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Too Important To Ignore

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On March 21, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a fantastic document:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written 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.

While reading Harvey Rosenblum’s essay, I was constantly reminded of the creepy “JOBS Act” which is on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Simon Johnson (former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund) recently explained why the JOBS Act poses the same threat as the deregulatory measures which helped cause the financial crisis:

With the so-called JOBS bill, on which the Senate is due to vote Tuesday, Congress is about to make the same kind of mistake again – this time abandoning much of the 1930s-era securities legislation that both served investors well and helped make the US one of the best places in the world to raise capital.  We find ourselves again on a bipartisan route to disaster.

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The idea behind the JOBS bill is that our existing securities laws – requiring a great deal of disclosure – are significantly holding back the economy.

The bill, HR3606, received bipartisan support in the House (only 23  Democrats voted against).  The bill’s title is JumpStart Our Business Startup Act, a clever slogan – but also a complete misrepresentation.

The bill’s proponents point out that Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock are way down.  That is true – but that is also exactly what you should expect when the economy teeters on the brink of an economic depression and then struggles to recover because households’ still have a great deal of debt.

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Professor John Coates hit the nail on the head:

“While the various proposals being considered have been characterized as promoting jobs and economic growth by reducing regulatory burdens and costs, it is better to understand them as changing, in similar ways, the balance that existing securities laws and regulations have struck between the transaction costs of raising capital, on the one hand, and the combined costs of fraud risk and asymmetric and unverifiable information, on the other hand.” (See p.3 of this December 2011 testimony.)

In other words, you will be ripped off more.  Knowing this, any smart investor will want to be better compensated for investing in a particular firm – this raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  The effect on job creation is likely to be negative, not positive.

Simon Johnson’s last paragraph reminded me of a passage from Harvey Rosenblum’s Dallas Fed essay, wherein he was discussing why the economic recovery from the financial crisis has been so sluggish:

Similarly, the contributions to recovery from securities markets and asset prices and wealth have been weaker than expected.  A prime reason is that burned investors demand higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects. They remain uncertain about whether the financial system has been fixed and whether an economic recovery is sustainable.

To repeat what Simon Johnson said, combined with the above-quoted paragraph:  the demand by “burned investors” for “higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects” raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  How quickly we forget the lessons of the financial crisis!

The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report began with an introductory letter from its president, Richard W. Fisher.  Fisher noted that while “memory fades with the passage of time” it is important to recall the position in which the “too-big-to fail” banks placed our economy, thus leading Congress to pass into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank).  Although Harvey Rosenblum’s essay was primarily focused on the Dodd-Frank Act’s efforts to address the systemic risk posed by the existence of those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks, other measures from Dodd-Frank were mentioned.  More important is the fact that the TBTFs have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why this has happened:

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.

The ability of the financial sector “to resist the pressures of federal regulation” also happens to be the primary reason for the perverse effort toward de-regulation, known as the JOBS Act.  At the Seeking Alpha website, Felix Salmon reflected on the venality which is driving this bill through the legislative process:

There’s no good reason at all for this:  it’s basically a way for unpopular incumbent lawmakers who voted for Dodd-Frank to try to weasel their way back into the big banks’ good graces and thereby open a campaign-finance spigot they desperately need.

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here.  A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections.  That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear (about) what has changed.  But one thing is coming through loud and clear:  anybody looking to Congress to be helpful in the fight to have effective regulation of financial institutions, is going to be very disappointed.  Much more likely is that Congress will be actively unhelpful, and will do whatever the financial industry wants in terms of hobbling regulators and deregulating as much activity as it possibly can.  Dodd-Frank, it seems, was a brief aberration.  Now, we’re back to business as usual, and a captured Congress.

The next financial crisis can’t be too far down the road   .   .   .


Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

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Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

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Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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