TheCenterLane.com

© 2008 – 2019 John T. Burke, Jr.

Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

Comments Off on Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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


 

Struggles of a Passive Centrist

Comments Off on Struggles of a Passive Centrist

In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  It began with this statement:  “One could write an 800-page book on this subject.”  Noam Scheiber has just written that book in only 368 pages.  It’s called The Escape Artists and it is scheduled for release at the end of this month.  The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

The following graph from The Economic Populist website depicts the persistence of unemployment in America:

Noam Scheiber’s new book piqued my interest because, back in July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled “The Second Stimulus”, which began with this thought:

It’s a subject that many people are talking about, but not many politicians want to discuss.  It appears as though a second economic stimulus package will be necessary to save our sinking economy and get people back to work.  Because of the huge deficits already incurred in responding to the financial meltdown, along with the $787 billion price tag for the first stimulus package and because of the President’s promise to get healthcare reform enacted, there aren’t many in Congress who are willing to touch this subject right now, although some are.

The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.  Obama could have educated the American people by directing their attention to a June 3, 2009 essay by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) which described the Recovery Act as “effective”.

Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article detailed Obama’s evolution from inexperienced negotiator to President with “newfound boldness”:

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS, Obama had been hatching proposals with an eye toward winning over the opposition.  In most cases, all it had gotten him was more extreme demands from Republicans and not even a pretense of bipartisan support.  Now, after the searing experience of the deficit deal, he still wanted reasonable, centrist policies.  But he was done trying to fit them to the ever-shifting conservative zeitgeist.  When he finally turned back to jobs in August, he told his aides not to “self-edit” proposals to improve their chances of passing the Republican House.  “He pushed us to make sure this was not simply a predesigned legislative compromise,” one recalls.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that Larry Summers had aligned himself with Christina Romer by advocating for additional fiscal stimulus during the summer of 2009.  In fact, Ms. Romer herself has already confirmed this.  The Romer-Summers alliance for stimulus was also discussed in Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men.

As for the stimulus program itself, a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? provided the most even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  Mike Grabell gave us a glimpse of his new book with an article which appeared in The New York Times.  The piece was cross-posted to the ProPublica website.  Keith Hennesssey’s prescient observations about the shortcomings of that program, which he discussed  in June of 2009, were somewhat consistent with those discussed by Mike Grabell, particularly on the subject of “shovel-ready” programs.  Here is what Keith Hennessey said, while supporting his argument with the observations of Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf:

In fact, the infrastructure spending in the stimulus law will peak in fiscal year 2011, which goes from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011.  That’s too late from a macro perspective.

The Director further points out that the 2009 stimulus law created many new programs.  This slows spend-out, as it takes time to create and ramp up the new programs.

The Administration has made much of working with federal and state bureaucracies to find “shovel-ready” projects to accelerate infrastructure spending.  All of my conversations with budget analysts suggest this claim is tremendously overblown, and Director Elmendorf asks, “Is this practical on a large scale?”

On February 11, 2012, Mike Grabell said this:

But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery.  Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck.  “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground.  Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image.

The Economic Recovery Act of 2009 will surely become a central subject of debate during the current Presidential election campaign.  Regardless of what you hear from partisan bloviators, Messrs. Hennessey and Garbell have provided you with reliable guides to the unvarnished truth on this subject.



 

Troublesome Creatures

Comments Off on Troublesome Creatures

A recent piece by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider website led me to the conclusion that Shepard Smith deserves an award.  You might recognize Shep Smith as The Normal Guy at Fox News.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a controversy has erupted over a 20-minute crank telephone call made to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by a man who identified himself as David Koch, one of two billionaire brothers, famous for bankrolling Republican politicians.  The caller was actually blogger Ian Murphy, who goes by the name, Buffalo Beast.  In a televised discussion with Juan Williams concerning the controversy surrounding Wisconsin Governor Walker, Shep Smith focused on the ugly truth that the Koch brothers are out to “bust labor”.  Here are Smith’s remarks as they appeared at The Wire blog:

It’s all political isn’t it?  Isn’t it just 100% politics? … Have you looked at the list of the top 10 donors to political campaigns?  Seven of those 10 donate to Republicans.  The other three that remain of those top 10, they all donate to Democrats and they are all unions.  Bust the unions, it’s over … . And this started when?  It started with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers were organizing…

*   *   *

I’m not taking a side on this, I’m telling you what’s going on … The facts!  But people don’t want to hear the facts … let them get angry, facts are troublesome creatures from time to time.  The Koch brothers, and others, were organized to bust labor, it’s what big business wants to do … this isn’t a new concept.  So they gave a bunch of money to the governor’s campaign.  The governor’s campaign is over.  Now, away we go!  We’re going to try to bust this union up, and that’s what they’re doing … this is political and everyone in the middle is a pawn.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts have been finding their way into the news to a refreshing degree lately.  Emotional rhetoric has replaced news reporting to such an extreme level that most people seem to have accepted the premise that facts are relative to one’s perception of reality.  The lyrics to “Crosseyed and Painless” by the Talking Heads (written more than 30 years ago) seem to have been a prescient commentary about this situation:

Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out

Budgetary disputes are now resolved on an emotional battlefield where facts usually take a back seat to ideology.  Despite this trend, there are occasional commentaries focused on fact-based themes.  One recent example came from David Leonhardt of The New York Times, entitled “Why Budget Cuts Don’t Bring Prosperity”.  The article began with the observation that because so many in Congress believe that budget cuts are the path to national prosperity, the only remaining question concerns how deeply spending should be cut this year.  Mr. Leonhardt provided those misled “leaders” with the facts:

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward.  Consider that new-vehicle sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005, recovered to only 12 million last year.  Single-family home sales, which peaked at 7.5 million in 2005, continued falling last year, to 4.6 million.  No wonder so many businesses are uncertain about the future.

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape.  Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

That’s the historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements.  The history is a rich one, too, because people understandably react to a bubble’s excesses by calling for the reverse.  When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he repeatedly called for a balanced budget.

But no matter how morally satisfying austerity may be, it’s the wrong answer.

Leonhardt’s  objective analysis drew this response from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

Did a memo go out?   Leonhardt almost always hews to neoclassical orthodoxy.  This is a big change for him.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts became the subject of an opinion piece about the budget, written by Bill Schneider for Politico.  While dissecting the emotional motivation responsible for “a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating”, Schneider set about isolating the fact-based signal from the emotional noise clouding the budget debate:

Many of the programs targeted for big cuts by the House Republicans have a suspiciously ideological tinge:  Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, funds to implement the new health care reform law, National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, money for a White House climate change czar.  The Washington Post calls the House budget “an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities.’’

The public is certainly worried about the deficit.  But do people believe the deficit is a crisis demanding immediate and radical action?  That’s not so clear.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken this month, the public was split over whether the federal government’s priority should be reducing the deficit (49 percent) or spending to help the economic recovery (46 percent).  What economic issue worries people the most? Jobs tops the list (44 percent). Fewer than half that say the deficit (19 percent).

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country.  The crisis is jobs.  So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

Let’s hope that those “troublesome creatures” keep turning up at debates, “town hall” meetings and in commentaries.  If they cause widespread allergic reactions, let nature run its course.


wordpress stats


Voters Got Fooled Again

Comments Off on Voters Got Fooled Again

September 13, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, the articles are turning up all over the place.  Newsweek’s Howard Fineman calls them pre-mortems:  advance analyses of why the Democrats will lose power in November.  Some of us saw the handwriting on the wall quite a while ago.  Before President Obama had completed his first year in office, it was becoming clear that his campaign theme of “hope” and “change” was just a ruse to con the electorate.   On September 21, 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”, based on this theme:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.

In November of 2009, Matt Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled,“Obama’s Big Sellout”.  Taibbi’s essay inspired Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write his own critique of Obama’s first eleven months in office.  Beyond that, Mr. Harrison’s assessment of the fate of proposed financial reform legislation turned out to be prescient.  Remember – Ed Harrison wrote this on December 11, 2009:

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform.  While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis.

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement.

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests.  It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions.  But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform.  Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place.  What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firm’s demise.  The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda.  It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party.  I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings.  While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

Mr. Harrison’s point about those incumbencies is now being echoed by many commentators – most frequently to point out that Janet Napolitano was replaced as Governor of Arizona by Jan Brewer.  Brewer is expected to win in November despite her inability to debate or form a coherent sentence before a live audience.

Bob Herbert of The New York Times recently wrote a great piece, in which he blasted the Democrats for failing to “respond adequately to their constituents’ most dire needs”:

The Democrats are in deep, deep trouble because they have not effectively addressed the overwhelming concern of working men and women:  an economy that is too weak to provide the jobs they need to support themselves and their families.  And that failure is rooted in the Democrats’ continued fascination with the self-serving conservative belief that the way to help ordinary people is to shower money on the rich and wait for the blessings to trickle down to the great unwashed below.

It was a bogus concept when George H.W. Bush denounced it as “voodoo economics” in 1980, and it remains bogus today, no matter how hard the Democrats try to dress it up in a donkey costume.

I was surprised to see that Howard Fineman focused his campaign pre-mortem on President Obama himself, rather than critiquing the Democratic Party as a whole.  At a time when mainstream media pundits are frequently criticized for going soft on those in power in order to retain “access”, it was refreshing to see Fineman point out some of Obama’s leadership flaws:

The president is an agreeable guy, but aloof, and not one who likes to come face to face with the enemy. Sure, GOP leaders were laying traps for him from the start.  And it was foolish to assume Mitch McConnell or John Boehner would play ball.  But Obama doesn’t really know Republicans, and he doesn’t seem to want to take their measure.  (Nor has he seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick.)  It’s the task of the presidency to cajole people, including your enemies, into doing what they don’t want to do if it is good for the country.  Did Obama think he could eschew the rituals of politics — that all he had to do was invoke His Hopeness to bring people aboard?

Well, people aren’t on board and that’s the problem.  The voters were taken for chumps and they were fooled by some good campaign propaganda.  Nevertheless, as President George W. Bush once said:

Fool me once – shame on – shame on you.  Fool me – You can’t get fooled again!

At this point, it does not appear as though the voters who supported President Obama and company in 2008 are willing to let themselves get fooled again.  At least the Republicans admit that their primary mission is to make life easier for rich people at everyone else’s expense.  The fact that the voters hate being lied to – more than anything else – may be the one lesson the Democrats learn from this election cycle.




Not Getting It Done

Comments Off on Not Getting It Done

August 9, 2010

Are the Democrats trying to lose their majorities in both the Senate and the House in November?  Their two biggest accomplishments, the healthcare “reform” bill and the financial “reform” bill haven’t really impressed the electorate.  According to a Gallup Poll, voter reaction to the passage of the “Affordable Healthcare Act” is 49 percent contending that the bill is a “good thing” as opposed to 46 percent who believe it is a “bad thing”, with 5 percent undecided.  Criticism of the “Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010” has been widespread, as I have previously discussed here, here and here.  The latest critique of the bill came from Professor Thomas F. Cooley, of the Stern School of Business at NYU.  His Forbes article entitled, “The Politics Of Regulatory Reform”, was based on this theme:

The awareness of how close we came to paralyzing the financial system created an opportunity to do something truly significant to make the system safer and more in tune with the needs of our economy.  Sadly, because all things in Washington are political, we fumbled the ball.

Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste” is apparently being disregarded by Rahm Emanuel and company at The White House.  Of course, the entire economic catastrophe has provided the Obama administration with a boatload of crises – most of which have already gone to waste.  For example, consider this fiasco-in-progress:  The “small business” sector plays such an important role in keeping Americans employed, a bill to facilitate lending to small businesses has been sponsored by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana).  An August 7 report by Sharon Bernstein of the Los Angeles Times provided this update on the status of the measure:

The small business loan assistance ran into trouble in the Senate when members from both parties began attaching amendments to support their favored causes.

The ineffective efforts of Senate Democrats are unfairly souring public opinion on their more unified counterparts in the House.  In attempt to redeem the image of Congressional Dems, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled a special session of Congress for Tuesday, August 10, (an interruption of their August recess) to pass a $26-billion bill to avert public employee layoffs.

With the passing of time, it has become more obvious that President Obama’s biggest mistake since taking office was his weak leadership in promoting the economic stimulus effort.  Many commentators have expressed the opinion that Christina Romer’s resignation as chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was based on her frustration with the under-funded stimulus program.

I recently wrote an “I told you so” piece, referencing my July, 2009 prediction that it would eventually become necessary for President Obama to introduce a second stimulus bill because the $787 billion proposal would prove inadequate.  At his blog, liberal economist Paul Krugman similarly reminded readers of his prediction about the consequences for failing to pass an effective stimulus bill:

So here’s the picture that scares me:  It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up.  Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts.  And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

The reality has turned out even worse than Krugman’s prediction because we are now approaching September 2010 – an election year – and the unemployment rate is being understated at 9.5 percent.  The conflation Krugman discussed has manifested itself in the narrative of the Tea Party movement.  In September of 2009, I discussed why Obama should have been listening to Australian economist Steve Keen, who – by that point – was saying basically the same thing:

So giving the stimulus to the debtors is a more potent way of reducing the impact of a credit crunch — the opposite of the advice given to Obama by his neoclassical advisers.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz recently provided us with this update about how the global financial crisis is affecting Australia in August of 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Meanwhile, President Obama and the Democrats have decided to utilize a mid-term campaign strategy of assessing all of the blame for our current financial chaos on President George W. Bush.  Criticism of this approach has been voiced by people outside of the Republican camp.  Frank Rich of The New York Times lamented the lack of message control exercised by the Democrats and their ill-advised focus on the Bush era:

But rather than wait for miracles or pray that Bushphobia will save the day, Democrats might instead start playing the hand they’ve been dealt.  Elections, the cliché goes, are about the future, not the past.  At the very least they’re about the present.

At this point in American history, it’s becoming more obvious that the two-party system has served no other purpose than to perpetuate the careers of blundering grafters.  The voting public must accept the reality that the only way it will be honestly and effectively represented in Washington is by independent candidates.  The laws that keep those independents off the ballots must be changed.




Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

Comments Off on Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

October 15, 2009

Reading the news these days can cause so much aggravation, I’m surprised more people haven’t pulled out all of their hair.  Regardless of one’s political perspective, there is an inevitable degree of outrage experienced from revelations concerning the role of government malfeasnace in causing and reacting to the financial crisis.  We have come to rely on satire to soothe our anger.  (For a good laugh, be sure to read this.)  Fortunately, an increasing number of commentators are not only exposing the systemic problems that created this catastrophe – they’re actually suggesting some good solutions.

Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig, recently considered the idea that the debate over healthcare reform might just be a distraction from the more urgent need for financial reform:

The health care issue should never even have been brought up at a time when the economy is reeling and we are running such immense deficits to shore up the banks.  Instead of fixing the economy by saving Americans’ homes and jobs, we are preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric on a hot issue that should have been addressed in calmer times.  It came up now because, despite all the hoary partisan posturing, it is a safer subject than the more pressing issue of what to do with Citigroup, AIG and General Motors, which the taxpayers happen to own but do not control.  While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plots in secret with the top bankers who got us into this mess, we are focused on the perennial circus of so-called health care reform.

There is an odd disconnect between the furious public debate over health care reform, with its emphasis on the cost of an increased government role, and the nonexistent discussion about the far more expensive and largely secretive government program to bail out Wall Street.  Why the agitation over the government spending $83 billion a year on health care when at least 20 times that amount has been thrown at the creators of the ongoing financial crisis without any serious public accountability?  On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees of the financial industry that we taxpayers saved are slated to be paid a record $140 billion this year.

Remember, taxpayers:  That $140 billion is your money.  The bailed-out institutions may claim to have repaid their TARP obligations, but they also received trillions in loans from the Federal Reserve — and Ben Bernanke refuses to disclose which institutions received how much.

William Greider wrote a superb essay for the October 26 issue of The Nation, emphasizing the importance of the work undertaken by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by Phil Angelides, as well as the investigation being done by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Even if Congress manages to act this fall, the debate will not end.  Obama’s plan does not begin to get at the rot in the financial system.  Wall Street’s most notorious practices continue to flourish, and if unemployment rates keep rising through 2010, the public will not set aside its anger.  The Angelides investigators could put the story back on the front page.

*  *  *

Beyond Ponzi schemes and deceitful mortgage lending, a far larger crime may lurk at the center of the crisis — wholesale securities fraud.  “Risk models” reassured unwitting investors who bought millions of bundled mortgage securities and derivatives like credit-default swaps.  But as Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics has testified, many of the models lacked real-life markets where they could be tested and verified.  “Clearly, we have now many examples where a model or the pretense of a model was used as a vehicle for creating risk and hiding it,” Whalen said.  “More important, however, is the role of financial models for creating opportunities for deliberate acts of securities fraud.”  That’s what investigators can examine.  What did the Wall Street firms know about the reliability of these models when they sold the securities?  And what did they tell the buyers?

*  *  *

Surely the political system itself is a root cause of the financial crisis.  The swollen influence of financial interests pushed Congress and presidents to repeal regulation and look the other way as reckless excesses developed.  Efforts to restore a more reliable representative democracy can start with Congress.  The power of money could be curbed by new rules prohibiting members of key committees from accepting contributions from the sectors they oversee.  Regulatory agencies, likewise, need internal designs to protect them from capture by the industries they regulate.

The Federal Reserve, having failed in its obligations so profoundly, should be reconstituted as an accountable federal agency, shorn of the excessive secrecy and insider privileges accorded to bankers.  The Constitution gives Congress, not the executive branch, the responsibility for managing money and credit.  Congress must reassert this responsibility and learn how to provide adequate oversight and policy critique.

Reforming the financial system, in other words, can be the prelude to reviving representative democracy.

At The Huffington Post, Robert Borosage warned that the financial industry is waging a huge lobbying battle to derail any attempts at financial reform.  Beyond that, the banking lobbyists will re-write any legislation to make it more favorable to their own objectives:

The banking lobby is nothing if not shameless.  They hope to use the reforms to WEAKEN current law.  They are pushing to make the federal standard the ceiling on reform, stripping the power of states to have higher standards.  Basically, they are hoping to find a way to shut down the independent investigations of state attorneys general like New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo or Illinois’ Lisa Madigan.

*  *  *

Historically, the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin decried in disgust, “own the place.”  And they’ve succeeded thus far in frustrating reform, even while pocketing literally hundreds of billions in support from taxpayers.

*  *  *

But this time it could be different.  Backroom deals are no longer safe.  Americans have been fleeced of trillions in the value of their homes and their savings because of Wall Street’s reckless excesses.  Then as taxpayers, they were extorted to ante up literally trillions more to forestall economic collapse by bailing out the banking sector.  Insult was added to that injury when the Federal Reserve refused to tell the Congress who got the money and on what terms.

Legislators would be well advised to understand the cozy old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable.  Americans are livid and paying attention.  Legislators who rely on Wall Street to finance their campaigns and then lead the effort to block or dilute reforms will discover that their constituents know what they have been up to.  Organizations like my own Campaign for America’s Future, the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Financial Reform, Huffington Post bloggers will make certain the word gets out.  Legislators may discover that Wall Street’s money is a burden, not a blessing.

The most encouraging article I have seen came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.  His perspective matched my sentiments exactly.  Looking through President Obama’s empty rhetoric, Mr. Gerstein helped provide direction and encouragement to those of us who are losing hope that our dysfunctional government could do anything close to addressing our nation’s financial ills:

The Changer-in-Chief long ago gave up on the idea of dismantling and remaking the crazy-quilt regulatory system that Wall Street (along with its Washington enablers) rigged for its own enrichment at everyone else’s expense.

*  *  *

Instead, Team Obama opted to move around the deck chairs within the existing bureaucracy, daftly hoping this conformist approach would be enough to prevent another titanic meltdown.

*  *  *

In the end, though, the key to success will be countering Wall Street’s influence and putting the politicians’ feet to the ire.  Members of Congress need to know there will be consequences for sticking with the status quo.      . . .  Make clear to every incumbent: Endorse our plan and we’ll give you money and public support; back the banks, and we will run ads against you telling voters you are for corrupt capitalism.

As I have said before, this is all about power.  Right now, Wall Street has the political playing field to itself; it has the money, the access it buys and the fear it implies.  And the public is on the outside, looking incredulous that this rigged system is still in place more than a year after it was exposed.  But if the frustrated middle can organize and mobilize a focused, non-partisan revolt of the revolted — as opposed to the inchoate and polarizing tea party movement — that whole dynamic will quickly change.  And so too, I’m confident, will the voting habits of our elected officials.

Fortunately, individuals like Dan Gerstein are motivating people to stand up and let our elected officials know that they work for the people and not the lobbyists.  Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, has just written a new book:  Whores: Why And How I Came To Fight The Establishment.  The timing of the book’s release could not have been better.



wordpress visitor


Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

Comments Off on Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

October 12, 2009

An ever-increasing number of people are paying close attention to a gentleman named Simon Johnson.  Mr. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now works at MIT as Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.  His Baseline Scenario website is focused on the financial and economic crises.  At the Washington Post website, he runs a blog with James Kwak called The Hearing.  Last spring, Johnson turned more than a few heads with his article from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Quiet Coup”, in which he explained that what happened in America during last year’s financial crisis and what is currently happening with our economic predicament is “shockingly reminiscent” of events experienced during financial crises in emerging market nations (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).

On October 9, Joe Nocera of The New York Times began his column by asking Professor Johnson what he thought the Wall Street banks owed America after receiving trillions of dollars in bailouts.  Johnson’s response turned to Wednesday’s upcoming fight before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the financial reforms proposed by the Obama administration:

“They can’t pay what they owe!” he began angrily.  Then he paused, collected his thoughts and started over:  “Tim Geithner saved them on terms extremely favorable to the banks.  They should support all of his proposed reforms.”

Mr. Johnson continued, “What gets me is that the banks have continued to oppose consumer protection.  How can they be opposed to consumer protection as defined by a man who is the most favorable Treasury Secretary they have had in a generation?  If he has decided that this is what they need, what moral right do they have to oppose it?  It is unconscionable.”

This week’s battle over financial reform has been brewing for quite a while.  Back on May 31, Gretchen Morgenson and Dan Van Natta wrote a piece for The New York Times entitled, “In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules”:

Hotly contested legislative wars are traditional fare in Washington, of course, and bills are often shaped by the push and pull of lobbyists — representing a cornucopia of special interests — working with politicians and government agencies.

What makes this fight different, say Wall Street critics and legislative leaders, is that financiers are aggressively seeking to fend off regulation of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In contrast, after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s, the clout of the financial lobby diminished significantly.

In case you might be looking for a handy scorecard to see which members of Congress are being “lobbied” by the financial industry and to what extent those palms are being greased, The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to provide us with an interactive chart.  Just slide the cursor next to the name of any member of the House Financial Services Committee and you will be able to see how much generosity that member received just during the first quarter of 2009 from an entity to be affected by this legislation.  The bars next to the committee members’ names are color-coded, with different colors used to identify specific sources, whose names are displayed as you pass over that section of the bar.  This thing is a wonderful invention.  I call it “The Graft Graph”.

On October 9, Simon Johnson appeared with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio) on the PBS program, Bill Moyers Journal.  At one point during the interview, Professor Johnson expressed grave doubts about our government’s ability to implement financial reform:

And yet, the opportunity for real reform has already passed. And there is not going to be — not only is there not going to be change, but I’ll go further.  I’ll say it’s going to be worse, what comes out of this, in terms of the financial system, its power, and what it can get away with.

*  *   *

BILL MOYERS:  Why have we not had the reform that we all knew was being — was needed and being demanded a year ago?

SIMON JOHNSON:  I think the opportunity — the short term opportunity was missed.  There was an opportunity that the Obama Administration had.  President Obama campaigned on a message of change.  I voted for him.  I supported him.  And I believed in this message.  And I thought that the time for change, for the financial sector, was absolutely upon us.  This was abundantly apparent by the inauguration in January of this year.

SIMON JOHNSON:  And Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff has a saying.  He’s widely known for saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Well, the crisis is over, Bill.  The crisis in the financial sector, not for people who own homes, but the crisis for the big banks is substantially over.  And it was completely wasted.  The Administration refused to break the power of the big banks, when they had the opportunity, earlier this year.  And the regulatory reforms they are now pursuing will turn out to be, in my opinion, and I do follow this day to day, you know.  These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.

Sound familiar?  If you change the topic to healthcare reform, you end up with the same bottom line:  “These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.”  The inevitable watering down of both legislative efforts can be blamed on weak, compromised leadership.  It’s one thing to make grand promises on the campaign trail — yet quite another to look a lobbyist in the eye and say:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Toward the end of the televised interview, Bill Moyers had this exchange with Representative Kaptur:

BILL MOYERS:   How do we get Congress back?  How do we get Congress to do what it’s supposed to do?  Oversight.  Real reform.  Challenge the powers that be.

MARCY KAPTUR:  We have to take the money out.  We have to get rid of the constant fundraising that happens inside the Congress.  Before political parties used to raise money; now individual members are raising money through the DCCC and the RCCC.  It is absolutely corrupt.

As we all know, our system of legalized graft goes beyond the halls of Congress.  During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama received nearly $995,000 in contributions from the people at Goldman Sachs.  The gang at 85 Broad Street is obviously getting its money’s worth.



wordpress visitor


The Longest Year

Comments Off on The Longest Year

September 14, 2009

As I write this, President Obama is preparing another fine-sounding, yet empty speech.  His subject this time is financial reform.  You may recall last week’s lofty address to the joint session of Congress, promoting his latest, somewhat-less-nebulous approach to healthcare reform.  He assured the audience that the so-called “public option” (wherein a government-created entity competes with private sector healthcare insurers) would be an integral part of the plan.  Within a week, two pieces of political toast from the Democratic Party (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) set about undermining that aspect of the healthcare reform agenda.  This is just one reason why, on November 2, 2010, the people who elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008 will be taking a “voters’ holiday”, paving the way for Republican majorities in the Senate and House.  The moral lapse involving the public option was documented by David Sirota for Danny Schechter’s NewsDissector blog:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time yesterday suggested she may be backing off her support of the public option – the government-run health plan that the private insurance industry is desperately trying to kill.  According to CNN, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “said they would support any provision that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance – whether or not it is the public option favored by most Democrats.”

This announcement came just hours before Steve Elmendorf, a registered UnitedHealth lobbyist and the head of UnitedHealth’s lobbying firm Elmendorf Strategies, blasted this email invitation throughout Washington, D.C. I just happened to get my hands on a copy of the invitation from a source – check it out:

From: Steve Elmendorf [mailto:steve@elmendorfstrategies.com]
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 8:31 AM
Subject: event with Speaker Pelosi at my home
You are cordially invited to a reception with

Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi

Thursday, September 24, 2009
6:30pm ~ 8:00pm

At the home of
Steve Elmendorf
2301 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Apt. 7B
Washington, D.C.

$5,000 PAC
$2,400 Individual

Again, Elmendorf is a registered lobbyist for UnitedHealth, and his firm’s website brags about its work for UnitedHealth on its website.

The sequencing here is important: Pelosi makes her announcement and then just hours later, the fundraising invitation goes out. Coincidental?  I’m guessing no – these things rarely ever are.

I wrote a book a few years ago called Hostile Takeover whose premise was that corruption and legalized bribery has become so widespread that nobody in Washington even tries to hide it. This is about as good an example of that truism as I’ve ever seen.

Whatever President Obama proposes to accomplish in terms of financial reform will surely be met with a similar fate.  Worse yet, his appointment of “Turbo” Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and his nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman are the best signals of the President’s true intention:  Preservation of the status quo, regardless of the cost to the taxpayers.

On this first anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers and the acknowledgment of the financial crisis, many commentators have noted the keen observations by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, published in the May, 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  The theme of Johnson’s article, “The Quiet Coup” was that the current economic and financial crisis in the United States is “shockingly reminiscent” of those experienced in emerging markets (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).  The devil behind all the details in setting these systems upright after a financial crisis is the age-old concept of moral hazard or more simply:  sleaze.  In making the comparison of the United States to the emerging market countries he encountered at the IMF, Mr. Johnson began this way:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity:  elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.  More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.  The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Here are a few more passages from “The Quiet Coup” that our political leaders would be well-advised to consider:

Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason:  it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change.  As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.”  But there’s the rub:  the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

*   *   *

The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy— is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending.  And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple:  break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business.  Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly— they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time.  Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

Mr. Johnson pointed out the need to overhaul our current antitrust laws – not because any single institution controls so much market share as to influence prices – but because the failure of any one “to big to fail” bank could collapse the entire financial system.

One of my favorite reporters at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, observed the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure with an essay that focused, in large part, on a recent paper by Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College, who created the expression: “zombie bank” in 1987.   This month, the Networks Financial Institute at Indiana State University published a policy brief by Dr. Kane on the subject of financial regulation.  In her article:  “But Who Is Watching Regulators?”, Ms. Morgenson summed up Professor Kane’s paper in the following way:

This ugly financial episode we’ve all had to live through makes clear, Mr. Kane says, that taxpayers must protect themselves against two things:  the corrupting influence of bureaucratic self-interest among regulators and the political clout wielded by the large institutions they are supposed to police. Finally, he argues, taxpayers must demand that the government publicize the costs of efforts taken to save the financial system from itself.

Although you may have seen widely-publicized news reports about an “overwhelming number” of academicians opposing the current efforts to require transparency from the Federal Reserve, Professor Kane provides a strong argument in favor of Fed transparency as well as scrutiny of the Treasury and the other government entities enmeshed the complex system of bailouts created within the past year.

At thirty-eight pages, his paper is quite a deep read.  Nevertheless, it’s packed with great criticism of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.  We need more of this and when someone of Professor Kane’s stature provides it, there had better be people in high places taking it very seriously.  The following are just a few of the many astute observations made by Dr. Kane:

Agency elitism would be evidenced by the extent to which its leaders use crises to establish interpretations and precedents that cover up its mistakes, inflate its powers, expand its discretion, and extend its jurisdiction. According to this standard, Fed efforts to use the crisis as a platform for self-congratulation and for securing enlarged systemic-risk authority sidetracks rather than promotes effective reform.

*   *   *

A financial institution’s incentive to disobey, circumvent or lobby against a particular rule increases with the opportunity cost of compliance. This means that, to sort out the welfare consequences of any regulatory program, we must assess not only the costs and benefits of compliance, but include the costs and benefits of circumvention as well.

*   *   *

Realistically, every government-managed program of disaster relief is a strongly lobbied and nontransparent tax-transfer scheme for redistributing wealth and shifting risk away from the disaster’s immediate victims.  A financial crisis externalizes – in margin and other collateral calls, in depositor runs, and in bank and borrower pleas for government assistance – a political and economic struggle over when and how losses accumulated in corporate balance sheets and in the portfolios of insolvent financial institutions are to be unwound and reallocated across society.  At the same time, insolvent firms and government rescuers share a common interest in mischaracterizing the size and nature of the redistribution so as to minimize taxpayer unrest.

In principle, lenders and investors that voluntarily assume real and financial risks should reap the gains and bear the losses their risk exposures generate.  However, in crises, losers pressure government officials to rescue them and to induce other parties to share their pain.

The advocates of crony capitalism and their tools (our politicians and regulatory bureaucrats) need to know that we are on to them.  If the current administration is willing to facilitate more of the same, then it’s time for some new candidates to step forward.




The Forgotten Urgency Of Financial Reform

Comments Off on The Forgotten Urgency Of Financial Reform

September 10, 2009

With all the fighting over healthcare reform and the many exciting controversies envisioned by its opponents, such as:  death panels, state-sponsored abortions and illegal aliens’ coming to America for free breast implants, the formerly-urgent need for financial reform his slipped away from public concern.  Alan Blinder recently wrote a piece for The New York Times, lamenting how the subject of financial reform has disappeared from the Congressional radar:

After all we’ve been through, and with so much anger still directed at financial miscreants, the political indifference toward financial reform is somewhere between maddening and tragic.  Why is the pulse of reform so faint?

Blinder then discussed five reasons why.  My favorite concerned lobbying:

Almost everything becomes lobbied to death in Washington.  In the case of financial reform, the money at stake is mind-boggling, and one financial industry after another will go to the mat to fight any provision that might hurt it.

Mr. Blinder expressed concern that these three important changes would be left out of any financial reform legislation:  a) resolving the problem of having financial institutions that are “too big to fail”, b) cleaning up the derivatives mess and c) creating a “systemic risk regulator”.   (All right — I rearranged the order.)

In case you’re wondering just what the hell a “systemic risk regulator” is, Blinder provided the readers with a link to one of his earlier articles, which said this:

The main task of a systemic-risk regulator is to serve as an early-warning-and-prevention system, on the prowl for looming risks that extend across traditional boundaries and are becoming large enough to have systemic consequences.

*   *   *

Suppose such a regulator had been in place in 2005.  Because the market for residential mortgages and the mountain of securities built on them constituted the largest financial market in the world, that regulator probably would have kept a watchful eye on it.  If so, it would have seen what the banking agencies apparently missed:  lots of dodgy mortgages being granted by nonbank lenders with no federal supervision.

If the regulator saw those mortgages, it might then have looked into the securities being built on them.  That investigation might have turned up the questionable triple-A ratings being showered on these securities, and it certainly should have uncovered the huge risk concentrations both on and off of banks’ balance sheets.  And, unless it was totally incompetent, the regulator would have been alarmed to learn that a single company, American International Group, stood behind an inordinate share of all the credit-default swaps — essentially insurance policies against default — that had been issued.

Blinder shares the view, expressed by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, that the Federal Reserve should serve as systemic risk regulator, because “there is no other alternative”.  Unfortunately, President Obama is also in favor of such an approach.  The drawback to empowering the Fed with such additional responsibility was acknowledged by Mr. Blinder:

On the other hand, some members of Congress are grumbling that the Fed has already overreached, usurping Congressional authority.  Others contend that it has performed so poorly as a regulator that it hardly deserves more power.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed this issue himself back on March 5, in a speech entitled:  “Financial Reform to Address Systemic Risk”.  Near the end of this speech, Bernanke discussed the subject objectively, although he concluded with a pitch to get this authority for his own realm:

Some commentators have proposed that the Federal Reserve take on the role of systemic risk authority; others have expressed concern that adding this responsibility would overburden the central bank.  The extent to which this new responsibility might be a good match for the Federal Reserve depends a great deal on precisely how the Congress defines the role and responsibilities of the authority, as well as on how the necessary resources and expertise complement those employed by the Federal Reserve in the pursuit of its long-established core missions.

It seems to me that we should keep our minds open on these questions.  We have been discussing them a good deal within the Federal Reserve System, and their importance warrants careful consideration by legislators and other policymakers. As a practical matter, however, effectively identifying and addressing systemic risks would seem to require the involvement of the Federal Reserve in some capacity, even if not in the lead role.     .  .   .   The Federal Reserve plays such a key role in part because it serves as liquidity provider of last resort, a power that has proved critical in financial crises throughout history.  In addition, the Federal Reserve has broad expertise derived from its wide range of activities, including its role as umbrella supervisor for bank and financial holding companies and its active monitoring of capital markets in support of its monetary policy and financial stability objectives.

This rationale leads me to suspect that Mr. Bernanke might be planning to use his super powers as: “liquidity provider of last resort” to money-print away any systemic risks that might arise on his watch in such a capacity.  This is reminiscent of how comedian Steve Smith always suggests the use of duct tape to solve just about any problem that might arise in life.

In the September 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Peter Wallison wrote an article entitled:  “The Fed Can’t Monitor ‘Systemic Risk’”.   More important was the subtitle:  That’s like asking a thief to police himself.  Wallison begins with the point that President Obama’s inclusion of granting such powers to the Fed as the centerpiece of his financial regulatory reform agenda “is a serious error.”  Wallison seemed to share my concern about Bernanke’s “duct tape” panacea:

The problem is the Fed itself can create systemic risk.  Many scholars, for example, have argued that by keeping interest rates too low for too long the Fed created the housing bubble that gave us the current mortgage meltdown, financial crisis and recession.

Vesting such authority in the Fed creates an inherent conflict of interest.  Mr. Wallison explained this quite well:

Tasking the Fed with that responsibility would bury it among many other inconsistent roles and give the agency incentives to ignore warning signals that an independent body would be likely to spot.

Unlike balancing its current competing assignments — price stability and promoting full employment — detecting systemic risk would require the Fed to see the subtle flaws in its own policies.  Errors that are small at first could grow into major problems.  It is simply too much to expect any human institution to step outside of itself and see the error of its ways when it can plausibly ignore those errors in the short run.  If we are going to have a systemic-risk monitor, it should be an independent council of regulators.

When the dust finally settles on the healthcare reform debate, perhaps Congress can approach the subject of financial reform  . .  .  if it’s not too late by that point.



wordpress visitor


How The Democrats Self-Destruct

Comments Off on How The Democrats Self-Destruct

June 29, 2009

For the past few days, we have been inundated with news reports detailing the self-destructive behavior of the late singing sensation, Michael Jackson.  Perhaps it is this heightened awareness of self-destruction that is causing people to take a closer look at the self-destructive behavior taking place within the Democratic Party.

Most notable is the behavior of President Obama.  As his Inauguration approached, many people were surprised to learn that some principal players selected for Obama’s economic team were the same people responsible for creating this mess during the Clinton years.  The most prominent of these is Larry Summers, who is expected to replace Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Federal Reserve in January.  On June 24, Robert Scheer, on his Truthdig website, bemoaned the fact that Obama is following the “trickle down” strategy of bailing out the big banks, while doing nothing to really solve the mortgage crisis:

It’s not working.  The Bush-Obama strategy of throwing trillions at the banks to solve the mortgage crisis is a huge bust.  The financial moguls, while tickled pink to have $1.25 trillion in toxic assets covered by the feds, along with hundreds of billions in direct handouts, are not using that money to turn around the free fall in housing foreclosures.

*    *    *

Here again the administration, continuing the Bush strategy, is working the wrong end of the problem.  Although President Obama was wise enough to at least launch a job stimulus program, a far greater amount of federal funding benefits Wall Street as opposed to Main Street.

*    *    *

Why was I so naive as to have expected this Democratic president to not do the bidding of the banks when the last president from that party joined the Republicans in giving the moguls everything they wanted?  Please, Obama, prove me wrong.

If President Obama doesn’t prove Robert Scheer wrong, Obama might find himself facing some hostile crowds at the “town hall” meetings as 2012 approaches.

The President might also be surprised to encounter large-scale Democratic grassroots disappointment over his proposed “overhaul” of the financial regulatory system.  As I pointed out on June 18, President Obama’s financial reform proposal, released on that date, drew immediate criticism for the expanded powers granted to the Federal Reserve.  On June 24, The Nation (which prides itself on having a liberal bias) ran a harshly critical piece by William Greider, entitled:  “Obama’s False Reform”.  In addition to criticizing the expanded powers granted to the Federal Reserve, Greider emphasized that the proposal did not contain any significant measures, or “hard rules”, to reform the financial system.  Beyond that, Greider took Obama to task for the false claim that the regulatory system was overwhelmed by “the speed, scope and sophistication of a 21st century global economy”.  The article emphasized the need to “slow down the rush to weak solutions” by taking the time to find out about the root causes of the breakdown and then to address those causes:

Give subpoena power to Elizabeth Warren the Congressional Oversight Board she chairs.  Hire some of those investigative reporters who have no political investment in digging deeper into the mulch.  What exactly went wrong?  Who has bloody hands?  Where are the fundamental reforms?  If the economy returns to “normal’ rather soon, the ardor for serious reform might dissipate with much left undone.  That is a small risk to take, especially if the alternative is enacting the bankers’ pallid version of reform.

President Obama is now taking pride for the passage in the House of Representatives of the “climate change bill” (H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009).  Despite the claim of House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) that the bill’s passage in the House was “a transformative moment”, 44 Democrats voted against the bill.  One harsh critic of the bill is Democrat Dennis Kucinich.  Here’s some of what Mr. Kucinich had to say:

It won’t address the problem.  In fact, it might make the problem worse.  It sets targets that are too weak, especially in the short term, and sets about meeting those targets through Enron-style accounting methods.  It gives new life to one of the primary sources of the problem that should be on its way out — coal — by giving it record subsidies.  And it is rounded out with massive corporate giveaways at taxpayer expense.

*   *   *

.  .  .  the bill does not require any greenhouse gas reductions beyond current levels until 2030.

Worse yet is the Democrats’ fumbling and bumbling with their efforts at healthcare reform legislation.  Polling wiz Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, did a meta-analysis of the polls conducted to assess public support for the so-called “public option”in healthcare coverage, wherein people have the option to buy health insurance from the government.  The insurance companies obviously aren’t interested in that sort of competition and they have launched advertising campaigns portraying it as controversial and flawed.  Nevertheless, Nate Silver’s report revealed that five of the six polls analyzed, demonstrated lopsided support for the public option, exceeding 60 percent.  Despite the strong popular support for the public option, Mr. Silver pointed out in another posting, how there is a great risk that Democrats might oppose the measure due to payoffs from lobbyists:

Lobbying contributions appear to have the largest marginal impact on middle-of-the-road Democrats.  Liberal Democrats are likely to hold firm to the public option unless they receive a lot of remuneration from healthcare PACs.  Conservative Democrats may not support the public option in the first place for ideological reasons, although money can certainly push them more firmly against it.  But the impact on mainline Democrats appears to be quite large:  if a mainline Democrat has received $60,000 from insurance PACs over the past six years, his likelihood of supporting the public option is cut roughly in half from 80 percent to 40 percent.

Awareness of this venality obviously has many commentators expressing outrage.  On June 23, Joe Conason wrote such an article for The New York Observer:

If Congress fails to enact health care reform this year –or if it enacts a sham reform designed to bail out corporate medicine while excluding the “public option” — then the public will rightly blame Democrats, who have no excuse for failure except their own cowardice and corruption.  The punishment inflicted by angry voters is likely to be reduced majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives — or even the restoration of Republican rule on Capitol Hill.

*  *  *

The excuses sound different, but all of these lawmakers have something in common — namely, their abject dependence on campaign contributions from the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations fighting against real reform.

*  *  *

Whenever Democratic politicians are confronted with this conflict between the public interest and their private fund-raising, they take offense at the implied insult.  They protest, as a spokesman for Senator Landrieu did, that they make policy decisions based on what is best for the people of their states, “not campaign contributions.”  But when health reform fails — or turns into a trough for their contributors, who will believe them?  And who will vote for them?

Those Democrats inclined to oppose the public option don’t appear to be too concerned about public indignation over their behavior.  Take California Senator Dianne Feinstein for example.  Do you really believe she gives a damn about voter outrage?  She was re-elected in 2006, despite criticism that as chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  So what if MoveOn.org is targeting her for ambivalence about the issue of healthcare reform?  MoveOn.org is also targeting other Democrats who are attempting to eliminate the public option.  If these officials have so much hubris as to believe that they can get away with scoffing at the public will, they had better start looking for new jobs now  . . . because the market isn’t very good.