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Seeing Through Obama

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Now that Mitt Romney has secured the Republican presidential nomination, commentators are focusing on the question of whether the candidate can motivate the conservative Republican base to vote for the “Massachusetts moderate” in November.

Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that after three years in the White House, Barack Obama has managed to alienate the liberal base of the Democratic Party.  The Firedog Lake website has been among the most vocal, left-leaning blogs to regularly criticize the President.  The site’s publisher, Jane Hamsher, has picked up on Public Citizen’s campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama is attempting to sneak past the public before November.  On April 27, Ms. Hamsher provided us with this warning:

The White House wants to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.  Japan is waiting in the wings, Canada and Mexico want in, Taiwan has announced its intention to meet membership requirements and China says it will “earnestly study” whether to seek entry into the agreement.

Basically, the TPP is NAFTA on steroids.  The White House wants to reach a deal prior to the election because they know all the apparatchiks feeding on the $1 billion in Obama campaign money flowing through the system will launch tribalistic attacks on anyone organizing against it (activists, labor unions, workers) for “helping Mitt Romney win” – thus facilitating its easy passage.

*   *   *

At an April 4 press conference in the Rose Garden, President Obama said that TPP “could be a real model for the world.”  Earlier this month the US limited the ability of public interest groups to have input into the process.  So much for the “most transparent administration ever.”

At her Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith introduced a video clip of Matt Stoller’s appearance on Cenk Uygur’s television program with the following anecdote:

Matt Stoller, in this video clip from an interview last week with Cenk Uygur (hat tip Doug Smith), sets forth what should be widely accepted truths about Obama:  that he’s an aggressive proponent of policies that favor the 1%.  Yet soi disant progressives continue to regard him as an advocate of their interests, when at best, all he does is pander to them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a black woman after an Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking Group meeting.  She was clearly active in New York City housing politics and knowledgeable about policy generally.  I started criticizing Obama’s role in the mortgage settlement.  She said:

I have trouble with members of my community.  I think Obama needs not to be President.  I think he needs to be impeached.  But no one in my community wants to hear that.  I tell them it’s like when your mother sees you going out with someone who is no good for you.

“Why don’t you leave him?  What does he do for you?”

“But Momma, I love him.”

“He knocked you down the stairs, took your keys, drove your car to Florida, ran up big bills on your credit card, and Lord only knows what else he did when he was hiding from you.”

“But Momma, I still love him.”

Her story applies equally well to the oxymoron of the Establishment Left in America. Obama is not only not their friend, but he abuses them, yet they manage to forgive all and come back for more.

In an article published by The Nation, Naomi Klein pulled the rose-colored glasses off the faces of many Obama fans with this review of the President’s performance so far:

After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player.  Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

After discussing Obama’s failure to take a leading role to promote global efforts to combat pollution, or to promote human rights, Ms. Klein moved on to highlight Obama’s subservience to the financial oligarchy:

And then there are the G-20 summits, Obama’s highest-profile multilateral engagements.  When one was held in London in April, it seemed for a moment that there might be some kind of coordinated attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers.  Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments.  But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead for countries to come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best – much like its reckless climate-change plan.  Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session to have his picture taken with Obama.

Of course, Obama has made some good moves on the world stage – not siding with the coup government in Honduras, supporting a UN Women’s Agency… But a clear pattern has emerged:  in areas where other wealthy nations were teetering between principled action and negligence, US interventions have tilted them toward negligence.  If this is the new era of multilateralism, it is no prize.

While watching Saturday evening’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I was particularly impressed by Jimmy Kimmel’s face-to-face confrontation with President Obama concerning the administration’s crackdown on medical marijuana clinics.  One of Obama’s most outspoken critics from the left – Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald – pulled no punches while upbraiding the President for yet another broken campaign promise:

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner this week and was asked about his administration’s aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, including ones located in states where medical marijuana is legal and which are licensed by the state; this policy is directly contrary to Obama’s campaign pledge to not “use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.”  Here’s part of the President’s answer:

I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law.  I can’t nullify congressional law.  I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, “Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books” . . . .

The only tension that’s come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.  In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we’re telling them, “This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.”  That’s not something we’re going to do. 

Aside from the fact that Obama’s claim about the law is outright false – as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified – it’s just extraordinary that Obama is affirming the “principle” that he can’t have the DOJ “turn the other way” in the face of lawbreaking.

*   *   *

The same person who directed the DOJ to shield torturers and illegal government eavesdroppers from criminal investigation, and who voted to retroactively immunize the nation’s largest telecom giants when they got caught enabling criminal spying on Americans, and whose DOJ has failed to indict a single Wall Street executive in connection with the 2008 financial crisis or mortgage fraud scandal, suddenly discovers the imperatives of The Rule of Law when it comes to those, in accordance with state law, providing medical marijuana to sick people with a prescription.

It’s becoming obvious that Mitt Romney is not the only candidate who will have to worry about whether his party’s “base” will bother to stand in line at the polls in November, to vote for a candidate who does not find it necessary to accommodate the will of the voters who elect him.


 

Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, 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.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Instead Of Solving a Problem – Form a Committee

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It’s become a stale joke about the Obama administration.  Every time a demand is made for the White House to take decisive action on an important issue  .  .  .  the President’s solution is always the same:  Form a committee to study the matter.

In my last posting, I discussed the January 20 article written by Scot Paltrow for Reuters, which revealed that Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, had been partners in the Washington law firm, Covington & Burling.  As Scot Paltrow pointed out, during the years while Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm’s clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co.

Less than a week after publication of Paltrow’s report, which raised “conflict of interest” questions concerning Holder’s reluctance to prosecute banks or mortgage servicers for fraudulent foreclosure practices, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  With Paltrow’s revelations still fresh in my mind, I was particularly surprised to hear President Obama make the following statement:

And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.  This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.

If it weren’t bad enough that critics had already been complaining about the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute mortgage fraud cases, Obama has most recently appointed Holder to supervise “investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis”.  It’s hard to avoid the assumption that those “investigations” will lead to nowhere.  By Wednesday, I found that I was not alone in my cynicism concerning what is now called the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.

Wednesday morning brought an essay by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, in which she expressed dread about the possibility that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may have been seduced by Team Obama to join the effort exerting pressure on each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  Ms. Smith compared that initiative with Obama’s most recent announcement about the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses:

So get this:  this is a committee that will “investigate.”    .   .   .  Neil Barofsky, former prosecutor and head of SIGTARP, doesn’t buy the logic of this committee either:

Neil Barofsky @neilbarofsky

If task force created either b/c DOJ hasn’t done an investigation, or b/c 3-yr investigation a failure, how does Holder keep his job?

A lot of soi-disant liberal groups have fallen in line with Obama messaging, which was the plan (I already have the predictable congratulatory Move On e-mail in my inbox). Let’s get real.  The wee problem is that this committee looks like yet another bit of theater for the Administration to pretend, yet again, that it is Doing Something, while scoring a twofer by getting Schneiderman, who has been a pretty effective opponent, hobbled.

If you wanted a real investigation, you get a real independent investigator, with a real budget and staffing, and turn him loose.  We had the FCIC which had a lot of hearings and produced a readable book that said everyone was responsible for the mortgage crisis, which was tantamount to saying no one was responsible.  We even had an eleven-regulator Foreclosure Task Force that looked at 2800 loan files (and a mere 100 foreclosures) and found nothing very much wrong.

Neil Barofsky’s question deserves repetition:  Why does Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless still have his job if – after three years – the Justice Department has taken no action against those responsible for originating and securitizing the risky mortgages which led to the housing crisis?

David Dayen of Firedoglake weighed-in with his own skeptical take on Obama’s purported crakdown on mortgage origination and securitization abuses:

First of all, this becomes part of a three year-old Financial Fraud Task Force which has done approximately nothing on Wall Street accountability outside of a few insider trading arrests.  So that’s the context of this investigative panel, part of the same entity that has spun its wheels.  Second, the panel would only look at origination, where there have been plenty of lawsuits and where the main offenders are all out of business, and securitization, which may aid investors (that includes pension funds, of course) but not necessarily homeowners.     .   .   .

Given the fact that this is an election year, President Obama knows that mere lip service toward a populist cause will not be enough to win back those disgruntled former supporters, who have now learned – the hard way – that talk is cheap.  Obama is now going the extra mile – he’s forming a committee!  Trouble is – those disgruntled former supporters have already learned that committee formation is simply the disingenuous “follow-through” on a false campaign promise.  Nice try, Mr. President!


 

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Captive Justice

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The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the crimes which caused (or resulted from) the financial crisis has been a continuing source of outrage for voters across the country.

Last summer, Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times earned a great deal of praise for her August 21 report, exposing the Obama administration’s vilification of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his refusal to play along with Team Obama’s efforts to insulate the fraud-closure banks from the criminal prosecution they deserve.  The administration has been attempting to pressure each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  The $25 billion is to be used for loan modifications.

The administration’s effort to push this fraud-closure settlement is ongoing.  On January 21, David Dayen provided an update on this crusade at the Firedoglake website.

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  On December 22, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Scot Paltrow wrote another great article for Reuters on January 20, which is causing quite a stir.  The opening paragraphs provide us with some insight as to why our Attorney General deserves to be called Mr. Hold-harmless:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows.

The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington’s biggest white shoe law firms.  Law professors and other federal ethics experts said that federal conflict of interest rules required Holder and Breuer to recuse themselves from any Justice Department decisions relating to law firm clients they personally had done work for.

Both the Justice Department and Covington declined to say if either official had personally worked on matters for the big mortgage industry clients.

*   *   *

The evidence, including records from federal and state courts and local clerks’ offices around the country, shows widespread forgery, perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal foreclosures on the homes of thousands of active-duty military personnel.

In recent weeks the Justice Department has come under renewed pressure from members of Congress, state and local officials and homeowners’ lawyers to open a wide-ranging criminal investigation of mortgage servicers, the biggest of which have been Covington clients.  So far Justice officials haven’t responded publicly to any of the requests.

The revelations in Scot Paltrow’s most recent report should create quite a scandal requiring significant damage control efforts by the Obama administration.  Given the fact that this is an election year, Republican politicians should be smelling red meat at this point.  After all, Obama’s Attorney General is being accused of conflict of interest.  Nevertheless, will any Republicans (or their Super PACs) seize upon this issue?  To do so could place them in a conflict-of-interest situation – as far as those banks are concerned.  Dare they risk biting the hands that feed them?  It could be quite a high-wire act to undertake.  Will any Republicans rise to this challenge?


 

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Dubious Reassurances

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There appears to be an increasing number of commentaries presented in the mainstream media lately, assuring us that “everything is just fine” or – beyond that – “things are getting better” because the Great Recession is “over”.  Anyone who feels inclined to believe those comforting commentaries should take a look at the Financial Armageddon blog and peruse some truly grim reports about how bad things really are.

On a daily basis, we are being told not to worry about Europe’s sovereign debt crisis because of the heroic efforts to keep it under control.  On the other hand, I was more impressed by the newest Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Be sure to read the entire essay.  Here are some of Dr. Hussman’s key points:

From my perspective, Wall Street’s “relief” about the economy, and its willingness to set aside recession concerns, is a mistake born of confusion between leading indicators and lagging ones.  Leading evidence is not only clear, but on a statistical basis is essentially certain that the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, faces an oncoming recession.  As Lakshman Achuthan notes on the basis of ECRI’s own (and historically reliable) set of indicators, “We’ve entered a vicious cycle, and it’s too late: a recession can’t be averted.”  Likewise, lagging evidence is largely clear that the economy was not yet in a recession as of, say, August or September. The error that investors are inviting here is to treat lagging indicators as if they are leading ones.

The simple fact is that the measures that we use to identify recession risk tend to operate with a lead of a few months.  Those few months are often critical, in the sense that the markets can often suffer deep and abrupt losses before coincident and lagging evidence demonstrates actual economic weakness.  As a result, there is sometimes a “denial” phase between the point where the leading evidence locks onto a recession track, and the point where the coincident evidence confirms it. We saw exactly that sort of pattern prior to the last recession. While the recession evidence was in by November 2007 (see Expecting A Recession ), the economy enjoyed two additional months of payroll job growth, and new claims for unemployment trended higher in a choppy and indecisive way until well into 2008. Even after Bear Stearns failed in March 2008, the market briefly staged a rally that put it within about 10% of its bull market high.

At present, the S&P 500 is again just 10% below the high it set before the recent market downturn began. In my view, the likelihood is very thin that the economy will avoid a recession, that Greece will avoid default, or that Europe will deal seamlessly with the financial strains of a banking system that is more than twice as leveraged as the U.S. banking system was before the 2008-2009 crisis.

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A few weeks ago, I noted that Greece was likely to be promised a small amount of relief funding, essentially to buy Europe more time to prepare its banking system for a Greek default, and observed “While it’s possible that the equity markets will mount a relief rally in the event of new funding to Greece, it will be important to recognize that handing out a bit more relief would be preparatory to a default, and that would probably be reflected in a failure of Greek yields to retreat significantly on that news.”

As of Friday, the yield on 1-year Greek debt has soared to 169%. Greece will default. Europe is buying time to reduce the fallout.

As of this writing, the yield on 1-year Greek debt is now 189.82%.  How could it be possible to pay almost 200% interest on a one-year loan?

Despite all of the “good news” about America’s zombie megabanks, which were bailed out during the financial crisis (and for a while afterward) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has been keeping an ongoing “Bank of America Deathwatch”.  The story has gone from grim to downright creepy:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it.  I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC.  About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

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This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed.  Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.  Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions:  derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs.  So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.  It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario.  You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency.  Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.

But it’s even worse than that.  During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle.  It had to get more funding from Congress.  This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.  No Congressman would dare vote against that.  This move is Machiavellian, and just plain evil.

It is the aggregate outrage caused by the rampant malefaction throughout American finance, which has motivated the protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those demonstrators have found it difficult to articulate their demands because any comprehensive list of grievances they could assemble would be unwieldy.  Most important among their complaints is the notion that the failure to enforce prohibitions against financial wrongdoing will prevent restoration of a healthy economy.  The best example of this is the fact that our government continues to allow financial institutions to remain “too big to fail” – since their potential failure would be remedied by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz articulated those objections quite well, in a recent piece supporting the State Attorneys General who are resisting the efforts by the Justice Department to coerce settlement of the States’ “fraudclosure” cases against Bank of America and others – on very generous terms:

The Rule of Law is yet another bedrock foundation of this nation.  It seems to get ignored when the criminals involved received billions in bipartisan bailout monies.

The line of bullshit being used on State AGs is that we risk an economic crisis if we prosecute these folks.

The people who claim that fail to realize that the opposite is true – the protest at Occupy Wall Street, the negative sentiment, the general economic angst – traces itself to the belief that there is no justice, that senior bankers have gotten away with economic murder, and that we have a two-tiered criminal system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Today’s NYT notes the gloom that has descended over consumers, and they suggest it may be home prices. I think they are wrong – in my experience, the sort of generalized rage and frustration comes about when people realize the institutions they have trusted have betrayed them.  Humans deal with financial losses in a very specific way – and it’s not fury.  This is about a fundamental breakdown of the role of government, courts, and leadership in the nation.  And it all traces back to the bailouts of reckless bankers, and the refusal to hold them in any way accountable.

There will not be a fundamental economic recovery until that is recognized.

In the mean time, the quality of life for the American middle class continues to deteriorate.  We need to do more than simply hope that the misery will “trickle” upward.


 

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Charade Ends For Pseudo-Populists

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The Occupy Wall Street protest has exposed the politicians – who have always claimed to be populists – for what they really are:  tools of the plutocracy.  Conspicuously absent from the Wall Street occupation have been nearly all Democrats – despite their party’s efforts to portray itself as the champion of Main Street in its battle against the tyranny of the megabanks.  As has always been the case, the Democrats won’t really do anything that could disrupt the flow of bribes campaign contributions they receive from our nation’s financial elites.

The “no show” Democrats reminded me of an article which appeared at Truthdig, written by Chris Hedges, author of the book, Death of the Liberal Class.  In his Truthdig essay, Chris Hedges emphasized how the liberal class “abandoned the human values that should have remained at the core of its activism”:

The liberal class, despite becoming an object of widespread public scorn, prefers the choreographed charade.  It will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.  As long as the charade is played, the liberal class can hold itself up as the conscience of the nation without having to act.  It can maintain its privileged economic status.  It can continue to live in an imaginary world where democratic reform and responsible government exist.  It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power.  But the uselessness and irrelevancy of the liberal class are not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the indignities of the corporate state.  And this is why liberals are rightly despised by the working class and the poor.

If it had not been obvious before the 2010 elections, it should be obvious now.  Back in July of 2010, I was busy harping about how the Obama administration had sabotaged the financial “reform” bill:

As I pointed out on July 12, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step.  On the following day, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News examined the results of a Bloomberg National Poll, which measured the public’s reaction to the financial reform bill.  Almost eighty percent of those who responded were of the opinion that the new bill would do little or nothing to prevent or mitigate another financial crisis.  Beyond that, 47 percent shared the view that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.

Both healthcare and financial “reform” legislation turned out to be “bait and switch” scams used by the Obama administration against its own supporters.  After that double-double-cross, the liberal blogosphere was being told to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.

In an earlier posting, I discussed the sordid efforts of the Democratic-controlled Senate to sabotage the financial reform bill:

The sleazy antics by the Democrats who undermined financial reform (while pretending to advance it) will not be forgotten by the voters.  The real question is whether any independent candidates can step up to oppose the tools of Wall Street, relying on the nickels and dimes from “the little people” to wage a battle against the kleptocracy.

Since the Occupy Wall Street demonstration has gained momentum, a number of commentators have analyzed the complicity of hypocritical Democrats in ceding more unregulated power to the very culprits responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The most important of these essays was an article written by Matt Stoller for Politico.  Stoller began the piece by debunking the myth that the cancer known as “financial deregulation” was introduced to the American system by the Reagan administration:

Like President Bill Clinton before him, Obama and his team believe in deregulation and are continuing a “let them eat cake”-style social contract that solidified during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  As this contract has fallen apart, so has the strong coalition behind Obama’s presidency.

We haven’t seen a challenge to the bank-friendly Democratic orthodoxy for 40 years.  The progenitor of this modern Democratic Party was Jimmy Carter. Though Reagan and Clinton helped finish the job, it was Carter who began wholesale deregulation of the banking industry – as Jeff Madrick details in his new book, “The Age of Greed.”

In signing the landmark Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980, which lifted usury caps, Carter said, “Our banks and savings institutions are hampered by a wide range of outdated, unfair and unworkable regulations.”

Stoller provided some hope for disillusioned former supporters of the Democratic Party by focusing on three Democratic state attorneys general, who have been investigating possible fraud in the securitization of trillions of dollars of mortgages.  Matt Stoller referred to these officials – Eric Schneiderman of New York, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Beau Biden of Delaware – as the “Justice Democrats”.  As Stoller observed, a number of other officials have been influenced by the noble efforts of these Justice Democrats:

There are other politicians following this path.  Jefferson Smith, an Oregon state representative now running for mayor of Portland, successfully fought legislation to make foreclosures easier in that state.  Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen in North Carolina took on banking interests by fighting foreclosure fraud.  Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings has been dogged in his investigations of mortgage servicers.

It should not be surprising that these officials have been getting quite a bit of pushback from their fellow Democrats – including Delaware Governor Jack Markell as well as a number of high-ranking officials from the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless.

When the Occupy Wall Street protest began on September 17, what little coverage it received from the mainstream media was based on the “giggle factor”.  With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly obvious that the news media and our venal political leaders are seriously underestimating the ability of the “little people” to fight back against the kleptocracy.


 

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From Disappointing To Creepy

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It was during Barack Obama’s third month in the White House, when I realized he had become the “Disappointer-In-Chief”.  Since that time, the disappointment felt by many of us has progressed into a bad case of the creeps.

Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times has been widely praised for her recent report, exposing the Obama administration’s vilification of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his refusal to play along with Team Obama’s efforts to insulate the fraud-closure banks from the criminal prosecution they deserve.  The administration is attempting to pressure each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $20 billion settlement package.  The $20 billion is to be used for loan modifications.  Leading the charge on behalf of the administration are Shaun Donovan, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as well as a number of high-ranking officials from the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless.  Here are some highlights from Ms. Morgenson’s article:

Mr. Schneiderman and top prosecutors in some other states have objected to the proposed settlement with major banks, saying it would restrict their ability to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing in a variety of areas, including the bundling of loans in mortgage securities.

*   *   *

Mr. Schneiderman has also come under criticism for objecting to a settlement proposed by Bank of New York Mellon and Bank of America that would cover 530 mortgage-backed securities containing Countrywide Financial loans that investors say were mischaracterized when they were sold.

The deal would require Bank of America to pay $8.5 billion to investors holding the securities; the unpaid principal amount of the mortgages remaining in the pools totals $174 billion.

*   *   *

This month, Mr. Schneiderman sued to block that deal, which had been negotiated by Bank of New York Mellon as trustee for the holders of the securities.

The passage from Gretchen Morgenson’s report which drew the most attention concerned a statement made to Schneiderman by Kathryn Wylde.  Ms. Wylde is a “Class C” Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  The role of a Class C Director is to represent the interests of the public on the New York Fed board.  Barry Ritholtz provided this reaction to Ms. Wylde’s encounter with Mr. Schneiderman:

If the Times report is accurate, and the quote below represents Ms. Wylde’s comments, than that position is a laughable mockery, and Ms. Wylde should resign effective immediately.

The quote in question, which was reported to have occurred at Governor Hugh Carey’s funeral (!?!)  was as follows:

“It is of concern to the industry that instead of trying to facilitate resolving these issues, you seem to be throwing a wrench into it.  Wall Street is our Main Street — love ’em or hate ’em.  They are important and we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to support them unless they are doing something indefensible.”

I do not know if Ms. Wylde understands what her proper role should be, but clearly she is somewhat confused.  She appears to be far more interested in representing the banks than the public.

Robert Scheer of Truthdig provided us with some background on Obama’s HUD Secretary, Shaun Donovan, one of the administration’s arm-twisters in the settlement effort :

Donovan has good reason not to want an exploration of the origins of the housing meltdown:  He has been a big-time player in the housing racket for decades.  Back in the Clinton administration, when government-supported housing became a fig leaf for bundling suspect mortgages into what turned out to be toxic securities, Donovan was a deputy assistant secretary at HUD and acting Federal Housing Administration commissioner.  He was up to his eyeballs in this business when the Clinton administration pushed through legislation banning any regulation of the market in derivatives based on home mortgages.

Armed with his insider connections, Donovan then went to work for the Prudential conglomerate (no surprise there), working deals with the same government housing agencies that he had helped run.  As The New York Times reported in 2008 after President Barack Obama picked him to be secretary of HUD, “Mr. Donovan was a managing director at Prudential Mortgage Capital Co., in charge of its portfolio of investments in affordable housing loans, including Fannie Mae and the Federal Housing Administration debt.”

Obama has been frequently criticized for stacking his administration with people who regularly shuttle between corporations and the captured agencies responsible for regulating those same businesses.  Risk management guru, Christopher Whalen lamented the consequences of Obama’s cozy relationship with the Wall Street banks – most tragically, those resulting from Obama’s unwillingness to adopt the “Swedish solution” of putting the insolvent zombie banks through temporary receivership:

The path of least resistance politically has been to temporize and talk.  But by following the advice of Rubin and Summers, and avoiding tough decisions about banks and solvency, President Obama has only made the crisis more serious and steadily eroded public confidence.  In political terms, Obama is morphing into Herbert Hoover, as I wrote in one of my first posts for Reuters.com, “In a new period of instability, Obama becomes Hoover.”

Whereas two or three years ago, a public-private approach to restructuring insolvent banks could have turned around the economic picture in relatively short order, today the cost to clean up the mess facing Merkel, Obama and other leaders of western European nations is far higher and the degree of unease among the public is growing.  You may thank Larry Summers, Robert Rubin and the other members of the “do nothing” chorus around President Obama for this unfortunate outcome.

We are now past the point of blaming Obama’s advisors for the President’s recurrent betrayal of the public interest while advancing the goals of his corporate financiers.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has voiced increasingly harsh appraisals of Obama’s performance.  By August 22, it became clear to Ms. Smith that the administration’s efforts to shield the fraud-closure banks from liability exposed a scandalous degree of venality:

It is high time to describe the Obama Administration by its proper name:  corrupt.

Admittedly, corruption among our elites generally and in Washington in particular has become so widespread and blatant as to fall into the “dog bites man” category.  But the nauseating gap between the Administration’s propaganda and the many and varied ways it sells out average Americans on behalf of its favored backers, in this case the too big to fail banks, has become so noisome that it has become impossible to ignore the fetid smell.

*   *   *

Team Obama bears all the hallmarks of being so close to banks and big corporations that it has lost all contact with and understanding of mainstream America.

The latest example is its heavy-handed campaign to convert New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman to a card carrying member of the “be nice to our lords and masters the banksters” club.  Schneiderman was the first to take issue with the sham of the so-called 50 state attorney general mortgage settlement.  As far as the Administration is concerned, its goal is to give banks a talking point and prove to them that Team Obama is protecting their backs in a way that the chump public hopefully won’t notice.

*   *   *

Yet rather than address real, serious problems, senior administration officials are instead devoting time and effort to orchestrating a faux grass roots campaign to con a state AG into thinking his supporters are deserting him because he has dared challenge the supremacy of the banks.

I would include Eric Schneiderman in a group with Elizabeth Warren and Maria Cantwell as worthy challengers to Barack Obama in the 2012 Presidential Election.  I wish one of them would step forward.


 

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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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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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