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More Super Powers For Turbo Tim

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February 18, 2010

I shouldn’t have been shocked when I read about this.  It’s just that it makes no sense at all and it’s actually scary — for a number of reasons.  On Wednesday, February 17, Sewell Chan broke the story for The New York Times:

The Senate and the Obama administration are nearing agreement on forming a council of regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to identify systemic risk to the nation’s financial system, officials said Wednesday.

They’re going to put “Turbo” Tim Geithner in charge of the council that regulates systemic risk in the banking system?  Let the pushback begin!  The first published reaction to this news (that I saw) came from Tom Lindmark at the iStockAnalyst.com website:

Only the Congress of the United States is capable of this sort of monumental stupidity.  It appears as if the responsibility for running a newly formed council of bank regulators is going to be delegated to the Treasury Secretary.

Lindmark’s beef was not based on any personal opinion about the appointment of Tim Geithner himself to such a role.  Mr. Lindmark’s opinion simply reflects his disgust at the idea of putting a political appointee at the head of such a committee:

The job of overseeing our financial system is going to be given to an individual whose primary job is implementing the political agenda of his boss — the President of the US.

Regulation of the banks and whatever else gets thrown into the mix is now going to be driven by politicians who have little or no interest in a safe and sound banking system.  As we know too well, their primary interest is the perpetuation and enhancement of their own power with no regard for the consequences.

So there you have reason number one:  Nothing personal — just bad policy.

I can’t wait to hear the responses from some of my favorite gurus from the world of finance.  How about John Hussman — president of the investment advisory firm that manages the Hussman Funds?  One day before the story broke concerning our new systemic risk regulator, this statement appeared in the Weekly Market Comment by Dr. Hussman:

If one is alert, it is evident that the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury have disposed of the need for Congressional approval, and have engineered a de facto bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, at public expense.

What better qualification could one have for sitting at the helm of the systemic risk council?  Choose one of the guys who bypassed Congressional authority to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with the taxpayers’ money!  If Geithner is actually appointed to chair this council, you can expect an interesting response from Dr. Hussman.

Jeremy Grantham should have plenty to rant about concerning this nomination.  As chairman of GMO, Mr. Grantham is responsible for managing over $107 billion of his clients’ hard-inherited money.  Consider what he said about Geithner’s performance as president of the New York Fed during the months leading up to the financial crisis:

Timothy Geithner, in turn, sat in the very engine room of the USS Disaster and helped steer her onto the rocks.

Mr. Grantham should hardly be pleased to hear about our Treasury Secretary’s new role, regulating systemic risk.

The coming days should provide some entertaining diatribes along the lines of:  “You’ve got to be kidding!” in response to this news.  I’m looking forward to it!



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Avoiding The Kool-Aid

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November 5, 2009

Ask NOT what your country can do for you  —

But ask what your country can do for its largest banks.

—  “Turbo” Tim

All right  .  . .  “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t really say that (yet) but we’ve all seen how his actions affirm that doctrine.  Former federal banking regulator, Professor William Black, recently criticized Geithner for not protecting the taxpayers when Turbo Tim bailed out CIT Group to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars this past summer.  CIT has now filed for bankruptcy.  Henry Blodget of The Business Insider described Professor Black’s outrage over this situation:

The government was in no way obligated to lend the struggling CIT money and, in fact, initially refused to provide it bailout funds.  More importantly, being the lender of last resort, the government should have guaranteed we’d be the first to get paid if CIT eventually filed Chapter 11.  By failing to do so, “it’s like he [Geithner] burned billions of dollars again in government money, our money, gratuitously,” says Black.

After Tuesday’s election defeats for the Democrats in two gubernatorial races, the subject of “bailout fatigue” has been getting more attention.

Acting under the pretext of “transparency” the Obama administration has developed a strategy of holding meetings for people and groups with whom the administration knows it is losing credibility.  Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake.com has written about the Obama team’s efforts to keep the disaffected Left under control by corralling these groups into what Hamsher calls “the veal pen”.  She described one meeting wherein Rahm Emanuel used the expression “f**king stupid” in reference to the critics of those Democrats opposing the public option in proposed healthcare reform legislation.

A different format was followed at what appeared to be a “message control” conference, held on Monday at the Treasury Department.  This time, the guest list was comprised of a politically diverse group of financial bloggers.  One attendee, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, described the meeting as “curious”:

None of us knew in advance how many attendees there would be; there were eight of us at a two-hour session, Interfluidity, Marginal Revolution, Kid Dynamite’s World, Across the Curve, Financial Armageddon, Accrued Interest, and Aleph (and of course, others may have been invited who had scheduling conflicts).

*   *   *

It wasn’t obvious what the objective of the meeting was (aside the obvious idea that if they were nice to us we might reciprocate.  Unfortunately, some of us are not housebroken).  I will give them credit for having the session be almost entirely a Q&A, not much in the way of presentation.  One official made some remarks about the state of financial institutions; later another said a few things about regulatory reform.  The funniest moment was when, right after the spiel on regulatory reform, Steve Waldman said, “I’ve read your bill and I think it’s terrible.”  They did offer to go over it with him.  It will be interesting to see if that happens.

*   *   *

My bottom line is that the people we met are very cognitively captured, assuming one can take their remarks at face value.  Although they kept stressing all the things that had changed or they were planning to change, the polite pushback from pretty all the attendees was that what Treasury thought of as major progress was insufficient.

*   *   *

Several of us raised questions about whether what their vision for the industry’s structure was and that the objective seemed to be to restore the financial system that got us in trouble in the first place.

Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall adopted Ms. Smith’s description of the event, adding a few observations of his own:

  • . . . it wasn’t clear that there was a “plan B” in place if things do not recover in 2010 as many mainstream analysts expect.  In fact, the suggestion from one official was that the tenure of the current crisis would likely be nearer the shorter end of expectations.
  • There was also a bit of a disconnect between the remarks various Treasury officials have made in public forums and what was said at the meeting.  … Yesterday, however, a number of those present clearly acknowledged that things could (still) go wrong and said such fears kept them awake at night.  While that is not unusual in and of itself, at the very least it adds to doubts I and others have expressed about the true state of the financial system and the economy.
  • Finally, the meeting seemed to confirm the strong grip that Wall Street has on the levers of legislative power.

The most informative rendition of the events at the conclave came from Kid Dynamite, whose two-part narrative began with a look at how Michael Panzner interrupted a Treasury official who was describing the Treasury’s current focus “on reducing the footprint of economic intervention cautiously, quickly and prudently”:

Michael Panzner jumped right in, addressing a concept I’ve written about previously – that of  “extend and pretend,” or “delay and pray” – the concept of attempting to avoid recognizing actual losses and or insolvencies, and growing out of them after enough time.  Panzner called it “fake it ‘till you make it.”  I mentioned that I felt like we were undergoing a “Ponzi scheme of confidence” – but that confidence mattered less than ever in the current environment where, contrary to perhaps the prior 10 years, confidence can no longer be “spent.”

Kid Dynamite’s report contained too many great passages for me to quote here without running on excessively.  Just be sure to read his entire report, including Part II (which should be posted by the time you read this).

David Merkel of The Aleph Blog also submitted a two-part report (so far — with more to come) although Part 2 is more informative.  Here are some highlights:

As all bloggers there will note, those from the Treasury were kind, intelligent, funny … they were real people, unlike the common tendency to demonize those in DC.

*   *   *

To the Treasury I would say, “Markets are inherently unstable, and that is a good thing.”  They often have to adjust to severe changes in the human condition, and governmental attempts to tame markets may result in calm for a time, and a tsunami thereafter.

*   *   *

As for the bank stress-testing, one can look at it two ways: 1) the way I looked at it at the time — short on details, many generalities, not trusting the results.  (Remember, I have done many such analyses myself for insurers.) or, 2) something that gave confidence to the markets when they were in an oversold state.  Duh, but I was dumb — the oversold market rallied when it learned that the Treasury had its back.

John Jansen from Across The Curve included his report on the meeting within his usual morning posting concerning the bond market on November 4.   In a subsequent posting that afternoon, he referred his readers to the Kid Dynamite report.  Here’s what Mr. Jansen did say about the event:

. . .  those officials expressed real concern about the downside risks to the economy (as did blogger Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon) and since I think that the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve has morphed into something somewhat incestuous I suspect that the Federal Reserve will not jump off the reservation and take the first baby steps to exiting its easy money policy.

The report at the Accrued Interest blog drew some hostile comments from readers who seemed convinced that Accrued was the only blogger there who actually drank the Kool-Aid being served by the Treasury.  Their reaction was easily understandable after reading this remark (which followed a breach of protocol with the admission that Turbo Tim was there in the flesh):

It was a fascinating experience and I have to admit, it was just plain cool to be within the bowels of power like that.

Huh?  All I can say is:  If you like being in powerful bowels, just take a cruise over to duPont Circle.  Actually — it was at his next statement where he lost me:

I am also on record as saying that Geithner was a good choice for Treasury secretary.

— and then it was all downhill from there.

The administration’s “charm offensive” has moved to the dicey issue of financial reform, where it is drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.  Given the fact that they have all but admitted to a strategy of simply reading The Secret and willing everything to get better by their positive thoughts  — Michael Panzner might as well start writing Financial Armageddon — The Sequel.



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Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

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October 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

*  *  *

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

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

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



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More Heat For The Federal Reserve

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October 5, 2009

On Thursday, October 1, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke testified before the House Financial Services Committee.  That event demonstrated how the Fed has fallen into the crosshairs of critics from both ends of the political spectrum.  A report in Friday’s Los Angeles Times by Jim Puzzanghera began with the point that the Obama administration has proposed controversial legislation that would expand the Fed’s authority, despite bipartisan opposition in a Congress that is more interested in restricting the Fed’s influence:

Worried about the increased power of the complex and mysterious Fed, and upset it did not do more to prevent the deep recession, Capitol Hill has focused its anger over the financial crisis and its aftermath on the central bank.  The Fed finds itself at the center of a collision of traditional political concerns – conservatives’ fears of heavy-handed government intervention in free markets, and liberals’ complaints of regulators who favor corporate executives over average Americans.

More than two-thirds of the House of Representatives has signed on to a bill that would subject the central bank to increased congressional oversight through expanded audits.  A key senator wants to strip the Fed of its authority to regulate banks.  And the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee wants to rein in the Fed’s emergency lending power, which it used to help engineer the sale of Bear Stearns Cos. and bailout American International Group Inc.

The article noted the observation of Jaret Seiberg, a financial policy analyst with Concept Capital’s Washington Research Group:

“The Fed is running into unprecedented opposition on Capitol Hill,” he said.

“In the Senate, there’s open hostility toward any expansion of the Federal Reserve’s authority.  And in the House, you certainly have Republicans looking to focus the Fed solely on monetary policy and strip it of any larger role in financial regulation.”

Mr. Puzzanghera’s report underscored how the Fed’s interventions in the economy during the past year, which involved making loans (of unspecified amounts) and backing commercial transactions, have drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.  The idea of expanding the Fed’s authority to the extent that it would become a “systemic risk regulator” has been criticized both in Congress and by a former member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors:

House Republicans want to scale back the Fed’s power so the bank focuses on monetary policy.  And many have opposed the administration’s proposal to give the Fed the new role of supervising large financial institutions, such as AIG, that are not traditional banks but pose a risk to the economy if they fail.

“I’m not alone with my concerns about the Fed as a systemic regulator,” said Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).  Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has similar concerns, as do others on his panel.  In fact, Dodd has proposed stripping the Fed of all of its bank oversight functions as part of his plan for creating a single banking regulatory agency.

Former Fed Gov. Alice M. Rivlin also said it would be a mistake to increase the Fed’s regulatory powers because it would distract from the central bank’s monetary policy role.

“Do we want to augment the regulatory authority of the Fed?      . . .  My answer is no,” said Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  “My sense is many people would be nervous about that augmentation.”

The colorful Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, recently published a report card on the committee’s website, criticizing the Fed’s poor record on consumer protection.  The report card contrasted what Congressional Democrats had done to address various issues (categorized under the heading:  “Democrats Act”) with what the Fed has or has or has not done in dealing with those same problems.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, is making the rounds, promoting his new book:  End The Fed.  A recent posting at The Daily Bail website includes a YouTube video of Ron Paul at a book signing in New York, which resulted in a small parade over to the New York Fed.  Although the Daily Bail piece reported that Paul’s book had broken into the top ten on Amazon’s list of bestsellers — as I write this, End The Fed is number 15.  I would like to see that book continue to gain popularity.  Perhaps next time Chairman Bernanke testifies before a committee, he will know that something more than his own job is on the line.  It would be nice to see him make history as the last Chairman of the Federal Reserve.



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Spread The Word

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September 29, 2009

I’ve seen quite a few articles and broadcasts from “mainstream” news sources during the past few weeks that have actually made me feel encouraged about the public’s response to the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Six months ago, the dirty picture of what caused last year’s near-meltdown and what has continued to prevent the necessary reforms, was something one could find only by reading a relatively small number of blogs.  Michael Panzner wrote a book entitled Financial Armageddon in 2006, predicting what many “experts” later described as unforeseeable.  Mr. Panzner now has a blog called Financial Armageddon (as well as another: When Giants Fall).  At his Financial Armageddon website, Mr. Panzner has helped ease the pain of the economic catastrophe with a little humor by educating his readers on some novel measurements of our recession level — such as the increased use of hair dye and “The Hot Waitress Index”.   (He ran another great posting about the increasing number of disastrous experiences for people who tried to save money by cutting their own hair.)   Meanwhile, Matt Taibbi has continued to serve as a gadfly against crony capitalism.   Zero Hedge keeps us regularly apprised of the suspicious activities in the equities and futures markets, which are of no apparent concern to regulatory officials.   Some bloggers, including Jr Deputy Accountant, have criticized the manic money-printing and other inappropriate activities at the Federal Reserve — which resists all efforts at oversight and transparency.  One no longer experiences the stigma of “conspiracy theorist” by accepting the view that our financial and economic problems were caused primarily by regulatory failure.

On September 23, Dan Gerstein wrote a piece for Forbes, about the impressive, 25-page article concerning last year’s financial crisis, written by James Stewart for The New Yorker, entitled:   “Eight Days”.  At the outset, Mr. Gerstein noted how the New Yorker article provided the reader with some shocking insight on someone we all thought we knew pretty well:

But the biggest eye-opener was that the most incisive and damning questions raised by any of our leaders during this existential crisis came from none other than the era’s top free-market cheerleader in Washington, George W. Bush.

*   *   *

Paulson and Bernanke alerted Bush that AIG was about to fail, warned of the massive ripple effect AIG going bust would have on the global economy, and explained why the Fed could not intervene with an insurance company to stop this systemic threat.  In response, Bush asked  “How have we come to the point where we can’t let an institution fail without affecting the whole economy?”

The question raised by President Bush is still tragically apt, since nothing has been accomplished in the past year to break up or downsize those institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Mr. Gerstein’s experience from reading the New Yorker article helped reinforce the understanding that our current situation is not only the result of regulatory failure, but it’s also a by-product of something called “regulatory capture” —  wherein the regulators are beholden to those whom they are supposed to regulate:

Once disaster was averted and the system stabilized, Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke had no excuse for not laying down the law to Wall Street — figuratively and literally — in the ensuing weeks.  By that I mean restructuring the deals we struck with the banks to get far better returns for taxpayers and rewriting the rules governing the financial system to prevent them from ever thinking they could gamble risk-free with our money again.

*   *   *

There’s no apparent sense of apartness or independence between regulator and regulated.  To the contrary, there’s a power imbalance in the wrong direction, with the regulators dependent on and even at the mercy of the regulated.  What does it say about the integrity and even the sanity of this system when the doctors have to ask the inmates how to restructure their treatments?

I was particularly impressed by Dan Gerstein’s closing remarks in the Forbes piece.  It was encouraging to see another commentary in a mainstream media source, consistent with the ranting I did here, here and here.  Mr. Gerstein expressed dismay at the lack of attention given to the unpleasant truth that we live in a plutocracy which won’t be changed until the people demand it:

That’s why I was so disappointed to find Stewart’s epic article buried in the elite pages of the New Yorker.  It should have been serialized on the front pages of every newspaper in the country last week, so every American would be reminded in full detail of just how warped and rigged our financial system has been — and why it still is.  Maybe then it might sink in that getting mad won’t get us even in the power struggle with the financial elites for control of our economy, and that change won’t happen until taxpayers demand it.  You want public accountability for Wall Street?  Let’s start with an accountable public.

Each time an article such as Dan Gerstein’s “Too Close For Comfort” gets widespread exposure, we move one step closer to the point where we have an informed, accountable public.  It’s unfortunate that his commentary was buried in the elite pages of Forbes.  That’s why I have it here.  Spread the word.



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The Broken Promise

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September 21, 2009

We expect those politicians aiming for re-election, to make a point of keeping their campaign promises.  Many elected officials break those promises and manage to win another term anyway.  That fact might explain the reasoning used by so many pols who decide to go the latter route  —  they believe they can get away with it.  Nevertheless, many leaders who break their campaign promises often face crushing defeat on the next Election Day.  A good example of this situation arose during the Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush, who assured America:  “Read my lips:  No new taxes!” in his acceptance speech (written by Peggy Noonan) at the 1988 Republican National Convention.  Although he didn’t enact any new taxes during his sole term in office, he also promised the voters that he would not raise existing taxes after telling everyone to read his lips.  When he broke that promise after becoming President, he was confronted with the “read my lips” quote by everyone from Pat Buchanan to Bill Clinton.

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.  (I seem to remember the word “transparency” being used by Candidate Obama.)  Although we are all well-aware of the $750 billion TARP slush fund that benefited the banks to some degree, speculation as to the amount given (or “loaned”) to the banks by the Federal Reserve runs from $2 trillion to as high as $6 trillion.  So far, the Fed has managed to thwart efforts by some news organizations to learn the ugly truth.  As Pat Choate reported for The Huffington Post:

Bloomberg News filed a federal lawsuit in November 2008 in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan) challenging that stonewalling and won the case.  Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska on August 24 ruled that the Fed had “improperly withheld agency records” giving it a week to disclose daily reports on its loans to banks and other financial institutions.

Three days later, Federal Reserve lawyers asked the courts for a delay so that they could make an expedited appeal of her decision.  Several major banks, operating through an organization named “The Clearing House,” filed a supporting brief with the appeals court, claiming that the Federal Reserve had provided its members emergency funds under an agreement not to identify the recipients or the loan terms.

The Clearing House brief described its members as, “[T]he most important participants in the international banking and payments systems and among the world’s largest intermediaries in interbank funds transfers.”  They include ABN Amro Bank, N.V. (Dutch), Bank of America, The Bank of New York Mellon, Citibank, Deutsche Bank Trust (Germany), JP MorganChase Bank, UBS (Switzerland), and Wells Fargo.

*   *   *

Why are the Fed and the banks fighting so hard to keep the loan details secret?  Congress and taxpayers cannot know until they have the information the Federal Reserve is keeping from them, but several plausible explanations exist.

One is that the Fed has taken a great deal of worthless collateral and is propping up failed companies and banks.  A second is that the information will make the issue of paying out huge Wall Street bonuses in 2009 politically radioactive, particularly if it turns out the payments are dependent on these federal loans.

Finally, the Federal Reserve probably does not want that information to be part of the forthcoming Senate hearings on the re-confirmation of Ben Bernanke, current Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

President Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics” is rooted in his decision to rely on the very same individuals who caused the financial crisis — to somehow cure the nation’s economic ills.  These people (Larry Summers, “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke) have convinced Mr. Obama that “trickle-down economics” (i.e. bailing out the banks, rather than distressed businesses or the taxpayers themselves) would be the best solution.

On Saturday, Australian economist Steve Keen published a fantastic report from his website, explaining how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  Here’s some of what Professor Keen had to say:

While economic outsiders like myself, Michael Hudson, Niall Ferguson and Nassim Taleb argue that the only way to restart the economic engine is to clear it of debt, the government response, has been to attempt to replace the now defunct private debt economic turbocharger with a public one.

In the immediate term, the stupendous size of the stimulus has worked, so that debt in total is still boosting aggregate demand.  But what will happen when the government stops turbocharging the economy, and waits anxiously for the private system to once again splutter into life?

I am afraid that all it will do is splutter.

This is especially so since, following the advice of neoclassical economists, Obama has got not a bang but a whimper out of the many bucks he has thrown at the financial system.

In explaining his recovery program in April, PresidentObama noted that:

“there are a lot of Americans who understandably think that government money would be better spent going directly to families and businesses instead of banks – ‘where’s our bailout?,’ they ask”.

He justified giving the money to the lenders, rather than to the debtors, on the basis of  “the multiplier effect” from bank lending:

the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth. (page 3 of the speech)

This argument comes straight out of the neoclassical economics textbook.  Fortunately, due to the clear manner in which Obama enunciates it, the flaw in this textbook argument is vividly apparent in his speech.

This “multiplier effect” will only work if American families and businesses are willing to take on yet more debt:  “a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans”.

So the only way the roughly US$1 trillion of money that the Federal Reserve has injected into the banks will result in additional spending is if American families and businesses take out another US$8-10 trillion in loans.

*   *   *

If the money multiplier was going to “ride to the rescue”, private debt would need to rise from its current level of US$41.5 trillion to about US$50 trillion, and this ratio would rise to about 375% — more than twice the level that ushered in the Great Depression.

This is a rescue?  It’s a “hair of the dog” cure:  having booze for breakfast to overcome the feelings of a hangover from last night’s binge.  It is the road to debt alcoholism, not the road to teetotalism and recovery.

Fortunately, it’s a “cure” that is also highly unlikely to work, because the model of money creation that Obama’s economic advisers have sold him was shown to be empirically false over three decades ago.

*    *    *

I’ve recently developed a genuinely monetary, credit-driven model of the economy, and one of its first insights is that Obama has been sold a pup on the right way to stimulate the economy:  he would have got far more bang for his buck by giving the stimulus to the debtors rather than the creditors.

*    *    *

The model shows that you get far more “bang for your buck” by giving the money to firms, rather than banks.  Unemployment falls in both case below the level that would have applied in the absence of the stimulus, but the reduction in unemployment is far greater when the firms get the stimulus, not the banks: unemployment peaks at over 18 percent without the stimulus, just over 13 percent with the stimulus going to the banks, but under11 percent with the stimulus being given to the firms.

*    *    *

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

This could also be one reason that the Australian experience has been better than the USA’s:  the stimulus in Australia has emphasized funding the public rather than the banks (and the model shows the same impact from giving money to the workers as from giving it to the firms — and for the same reason, that workers have to spend, so that the money injected into the economy circulates more rapidly.

*    *    *

Obama has been sold a pup by neoclassical economics:  not only did neoclassical theory help cause the crisis, by championing the growth of private debt and the asset bubbles it financed; it also is undermining efforts to reduce the severity of the crisis.

This is unfortunately the good news:  the bad news is that this model only considers an economy undergoing a “credit crunch”, and not also one suffering from a serious debt overhang that only a direct reduction in debt can tackle.  That is our actual problem, and while a stimulus will work for awhile, the drag from debt-deleveraging is still present.  The economy will therefore lapse back into recession soon after the stimulus is removed.

You can be sure that if we head into a “double-dip” recession as Professor Keen expects, the President will never hear the end of it.  If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.



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The Longest Year

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September 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi

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

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

$5,000 PAC
$2,400 Individual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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




The Forgotten Urgency Of Financial Reform

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September 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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