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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’ ” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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Revenge Of The Blondes

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My vintage iPhone sputtered, stammered and finally stalled out as I tried to access an article about derivatives trading after clicking on the link.  The process got as far as the appearance of the URL, which indicated that the source was The New York Times.  I assumed that the piece had been written by Gretchen Morgenson and that I could read it once I sat down at my regular computer.  Within moments, I was at The Big Picture website, where I found another link to the same article.  This time it worked and I found that the piece had been written by Louise Story.  “Wrong blonde”, I thought to myself.  It was at that point when I realized how much the world had changed from the days when “dumb blonde” jokes had been so popular.  In fact, a vast amount of the skullduggery that caused and resulted from the financial crisis has been exposed and explained by women with blonde hair.  After a handful of unscrupulous Wall Street bankers brought the world’s financial system to the brink of collapse, an even smaller number of blonde, female sleuths set about unwinding this complex web of deceit for “the Average Joe” to understand.  Here are a few of them:

Yves Smith

All right  .  .  .   It’s an old picture from her days at Goldman Sachs.  Cue-up Duran Duran.  (It’s almost as old as the photo of Ben Bernanke in my fake Chandon ad, based on their  “Life needs bubbles” theme.)  On most days, the first blog I access is Naked Capitalism.  Its publisher and most frequent contributor is Yves Smith (a/k/a Susan Webber).  At the Seeking Alpha website, a review of her recent book, ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism, began this way:

ECONNED is the most deeply researched and empirically validated account of the financial meltdown of 2008-2009 and how its unaddressed causes predict similar crises to come.  As a long-time Wall Street veteran, Yves Smith, through her influential blog “Naked Capitalism” lucidly explains to her over 2500,000 unique visitors each month exactly what games market players use and how their “innovations” evolved over the years to take the rest of us to the cleaners.  Smith is that unusual combination of scholar, expert, participant and teacher, who writes with a clarifying sense of moral outrage and disgust at the decline of ethics on Wall Street and financial markets.

Smith’s daily list of Links at Naked Capitalism, covers a broad range of newsworthy subjects both within and beyond the financial realm.  I usually find myself reading all of the articles linked on that page.

Gretchen Morgenson

Gretchen Morgenson is my favorite reporter for The New York Times.  She has proven herself to be Treasury Secretary Turbo Tim Geithner’s worst nightmare.  Ms. Morgenson has caused Geithner so much agony, I would not be surprised to hear that he named his recent kidney stone after her.  With Jo Becker, Ms. Morgenson wrote the most revealing essay on Geithner back in April of 2009.  Once you’ve read it, you will have a better understanding of why Geithner gave away so many billions to the banksters as president of the New York Fed by way of Maiden Lane III.  Morgenson subsequently wrote her own article on Maiden Lane III here.

Ms. Morgenson has many detractors.  Most prominent among them was the late Tanta (a/k/a Doris Dungey) of the Calculated Risk blog, who wrote the recurring “Morgenson Watch” for that site.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism (see above) accurately summed up the bulk of the criticism directed against Gretchen Morgenson:

Gretchen Morgenson is often a target of heated criticism on the blogosphere, which I have argued more than once is overdone.  While her articles on executive compensation and securities litigation are consistently well reported, she has an appetite for the wilder side of finance, and often looks a bit out of her depth.  Typically, she simply runs afoul of finance pedants, who jump on misapplication of industry jargon or minor errors when those (admittedly disconcerting) errors fail to derail the thrust of the argument.

A noted example of this was Morgenson’s article of March 6 2010, in which she explained that Greece was hiding its financial obligations with “credit default swaps” rather than currency swaps.  The bloggers who vigilantly watch for her to make such a mistake wouldn’t let go of that one for quite a while.  Nevertheless, I like her work.  Nobody is perfect.

Louise Story

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, Louise Story wrote the recent article for The New York Times, concerning anticompetitive practices in the credit derivatives clearing, trading and information services industries.  Discussing that subject in a manner that can make it understandable to the “average reader” (someone with a high school education) is no easy task.  Beyond that, Ms. Story was able to explain the frustrations of regulators, who had hoped that some degree of transparency could be introduced to the derivatives market as a result of the recently enacted, “Dodd-Frank” financial reform bill.  It’s an important article, which has drawn a good deal of well-deserved attention.

Last year, Ms. Story co-authored a New York Times article with Gretchen Morgenson, concerning collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) entitled, “Banks Bundled Bad Debt, Bet Against It and Won”.  As I pointed out at the time:  Pay close attention to the explanation of how Tim Geithner retained a “special counselor” whose previous responsibilities included oversight of the parent company of an investment firm named Tricadia, Inc.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.

These three women, as well as a number of their non-blonde counterparts (including:  Nomi Prins, Janet Tavakoli and Naomi Klein) have exposed a vast amount of the odious activities that caused the financial crisis.  They have helped inform and educate the public on what the “good old boys” network of bankers, regulators and lobbyists have been doing to this country.  The paradigm shift that took us beyond the sexist stereotype of the  “dumb blonde” has brought our society to the point where women – often blonde ones – have intervened to alert the rest of us to the hazards caused by what Paul Farrell of MarketWatch described as “Wall Street’s macho ego trip”.

If you should come across someone who still tells “dumb blonde” jokes – ask that person if he (or she) has read ECONned.


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Inviting Blowback

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March 11, 2010

Is it just a coincidence that “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the subject of back-to-back feature stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic ?  A number of commentators don’t think so.

The March 10 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title is meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system are working but he’s not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, this piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he has been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

The article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in the April 26, 2009 issue of The New York Times helped clarify the record on Geithner’s loyalty to the big banks at the public’s expense, during his tenure as president of the Federal Reserve of New York.  That piece began with a brainstorming session convened by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in June of 2008, at which point Paulson asked for suggestions as to what emergency powers the government should have at its disposal to confront the burgeoning financial crisis:

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.

The recent article in The New Yorker defends Geithner’s bank bailouts, with a bit of historical revisionism that conveniently avoids a small matter referred to as Maiden Lane III:

During the past ten months, U.S. banks have raised more than a hundred and forty billion dollars from investors and increased the reserves they hold to cover unforeseen losses.  While many small banks are still in peril, their larger brethren, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, are more strongly capitalized than many of their international competitors, and they have repaid virtually all the money they received from taxpayers.  Looking ahead, the Treasury Department estimates the ultimate cost of the financial-rescue package at just a hundred and seventeen billion dollars — and much of that related to propping up General Motors and Chrysler.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the NewYorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

The article on Geithner, appearing in the April issue of The Atlantic, was described by Mr. Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

The reaction to the New Yorker and Atlantic articles, articulated by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is an absolutely fantastic “must read” piece.  Ms. Smith goes beyond the subject of Geithner.  Her essay is a tour de force, describing how President Obama sold out the American public in the service of his patrons on Wall Street.  The final two paragraphs portray the administration’s antics with a long-overdue measure of pugilism:

But the Obama administration miscalculated badly.  First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy.  But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment.  Obama took his eye off the ball.  A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation.  It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering.  Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.  But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic.  Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke’s designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program.  While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Administration’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.

So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts.  It may have no choice.  Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield.  The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades.  Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.

Congratulations to Yves Smith for writing a fantastic critique of the Obama administration’s combination of nonfeasance and misfeasance in responding to both the financial and economic crises.



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Preparing For The Worst

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November 19, 2009

In the November 18 edition of The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard revealed that the French investment bank, Societe Generale “has advised its clients to be ready for a possible ‘global economic collapse’ over the next two years, mapping a strategy of defensive investments to avoid wealth destruction”.   That gloomy outlook was the theme of a report entitled:  “Worst-case Debt Scenario” in which the bank warned that a new set of problems had been created by government rescue programs, which simply transferred private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders”:

“As yet, nobody can say with any certainty whether we have in fact escaped the prospect of a global economic collapse,” said the 68-page report, headed by asset chief Daniel Fermon.  It is an exploration of the dangers, not a forecast.

Under the French bank’s “Bear Case” scenario, the dollar would slide further and global equities would retest the March lows.  Property prices would tumble again.  Oil would fall back to $50 in 2010.

*   *   *

The underlying debt burden is greater than it was after the Second World War, when nominal levels looked similar.  Ageing populations will make it harder to erode debt through growth.  “High public debt looks entirely unsustainable in the long run.  We have almost reached a point of no return for government debt,” it said.

Inflating debt away might be seen by some governments as a lesser of evils.

If so, gold would go “up, and up, and up” as the only safe haven from fiat paper money.  Private debt is also crippling.  Even if the US savings rate stabilises at 7pc, and all of it is used to pay down debt, it will still take nine years for households to reduce debt/income ratios to the safe levels of the 1980s.

To make matters worse, America still has an unemployment problem that just won’t abate.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith for The Business Insider took a view beyond the “happy talk” propaganda to the actual unpleasant statistics.  Mr. Smith also called our attention to what can be seen by anyone willing to face reality, while walking around in any urban area or airport:

The divergence between the reality easily observed in the real world and the heavily touted hype that “the recession is over because GDP rose 3.5%” is growing.  It’s obvious that another 7 million jobs which are currently hanging by threads will be slashed in the next year or two.

By this point, most Americans are painfully aware of the massive bailouts afforded to those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  The thought of transferring private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders” immediately reminds people of TARP and the as-yet-undisclosed assistance provided by the Federal Reserve to some of those same, TARP-enabled institutions.

As Kevin Drawbaugh reported for Reuters, the European Union has already taken action to break up those institutions whose failure could create a risk to the entire financial system:

EU regulators are set to turn the spotlight on 28 European banks bailed out by governments for possible mandated divestitures, officials said on Wednesday.

The EU executive has already approved restructuring plans for British lender Lloyds Banking (LLOY.L), Dutch financial group ING Groep NV (ING.AS) and Belgian group KBC (KBC.BR).

Giving break-up power to regulators would be “a good thing,” said Paul Miller, a policy analyst at investment firm FBR Capital Markets, on Wednesday.

Big banks in general are bad for the economy because they do not allocate credit well, especially to small businesses, he said. “Eventually the big banks get broken up in one way or another,” Miller said at the Reuters Global Finance Summit.

Meanwhile in the United States, the House Financial Services Committee approved a measure that would grant federal regulators the authority to break up financial institutions that would threaten the entire system if they were to fail.  Needless to say, this proposal does have its opponents, as the Reuters article pointed out:

In both the House and the Senate, “financial lobbyists will continue to try to water down this new and intrusive federal regulatory power,” said Joseph Engelhard, policy analyst at investment firm Capital Alpha Partners.

If a new break-up power does survive the legislative process, Engelhard said, it is unlikely a “council of numerous financial regulators would be able to agree on such a radical step as breaking up a large bank, except in the most unusual circumstances, and that the Treasury Secretary … would have the ability to veto any imprudent use of such power.”

When I first read this, I immediately realized that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner would consider any use of such power as imprudent and he would likely veto any attempt to break up a large bank.  Nevertheless, my concerns about the “Geithner factor” began to fade after I read some other encouraging news stories.  In The Huffington Post, Sam Stein disclosed that Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (a Democrat) had called for the firing of White House economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary “Timmy Geithner” during an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz.  Mr. Stein provided the following recap of that discussion:

“We think it is time, maybe, that we turn our focus to Main Street — we reclaim some of the unspent [TARP] funds, we reclaim some of the funds that are being paid back, which will not be paid back in full, and we use it to put people back to work.  Rebuilding America’s infrastructure is a tried and true way to put people back to work,” said DeFazio.

“Unfortunately, the President has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a Treasury Secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don’t like that idea,” he added.  “They want to keep the TARP money either to continue to bail out Wall Street  … or to pay down the deficit.  That’s absurd.”

Asked specifically whether Geithner should stay in his job, DeFazio replied:  “No.”

“Especially if you look back at the AIG scandal,” he added, “and Goldman and others who got their bets paid off in full … with taxpayer money through AIG.  We channeled the money through them.  Geithner would not answer my question when I said, ‘Were those naked credit default swaps by Goldman or were they a counter-party?’  He would not answer that question.”

DeFazio said that among he and others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, there was a growing consensus that Geithner needed to be removed.  He added that some lawmakers were “considering questions regarding him and other economic advisers” — though a petition calling for the Treasury Secretary’s removal had not been drafted, he said.

Another glimmer of hope for the possible removal of Turbo Tim came from Jeff Madrick at The Daily Beast.  Madrick’s piece provided us with a brief history of Geithner’s unusually fast rise to power (he was 42 when he was appointed president of the New York Federal Reserve) along with a reference to the fantastic discourse about Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, which appeared in The New York Times last April.  Mr. Madrick demonstrated that what we have learned about Geithner since April, has affirmed those early doubts:

Recall that few thought Geithner was seasoned enough to be Treasury secretary when Obama picked him.  Rubin wasn’t ready to be Treasury secretary when Clinton was elected and he had run Goldman Sachs.  Was Geithner’s main attraction that he could easily be controlled by Summers and the White House political advisers?  It’s a good bet.  A better strategy, some argued, would have been to name Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, for a year’s worth of service and give Geithner as his deputy time to grow.  But Volcker would have been far harder to control by the White House.

But now the president needs a Treasury Secretary who is respected enough to stand up to Wall Street, restabilize the world’s trade flows and currencies, and persuade Congress to join a battle to get the economic recovery on a strong path.  He also needs someone with enough economic understanding to be a counterweight to the White House advisers, led by Summers, who have consistently been behind the curve, except for the $800 billion stimulus.  And now that is looking like it was too little.  The best guess is that Geithner is not telling the president anything that the president does not know or doesn’t hear from someone down the hall.

The problem for Geithner and his boss, is that the stakes if anything are higher than ever.

As the rest of the world prepares for worsening economic conditions, the United States should do the same.  Keeping Tim Geithner in charge of the Treasury makes less sense than it did last April.



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Kill The Whales

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October 8, 2009

Those whales are back in the news again — this time due to calls for their slaughter.  In case you’re wondering what kind of person would advocate the killing of whales, I would like to identify two people who recently spoke out in favor of such action.  The first of these individuals is one of my favorite columnists at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her “trenchant and incisive” coverage of Wall Street.  The second is the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair.  Two women want to have whales killed?  Yes.  However, the “whales” in question are those infamous financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  On October 3, Gretchen Morgenson wrote a piece for The New York Times, entitled:  “The Cost of Saving These Whales” in which she defined “to big to fail” institutions as “banks that are so big and interconnected that their very existence threatens the world”.   She discussed the problems caused by the continued existence of those whales with this explanation:

During the credit bust, our leaders embraced the too-big-to-fail policy, reluctantly bailing out large institutions to save the system from collapse, they said.  Yet even as the crisis has abated, these policy makers have shown little interest in cutting financial monsters down to size.  This is especially disturbing given that some institutions have grown even larger as a result of the mess.

It is perverse, of course, to reward big banks’ mistakes with bailouts financed by beleaguered taxpayers.  But the too-big-to-fail doctrine benefits the banks in other ways as well:  the implication that an institution will not be allowed to fall gives it significant cost advantages over smaller, perhaps more responsible competitors.

On October 4, Sheila Bair of the FDIC gave a speech before the International Institute of Finance at their annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.  At the outset, she pointed out that “the first task” in creating “a more resilient, transparent, and better-regulated financial system” would be to scrap the “too big to fail” doctrine.  She went on to explain how to go about killing those whales:

To do this we need a resolution regime that provides for the orderly wind-down of banking and other financial enterprises without imposing costs on the taxpayers.

The solution must involve a practical and effective mechanism for the orderly resolution of these institutions similar to that used for FDIC-insured banks.

This new regime would not permit taxpayer funds to be used to prop up a firm or its management.  Instead, senior management would be replaced, and losses would be borne by the stockholders and creditors.

On September 23, 2009 Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner testified before the House Financial Services Committee to explain his planned financial reform agenda.  Here’s what Turbo Tim had to say about the plan for dealing with the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to these institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  Geithner’s scheme of continued corporate welfare for the biggest financial institutions is consistent with what we learned about him from Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in their New York Times article back on April 26.  That essay gave us some great insight about Turbo Tim’s blindness to moral hazard:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack.  He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner.

Geithner’s objective of putting the prosperity of the banks ahead of any concern for the taxpayers was again demonstrated in this AFP report from October 6:

On proposed changes to the financial system, Geithner said it was “legitimate” for banks to be influential and admitted that reform could “pose risks to financial innovation.”

Nevertheless, he stressed that “the most important issue is that if stability (of financial institutions) is not guaranteed, it will become harder to raise capital.”

On October 6, Newsweek published an interview conducted by Nancy Cook with William Black, a former federal regulator during the Savings & Loan crisis and a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  The interview included a discussion of the government’s response to the financial crisis.  One remark made by Mr. Black reinforced my opinion about Turbo Tim:

“Some of the things Bernanke did were very bad, but he is in sharp contrast to Geithner who has been wrong about everything in his career.  When Geithner was once answering a question in response to Ron Paul, he said, ‘I’ve never been a regulator.’  He was then the President of the New York Federal Reserve, and he purports that he was never a regulator?  That is a demonstration of what is wrong with the Federal Reserve banks if the head of the unit doesn’t think he’s a regulator.  He’s a disaster.”

It should come as no surprise that Richard Carnell, a Professor at Fordham Law School and former Assistant Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, would have this to say about Geithner’s financial reform agenda, when asked for his comments by Kim Thai of Fortune:

The plan includes useful reforms.  But it’s also naive, timid, misguided, politically inept, and intellectually dishonest.

It places naive faith in regulation.  Yet regulation failed disastrously over the past decade.  Bank regulators had ample powers to keep banks safe but did too little, too late.  They let banks use $12-13 in borrowed money for every $1 in shareholders’ money.  The administration’s response?  Give regulators more powers.

[The plan] preserves a preposterous tangle of overlapping regulators.  And it didn’t arrive until June, seven months after the election.  By then the crisis had faded and special interest politics had come roaring back.

It entrenches bailouts for large financial institutions.  Voters know that’s rotten policy.  It makes firms like General Electric divest their banks.  That serves no purpose.  It’s like trying to ward off the Mexican Mafia by fortifying the Canadian border.  Small wonder voters remain skeptical.

It appears as though Turbo Tim is not up to the job of killing those whales.  Perhaps the President should find someone who is.



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Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

*    *    *

As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

*    *    *

Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?

Geithner In The Headlights

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April 30, 2009

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite targets for criticism is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  My beef with him concerns his implementation and execution of programs designed to bail out banks at avoidable taxpayer risk and expense.  Lately, we have seen a spate of wonderful articles vindicating my attitude about this man.  One of my favorites was written by Gary Weiss for what was apparently the final issue of Conde Nast Portfolio.  Mr. Weiss began the article discussing what people remember most about Geithner from the first time they saw him on television:

In his worst moments, when the camera lights are burning and the doubt, the contempt, in the Capitol Hill hearing rooms become palpable, Tim Geithner has a look in his eye — at once wary and alarmed, even as he speaks quickly, sometimes interrupting, sometimes repeating his talking points.  It has become a look that he owns.  It is his.  It has made him famous in all the wrong ways.  The Geithner Look.

A few paragraphs later, Weiss recalled Geithner’s disastrous February 10 speech, intended to describe what was then known as the Financial Stability Plan — now referred to as the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or pee-pip).  Mr. Weiss recalled one of the reviews of that speech, wherein Geithner was described as having “the eyes of a shoplifter”.  I later learned that it was MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle, who came up with that gem.

The most revealing story about Geithner appeared in the April 26 edition of The New York Times.  This article, written by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, provided an understanding of Geithner’s background and how that has impacted his decisions and activities as Treasury Secretary.  This piece has received plenty of attention from a variety of commentators, most notably for the in-depth investigation into Geithner’s “roots”.  Becker and Morgenson summed-up their findings this way:

An examination of Mr. Geithner’s five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.

After a thorough explanation of how Geithner’s social and professional ties have influenced his thinking, the motivation behind Turbo Tim’s creation of the PPIP became clear:

According to a recent report by the inspector general monitoring the bailout, Neil M. Barofsky, Mr. Geithner’s plan to underwrite investors willing to buy the risky mortgage-backed securities still weighing down banks’ books is a boon for private equity and hedge funds but exposes taxpayers to “potential unfairness” by shifting the burden to them.

Becker and Morgenson apparently went to great lengths to avoid characterizing Geithner as venal or corrupt.  Nicholas von Hoffman said it best while discussing the Times article in The Nation:

The authors did not have to spell it out for readers to conclude that Geithner, while honest in the narrow sense of the word, has been extremely helpful to his billionaire mentors and protectors.

Mr. von Hoffman was not so restrained while discussing the behavior of the bailed-out banks in an earlier piece he wrote for The Nation.  In attempting to figure out why those banks did not get back into the business of lending money after the government-provided capital infusions, von Hoffman pondered over some possible reasons.  First, he wondered whether the banks still lacked enough capital to back-up new loans.  I liked his second idea better:

Another possibility is that the banks may have found new ways to steal money, which is more profitable than lending it.  The banks’ conduct has been so devious, so mendacious, so shifty and so dishonorable that you cannot rule out any kind of sharp practice.  You just can’t trust the bastards.

In recent days, some banks have enhanced their reputations by announcing quarterly profits achieved not by business enterprise but by bookkeeping legerdemain.

Renowned journalist Robert Scheer saw fit to praise Becker and Morgenson’s article in a piece he wrote for the Truthdig website (where he serves as editor).  His analysis focused on how Geithner’s views were shaped while working for his mentors in the Clinton administration:   Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.  Scheer reminded us that these are the people who created “the policies that Clinton put in place and George W. Bush accelerated”:

The seeds of the current economic chaos were planted in those years, in which Wall Street lobbyists were given everything they wanted in the way of radical deregulation, and hence was born the madcap world of credit swaps and other unregulated derivatives.

Scheer noted how Turbo Tim has kept alive, what President Obama has often described as “the failed policies of the past eight years”:

Geithner has since pushed the Obama administration to approach the banking crisis not in response to the needs of destitute homeowners but rather from the side of the bankers who are seizing their homes.  Instead of keeping people in their homes with a freeze on foreclosures, he has rewarded the unscrupulous lenders who conned ordinary folks.

He still wants to give more money to Citigroup, which has just been found woefully short of cash by Treasury’s auditors, and has not stopped Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and some other big banks ostensibly under government influence, and indeed sometimes ownership, from recently ending their temporary moratoriums on housing foreclosures.  Geithner has been in the forefront of coddling the banks in the hopes that welfare for the rich will trickle down to suffering homeowners, but that has not happened.

Rather than just complaining about the problem, Mr. Scheer has suggested a solution:

What is involved here is an extreme case of government-condoned “moral hazard” offering outrageous compensation to the superrich for screwing up royally.  Where is the socially conscious Obama we voted for?   E-mail him and ask.