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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “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.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Money Falling From The Sky

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November 17, 2008

The debate concerning a possible bailout of the “big three” automakers (General Motors, Ford and Daimler Chrysler) has now reached the House of Representatives.  House Minority Leader, John Boehner (Republican from Ohio) has voiced his opposition to this latest bailout, indicating that it will not receive much support from Congressional Republicans.

In the words of Yogi Berra, we are experiencing “déjà vu all over again”.  This process started with the plan of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, to bail out banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers in excess of $700 billion.  Back on September 22, when that bailout bill (now known as TARP) was being considered, Jackie Kucinich and Alexander Bolton wrote an article for TheHill.com, discussing Republican opposition to this measure.  Their article included a prophetic remark by Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida:

“Bailout after bailout is not a strategy,” said Stearns, who said that taxpayers could be left with a huge bill.

Yet, “bailout after bailout” is exactly where we are now.  On November 15, T-Bone Pickings appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.  Tom Brokaw asked T-Bone Pickings for his opinion on the proposed “Big Three Bailout”.  The response was:

I wonder what you’re going to do about the next industry.  Is it going to be the airlines or what if Toyota and Honda want some help, too?  I don’t know.  I don’t know where it stops.

Once again, we are presented with the need to bail out yet another American industry considered “too big to fail”.  However, this time, we are not being asked to save an entire industry, just a few players who fought like hell, resisting every change from rear-view mirrors, to fuel injection, seat belts, catalytic converters, air bags and most recently, hybrid technology.  Later on Meet the Press, we heard the BBC’s Katty Kay quote a rhetorical question from unidentified “smart economists” that included the magic word:

Can it withstand the shock to the economy if GM were to go?

Later on the CBS program, Face The Nation, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, used similar logic to that expressed by Katty Kay, when he stated:

When you talk about the negative shock that would result from bankruptcies of these companies, right now  …

The magic word “shock” is once again playing an important role for the advocates of this newest rescue package. I was immediately compelled to re-read my posting from September 22, concerning the introduction of the Paulson bailout plan, entitled:  “Here We Go Again”.  At that time, I discussed Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.  She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crises we are going through now.

Ms. Klein’s article, “In Praise of a Rocky Transition” appeared in the December 1, 2008 issue of The Nation.  She discussed Washington’s handling of the Wall Street bailout, characterizing it as “borderline criminal”.  Would the financial rescue legislation (TARP) have passed if Congress and the public had been advised that the Federal Reserve had already fed a number of unnamed financial institutions two trillion dollars in emergency loans?  Naomi Klein expressed the need for the Obama Administration to stick with its mantra of “Change You Can Believe In” as opposed to any perceived need to soothe the financial markets:

There is no way to reconcile the public’s vote for change with the market’s foot-stomping for more of the same.  Any and all moves to change course will be met with short-term market shocks.  The good news is that once it is clear that the new rules will be applied across the board and with fairness, the market will stabilize and adjust.  Furthermore, the timing for this turbulence has never been better.  Over the past three months, we’ve been shocked so frequently that market stability would come as more of a surprise.  That gives Obama a window to disregard the calls for a seamless transition and do the hard stuff first.  Few will be able to blame him for a crisis that clearly predates him, or fault him for honoring the clearly expressed wishes of the electorate.  The longer he waits, however, the more memories fade.

When transferring power from a functional, trustworthy regime, everyone favors a smooth transition.  When exiting an era marked by criminality and bankrupt ideology, a little rockiness at the start would be a very good sign.

The Obama Administration would be wise to heed Ms. Klein’s suggestions.  It would also help to seriously consider the concerns of Republicans such as John Boehner, who is apparently not anxious to feed America another “crap sandwich”.

Here We Go Again

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September 22, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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