistole explained how the current economic crisis resulted in numerous areas of FBI scrutiny, only one of which is the overwhelming subject of mortgage fraud:

For example, current market conditions have helped reveal numerous mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and investment frauds, such as the Bernard Madoff alleged scam. These schemes highlight the need for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to be ever vigilant of White Collar Crime both in boom and bust years.

The FBI has experienced and continues to experience an exponential rise in mortgage fraud investigations. The number of open FBI mortgage fraud investigations has risen from 881 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1,600 in fiscal year 2008. In addition, the FBI has more than 530 open corporate fraud investigations, including 38 corporate fraud and financial institution matters directly related to the current financial crisis. These corporate and financial institution failure investigations involve financial statement manipulation, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increasing mortgage, corporate fraud, and financial institution failure case inventory is straining the FBI’s limited White Collar Crime resources.

The most disgusting activity covered during this hearing concerned fraud related to the ongoing $700 billion TARP bailout.  Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) provided testimony concerning his plans to establish a mechanism for bringing TARP thieves to justice:

The SIGTARP Hotline is operational and can be accessed through the SIGTARP website at www.SIGTARP.gov by telephone at (877) SIG-2009, as well as through email. Plans are being formulated to develop a “fraud awareness program” with the objective of informing potential whistleblowers of the many ways available to them to provide key information to SIGTARP on fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds, and explaining how they will be protected.

Mr. Barofsky’s testimony was largely a plea for passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as well as the SAFE Markets Act, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).  The latter bill would authorize hiring of the following personnel to investigate and prosecute “fraud relating to the financial markets”:  500 FBI agents, 50 Assistant United States Attorneys and 100 additional Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement staff members.  Mr. Barofsky’s explanation of the need for this legislation was an illustration of using “experience as our guide”:

Now, with $700 billion going out the door under TARP, additional hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of credit being provided through the Federal Reserve, and additional hundreds of billions through the proposed stimulus bill, we stand on the precipice of the largest infusion of Government funds over the shortest period of time in our Nation’s history.  Unfortunately, history teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally.  One need not look further than the recent outlay for Hurricane relief, Iraq reconstruction, or the not-so-distant efforts of the RTC as important lessons.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (S 386) addresses TARP fraud, fraud related to economic stimulus funds, mortgage fraud and fraudulent activities in the commodities markets.  The measure will:

  • Amend the definition of “financial institution” to extend federal fraud laws to mortgage lending business not directly regulated or insured by the Federal government.
  • Amend the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic stimulus package.
  • Authorize funding to hire fraud prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, and authorize funding for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to help staff FBI mortgage fraud task forces.
  • Amend the federal securities statute to cover fraud schemes involving commodities futures and options.
  • Amend the criminal money laundering statute to make clear that the proceeds of specified unlawful activity include the gross receipts of the illegal activity, and not just the profits of the activity.
  • Improve the False Claims Act to clarify that the Act was intended to extend to any false or fraudulent claim for government money or property, whether or not the claim is presented to a government official or employee, whether or not the government has physical custody of the money, and whether or not the defendant specifically intended to defraud the government.

Once these new measures are implemented, I would love to see the Feds bust those miscreants whom I (and others) suspect were manipulating the equities markets with TARP money in the month after Thanksgiving.  During that time, we saw an almost-daily spate of “late day rallies” when stock prices would be run up during the last fifteen minutes of the trading day, before those numbers could have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them. The inflated “closing prices” for the day were then perceived as the market value of the stocks.  This process was taking place despite the constant flow of dire news reports, which would normally have sent stock prices tumbling.  News services covering the action on Wall Street were using the same three words to start each day’s headline:  “Stocks rally despite …”  This pattern ceased as legislators and commentators demanded to know what was being done with the first $360 billion of TARP money.  Hmmm . . .

At this point, we can only speculate as to who has been pilfering TARP money and what could have been done with a few billion here and a few billion there.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be watching movies about the sleazoids who stole money intended to save the world economic system from ruin.