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Goldman Sachs In The Crosshairs

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Last December, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

Fortunately, the tide seems to have turned with the recent release of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee report on the financial crisis.  The two-year, bipartisan investigation, led by Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has given rise to new hope that the banks responsible for causing the financial crisis – particularly Goldman Sachs – could face criminal prosecution.  Tom Braithwaite of the Financial Times put it this way:

The Senate report criticised rating agencies, regulators and other banks.  But Goldman has drawn particular focus.  Eric Holder, attorney-general, said this month the justice department was looking at the report “that deals with Goldman”.

Will Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless initiate criminal proceedings against President Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions?  I doubt it.  Nevertheless, the widespread meme that no laws were violated by Goldman or any of the other Wall Street megabanks, is coming under increased attack.  Matt Taibbi recently wrote an excellent piece for Rolling Stone entitled, “The People vs. Goldman Sachs”, which took a humorous jab at those who deny that the financial crisis resulted from illegal activity:

Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money.  We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit.  Goldman isn’t a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals – it’s an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn’t left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes.  If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana.  Caught, but still free:  above the law.

Taibbi focused on the easiest case to prosecute:  a perjury charge against Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein for his testimony before the Levin-Coburn Senate Subcommittee.  Blankfein denied under oath that his firm had a “short” position, betting against the very Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that Goldman had been selling to its customers.  As Taibbi pointed out, this conflict of interest was the subject of a book by Michael Lewis entitled, The Big Short.  At issue is the response Blankfein gave to the question about whether Goldman Sachs had such a short position:

“Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market.  The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008.  We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.”

As Tom Braithwaite explained in the Financial Times, Senator Levin expressed concern that Blankfein could defend a perjury charge, based on his use of the words “consistently or significantly” in the above-quoted response.  Levin’s concern is that those words could be deemed significantly equivocal as to prevent the characterization of Blankfein’s response as a denial that Goldman had such a short position.  Nevertheless, the last sentence of the response is an unqualified, compound statement, which could support a perjury charge:

We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.

I would be very amused to watch someone make the specious argument that Goldman’s $13 billion short position was not “massive”.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is moving ahead to pursue an investigation concerning the role of the Wall Street banks in causing the financial crisis.  Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times provided this explanation of Schneiderman’s current effort:

The New York attorney general has requested information and documents in recent weeks from three major Wall Street banks about their mortgage securities operations during the credit boom, indicating the existence of a new investigation into practices that contributed to billions in mortgage losses.

*   *   *

It is unclear which parts of the byzantine securitization process Mr. Schneiderman is focusing on. His spokesman said the attorney general would not comment on the investigation, which is in its early stages.

*   *   *

The requests for information by Mr. Schneiderman’s office also seem to confirm that the New York attorney general is operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.

By opening a new inquiry into bank practices, Mr. Schneiderman has indicated his unwillingness to accept one of the settlement’s terms proposed by financial institutions – that is, a broad agreement by regulators not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Schneiderman has said in recent weeks that signing such a release was unacceptable.

*   *   *

It is unclear whether Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation will be pursued as a criminal or civil matter.

Are the banksters running scared yet?  John Carney of CNBC’s NetNet blog, noted some developments, which could signal that some potential “persons of interest” might be seeking cover:

A Warning Sign:  CFOs Resigning

The chief financial officers of both Wells Fargo and Bank of America recently resigned.  JPMorgan Chase replaced its CFO last year.  While each of these moves has been spun as benign news by the banks, it could be a warning sign that something is deeply amiss.

Hope springs eternal!


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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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The Lehman Fallout

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March 16, 2010

Everyone is speculating about what will happen next.  The shock waves resulting from the release of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing the causes of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, have left the blogosphere’s commentators with plenty to discuss.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media isn’t giving this story very much traction.  On March 15, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  Here is some of what he said:

Look, I know that Lehman collapsed a year and a half ago, but this is a major story — one that finally gets awfully close to putting the crimes in the crisis.  I’ll go ahead and say it:  If you’ve wanted to know about the Valukas report and its implications, you’ve been better served by reading Zero Hedge and Naked Capitalism than you have The Wall Street Journal or New York Times.  This on the biggest financial news story of the week — and one of the biggest of the year.  These papers have hundreds of journalists at their disposal.  The blogs have one non-professional writer and a handful of sometime non-pro-journalist contributors.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed this.  James Kwak of Baseline Scenario wrote this earlier today:

Overall, I’m surprised by how little interest the report has gotten in the media, given its depth and the surprising nature of some of its findings.

At the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden reacted to the Columbia Journalism Review piece this way:

Only a few days have passed since its release, and already the Mainstream Media has forgotten all about the Lehman Examiner Report, with barely an occasional mention.  As the CJR points out, this unquestionably massive story of corruption and vice, is being covered up by powered interests controlling all the major news outlets, because just like in the Galleon case, the stench goes not only to the top, (in this case the NewYork Fed and the SEC), but very likely to various corporations that have vested interests in the conglomerates controlling America’s key media organizations.

One probable reason why the Lehman story is being buried is because its timing dovetails so well with the unveiling of Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd’s financial reform plan.  The fact that Dodd’s plan includes the inane idea of expanding the powers of the Federal Reserve was not to be ignored by John Carney of The Business Insider website:

Why do we think these are such bad ideas?  At the most basic level, it’s hard to see how the expansion of the scope of the Federal Reserve’s authority to cover any large financial institution makes sense.  The Federal Reserve was not able to prevent disaster at the firms it was already charged with overseeing.  What reason is there to think it will do a better job at regulating a wider universe of firms?

More concretely, the Federal Reserve had regulators in place inside of Lehman Brothers following the collapse of Bear Stearns.  These in-house regulators did not realize that Lehman’s management was rebuking market demands for reduced risk and covering up its rebuke with accounting sleight-of-hand.  When Lehman actually came looking for a bailout, officials were reportedly surprised at how bad things were at the firm.  A similar situation unfolded at Merrill Lynch.  The regulators proved inadequate to the task.

Just think:  It was only one week ago when we were reading those fawning, sycophantic stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic about what a great guy “Turbo” Tim Geithner is.  This week brought us a great essay by Professor Randall Wray, which raised the question of whether Geithner helped Lehman hide its accounting tricks.  Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized how this scandal underscores the need for Federal Reserve transparency, which has been so ardently resisted by Ben Bernanke.  (Remember the lawsuit by the late Mark Pittman of Bloomberg News?)  Among the great points made by Professor Wray were these:

Not only did the NY Fed fail to blow the whistle on flagrant accounting tricks, it also helped to hide Lehman’s illiquid assets on the Fed’s balance sheet to make its position look better.  Note that the NY Fed had increased its supervision to the point that it was going over Lehman’s books daily; further, it continued to take trash off the books of Lehman right up to the bitter end, helping to perpetuate the fraud that was designed to maintain the pretense that Lehman was not massively insolvent. (see here)

Geithner told Congress that he has never been a regulator. (see here)  That is a quite honest assessment of his job performance, although it is completely inaccurate as a description of his duties as President of the NY Fed.

*   *   *

More generally, this revelation drives home three related points.  First, the scandal is on-going and it is huge. President Obama must hold Geithner accountable.  He must determine what did Geithner know, and when did he know it.  All internal documents and emails related to the AIG bailout and the attempt to keep Lehman afloat need to be released.  Further, Obama must ask what has Geithner done to favor his clients on Wall Street?  It now looks like even the Fed BOG, not just the NY Fed, is involved in the cover-up.  It is in the interest of the Obama administration to come clean.  It is hard to believe that it does not already have sufficient cause to fire Geithner.  In terms of dollar costs to the government, this is surely the biggest scandal in US history.  In terms of sheer sleaze does it rank with Watergate?  I suppose that depends on whether you believe that political hit lists and spying that had no real impact on the outcome of an election is as bad as a wholesale handing-over of government and the economy to Wall Street.

It remains to be seen whether anyone in the mainstream media will be hitting this story so hard.  One possible reason for the lack of significant coverage may exist in this disturbing point at the conclusion of Wray’s piece:

Of greater importance is the recognition that all of the big banks are probably insolvent.  Another financial crisis is nearly certain to hit in coming months — probably before summer.  The belief that together Geithner and Bernanke have resolved the crisis and that they have put the economy on a path to recovery will be exposed as wishful thinking.

Oh, boy!  Not good!  Not good at all!  We’d better change the subject to March Madness, American Idol or Rielle Hunter!  Anything but this!



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Beyond The Banks

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February 4, 2010

I recently saw the movie Food, Inc. and was struck by the idea that there are some fundamental problems that span just about every situation where government corruption and ineptitude have facilitated an industry’s efforts to crush the interests of consumers.  At approximately 36 minutes into the film, Michael Pollan explained how government efforts to prevent abuses in the food industry are undermined by the fact that the government always relies on the “quick fix” or “band-aid” approach, rather than a strategy addressed at solving a systemic problem.  In other words:  government prefers to treat the symptoms rather than the disease.

As I thought about Michael Pollan’s remark, I was immediately reminded of our financial crisis.  In that case, the solution was to bail out the “too big to fail” financial institutions.  As legislative proposals are introduced to address the systemic problems and prevent a recurrence of what happened in the fall of 2008, the lobbyists have stepped in to sabotage those efforts.

There were two other factors discussed in Food Inc. as presenting roadblocks to effective consumer-protective legislation:  the revolving door between the industry and Washington, as well as “regulatory capture” — a situation where government regulators are beholden to those whom they regulate.

We have seen the impact of these two factors in the financial area and they have been well-documented.  The “revolving door” was the subject of two recent essays by John Carney at The Business Insider website.  Carney discussed “The Banking Blob” as a secret club of Senate staffers and Wall Street lobbyists:

Staffers on the powerful Senate banking committee are part of what is known as “The Banking Blob,” a person familiar with the matter told us.  The Banking Blob is made up of current banking committee staffers and former staffers who are now bankers or lobbyists.  They frequently socialize together, often organizing happy hours and parties.

“They move in a pack.  They socialize together,” the person says.  “Hell.  They even inter-marry.”

The Blob is made up of both Republican and Democratic staffers.  Outsiders tend to think the Blob members view themselves as “cooler” than other Capitol Hill staff members.  Often a job on the banking committee leads to a well-paying job for a Wall Street firm or a position at a K-Street lobbyist law firm.

Carney had previously discussed the problem of Senate banking committee staffers who see their job as simply a stepping stone to a lucrative banking job:

The allure of banking is hardly a mystery.  The money is better.  Far better than the government wages paid to Capitol Hill staffers.  After years of toiling in government service, many staffers dream of a better life in one of the leafy neighborhoods that are so posh you cannot get there on DC’s Metro.     . . .

“Everyone talks about people going from Goldman to government.  But the problem is the other way.  Too many staffers go from Capitol Hill to banking.  And even more aspire to make that move.  It corrupts the process,” the staffer told us.

The third problem  — “regulatory capture” — is best epitomized in the person of “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Joshua Rosner recently dissected Turbo Tim’s often-repeated claim that he has always worked in “public service”.  Rosner demonstrated that the only sector that has been “serviced” by Geithner was the banking industry:

Secretary Geithner can keep repeating his assertion he has worked in public service his whole life.  Never mind that this calls into question his tangible market experience, this claim begs the question:  How does he define working in the public service?

Geithner’s last job, as the President of the New York Fed highlights that question.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is not government-owned.  Most people fail to recognize this fact.  Simply, the Federal Reserve Board (responsible for monetary policy, with a dual mandate of full employment and price stability) is an independent part of the federal government, while the New York Fed is a shareholder-owned or private corporation.  In other words, where the Federal Reserve Board is www.frb.gov, the District Bank is www.newyorkfed.org. Historically, the New York Fed has been among the most profitable shareholder-owned corporations in the world.  Yet it keeps the details of its shareholders’ ownership information private.  What we do know is that its owners include precisely those institutions it is tasked to regulate and supervise and those it has obviously failed to adequately supervise.  Unlike the other District Banks of the Federal Reserve system, which have overseen their banks quite well, the New York Fed’s concentration of the largest banks, coupled with its unique role of managing the market operations of the entire Fed system, has built a culture where it sees itself as a market participant and peer to those firms it regulates.

The President of the NY Fed is chosen by, paid by and reports to the private shareholders of that private institution.  Only three of the nine Directors of the Board of the New York Fed are chosen by the Federal Reserve Board and, until this year, the NY Fed’s Chair — chosen by the Federal Reserve Board in Washington — was a former Chairman of Goldman Sachs who still sits on Goldman’s Board.

*   *   *

In truth, Geithner’s ineffectiveness in his role as NY Fed President and his current political posturing — without any policy substance to directly address too-big-to-fail or the Fed’s flawed powers to bailout firms — seems to have resulted from design rather than accident.

*   *   *

If being a public servant is funneling unreasonable amounts of taxpayer capital, without market discipline, to the largest and most poorly managed banks, then Geithner’s selection as Secretary of Treasury makes sense.

One important lesson to be learned from our government’s inability to do its job regulating the financial sector, is that this failure is primarily caused by three problems:

  • An unwillingness to address a systemic problem by choosing, instead, to focus on “quick fixes”;
  • A revolving door between government and industry;
  • Regulatory capture.

Legislators, consumer advocates and commentators should focus on these three problem areas when addressing any situation where our government proves itself ineffective in preventing abuses by a particular industry.



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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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



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Getting It Right

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October 29, 2009

For some reason, a large number of people continue to rely on the advice of stock market prognosticators, long after those pundits have proven themselves unreliable, usually due to a string of erroneous predictions.  The best example of this phenomenon is Jim Cramer of CNBC.  On March 4, Jon Stewart featured a number of video clips wherein Cramer wasn’t just wrong — he was wildly wrong, often when due diligence on Cramer’s part would have resulted in a different forecast.  Nevertheless, some individuals still follow Cramer’s investment advice.

This summer’s stock market rally made many of us feel foolish.  John Carney of The Business Insider compiled a great presentation entitled “The Idiot-Maker Rally” which focused on 15 stock market gurus “who now look like fools” because they remained in denial about the rally, while those who ignored them made loads of money.

One guy who got it right was a gentleman named Jeremy Grantham.  His asset management firm, GMO, is responsible for investing over $85 billion of its clients’ funds.  On May 14, I discussed Mr. Grantham’s economic forecast from his Quarterly Letter, published at the end of this year’s first quarter.  At that time, he predicted that in late 2009 or early 2010, there would be a stock market rally, bringing the Standard and Poor’s 500 index near the 1100 range.  As you probably know, we saw that happen last week.  Unfortunately, he was not particularly optimistic about what would follow:

A large rally here is far more likely to prove a last hurrah — a codicil on the great bullishness we have had since the early 90s or, even in some respects, since the early 80s.  The rally, if it occurs, will set us up for a long, drawn-out disappointment not only in the economy, but also in the stock markets of the developed world.

Mr. Grantham’s Quarterly Letter for the third quarter of 2009 was recently published by his firm, GMO.  This document is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the outlook for the stock market and our economy.  Grantham is sticking with his prediction for “seven lean years” which he expects to commence at the conclusion of the current rally:

Price, however, does matter eventually, and what will stop this market (my blind guess is in the first few months of next year) is a combination of two factors.  First, the disappointing economic and financial data that will begin to show the intractably long-term nature of some of our problems, particularly pressure on profit margins as the quick fix of short-term labor cuts fades away.  Second, the slow gravitational pull of value as U.S. stocks reach +30-35% overpricing in the face of an extended difficult environment.

*   *   *

So, back to timing.  It is hard for me to see what will stop the charge to risk-taking this year. With the near universality of the feeling of being left behind in reinvesting, it is nerve-wracking for us prudent investors to contemplate the odds of the market rushing past my earlier prediction of 1100.  It can certainly happen.

Conversely, I have some modest hopes for a collective sensible resistance to the current Fed plot to have us all borrow and speculate again.  I would still guess (a well informed guess, I hope) that before next year is out, the market will drop painfully from current levels.  “Painfully” is arbitrarily deemed by me to start at -15%.  My guess, though, is that the U.S.market will drop below fair value, which is a 22% decline (from the S&P 500 level of 1098 on October 19).

Scary as that may sound, Mr. Grantham does not believe that the S&P 500 will reach a new low, surpassing the Hadean level of 666 reached last March.  On page 4 of the report, Grantham expressed his view that the current “fair value” of the S&P 500 “is now about 860”.

What I particularly enjoyed about the latest GMO Quarterly Letter was Grantham’s discussion of the factors that brought our economy to where it is today.  In doing so, he targeted some of my favorite culprits:  Alan Greenspan (who was pummeled on page 3), Larry Summers, Turbo Tim Geithner (who “sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks”), Goldman Sachs and finally: Ben Bernanke — whose nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman was treated with well-deserved outrage.

The report included a supplement (beginning at page 10) wherein Mr. Grantham discussed the imperative need to redesign our financial system:

A simpler, more manageable financial system is much more than a luxury.  Without it we shall surely fail again.

*   *   *

I have no idea why the current administration, which came in on a promise of change, for heaven’s sake, is so determined to protect the status quo of the financial system at the expense of already weary taxpayers who are promised only somewhat better lifeboats.  It is obvious to most that there was a more or less complete failure of our private financial system and its public overseers.  The regulatory leaders in particular were all far too captured and cozy in their dealings with reckless and greedy financial enterprises.

Grantham’s suggested changes include forcing banks to spin off their “proprietary trading” operations, wherein a bank trades investments on behalf of its own account, usually in breach of the fiduciary duties it owes its customers.  He also addressed the need to break up those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  (As an aside, the British government has now taken steps to break up its banks that pose a systemic risk to the entire financial structure.)  Grantham’s final point concerned the need for public oversight, to prevent the “regulatory capture” that has helped maintain this intolerable status quo.

Jeremy Grantham is a guy who gets it right.  Our leaders need to pay more serious attention to him.  If they don’t — we should vote them out of office.



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The Big Lie Gets Some Blowback

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September 3, 2009

My favorite “blowback” story of the week resulted from the ill-advised decisions by people at The New York Times and the Financial Times to trumpet talking points apparently “Fed” (pun intended) to them by the Federal Reserve.  Both publications asserted that the TARP program has already returned profits for the Untied States government.  The Financial Times claimed the profit so far has been $14 billion.  The New York Times, reporting the amount as $18 billion, claimed that “taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.”  So where is my check?  Anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence, who bothered to completely read through either of these articles, could quickly recognize yet another rendition of The Big Lie.  The blowback against these articles was swift and harsh.  Matt Taibbi’s critique was short and sweet:

This is sort of like calculating the returns on a mutual fund by only counting the stocks in the fund that have gone up.  Forgetting for a moment that TARP is only slightly relevant in the entire bailout scheme — more on that in a moment — the TARP calculations are a joke, apparently leaving out huge future losses from AIG and Citigroup and others in the red.  Since only a small portion of the debt has been put down by the best borrowers, and since the borrowers in the worst shape haven’t retired their obligations yet, it’s crazy to make any conclusions about TARP, pure sophistry.

*   *   *

The other reason for that is that it’s only a tiny sliver of the whole bailout picture.  The real burden carried by the government and the Fed comes from the various anonymous bailout facilities — the TALF, the PPIP, the Maiden Lanes, and so on.       .  .  .

And there are untold trillions more the Fed has loaned out in the last 18 months and which we are not likely to find out much about, unless the recent court ruling green-lighting Bloomberg’s FOIA request for those records actually goes through.

Over at The Business Insider, John Carney also quoted Matt Taibbi’s piece, adding that:

We simply don’t know how to value the mortgage backed securities the Fed bought.  We don’t know how much the government will wind up paying on the backstops of Citi and Bear Stearns assets.  And we don’t know how much more money might have to be pumped into the system to keep it afloat.

At another centrist website called The Moderate Voice, Michael Silverstein pointed out that any news reporter with a conscience ought to feel a bit of shame for participating in such a propaganda effort:

I’ve been an economics and financial writer for 30 years.  I used to enjoy my work.  I used to take pride in it.  The markets were kinky, sure, but that made the writing more fun.

*   *   *

That’s not true anymore.  Reportage about the economy and the markets — at least in most mainstream media — now largely consists of parroting press releases from experts of various stripes or government spokespeople.  And the result is not just infuriating for a long-term professional in this field, but outright embarrassing.

A perfect example was yesterday’s “good news” supposedly showing that our economic masters were every bit as smart as they think they are.  A few banks have repaid their TARP loans, part of the $4 trillion that government has sunk into our black hole banking system.

*   *   *

The $74 billion the government has been repaid is less than two percent of the $4 trillion the government has borrowed or printed to keep incompetent lenders from going down.  Less than two percent!  Even this piddling sum was generated by a manipulated stock market rally that allowed banks shares to soar, bringing a lot of money into bank coffers, almost all of which they added to reserves before paying back a few billion to the government.

Rolfe Winkler at Reuters joined the chorus criticizing the sycophantic cheerleading for these claims of TARP profitability:

A very dangerous misconception is taking root in the press, that in addition to saving the world financial system, the bank bailout is making taxpayers money.

“As big banks repay bailout, U.S.sees profit” read the headline in the New York Times on Monday.  The story was parroted on evening newscasts.

*   *   *

Taxpayers should keep that in mind whenever they see misguided reports that they are making money from bailouts.  The truth is that the biggest banks are still insolvent and, ultimately, their losses are likely to be absorbed by taxpayers.

As the above-quoted sources have reported, the ugly truth goes beyond the fact that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been manipulating the stock markets by pumping them to the stratosphere  —  there is also a coordinated “happy talk” propaganda campaign to reinforce the “bull market” fantasy.  Despite the efforts of many news outlets to enable this cause, it’s nice to know that there are some honest sources willing to speak the truth.  The unpleasant reality is exposed regularly and ignored constantly.  Tragically, there just aren’t enough mainstream media outlets willing to pass along the type of wisdom we can find from Chris Whalen and company at The Institutional Risk Analyst:

Plain fact is that the Fed and Treasury spent all the available liquidity propping up Wall Street’s toxic asset waste pile and the banks that created it, so now Main Street employers and private investors, and the relatively smaller banks that support them both, must go begging for capital and liquidity in a market where government is the only player left.  The notion that the Fed can even contemplate reversing the massive bailout for the OTC markets, this to restore normalcy to the monetary models that supposedly inform the central bank’s deliberations, is ridiculous in view of the capital shortfall in the banking sector and the private sector economy more generally.

Somebody ought to write that on a cake and send it over to Ben Bernanke, while he celebrates his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.



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