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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

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

*   *   *

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

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

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



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Delaying A Tough Decision

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June 3, 2010

A recent article by David Lightman for the McClatchy Newspapers bemoaned the fact that the Senate took off for a ten-day break without voting on the “Jobs Bill” passed by the House of Representatives (H.R.4213).   Mr. Lightman’s piece expressed particular concern about the fact that a summer jobs program for approximately 330,000 “at-risk youths” has been hanging in the balance between deficit distress and economic recovery efforts.  Of particular concern is the fact that time is of the essence for keeping the youth jobs program alive for this summer:

The longer the wait, the less the program can reduce joblessness among the nation’s most vulnerable population.  Unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds was 25.4 percent in April.

“Summer’s only so long, and it is a summer youth program,” said Mark Mattke, the work force strategy and planning director at the Spokane Area Workforce Development Council.  More than 5,700 people in Washington state got summer jobs through government programs last year.

Financial expert, Janet Tavakoli, recently wrote an essay for The Huffington Post, discussing the cause-and-effect relationship between hard economic times and the crime rate.  With municipal budget cutbacks reducing the ranks of our nation’s law enforcement personnel, a failure to extend unemployment benefits, as provided by the Jobs Bill, could be a dangerous experiment.  Ms. Tavakoli discussed how the current recession has precipitated an increase in Chicago’s street crime:

Last summer gang violence ruled the night at Leland and Sheridan, a neighborhood in the process of gentrifying.

In the upscale Lincoln Park area, just a little further south of this unrest, men alone at night were accosted by groups of three to six men and severely beaten, robbed, and hospitalized.  Seven muggings occurred in a five-day period from July 30 to August 4, 2009.

This kind of activity was unusual for these areas of Chicago until last summer.

Current Escalating Violent Crime and Chicago’s Prime Lakefront Areas

Shootings are way up in Chicago, and ordinary citizens — along with shorthanded police — are angry.  Chicago has a gun ban, yet on Wednesday, May 19, Thomas Wortham IV, a Chicago police officer and Iraq War veteran, was shot when four gang members attempted to steal the new motorcycle the officer had brought to show his father, a retired police officer.  Shots were fired, and his father saw the skirmish, ran for his gun, and managed to get off a few rounds.  Two gang members were shot while two sped away dragging his fallen son’s body some distance in the process.

Nine people were shot on Sunday night (May 24), and Chicago is currently in the grips of a massive crime wave that has overwhelmed our under funded police force.

Gangland violence and shootings now occur up and down Chicago’s lakefront.

*   *   *

This escalation and geographical spread of violence is new, and I believe it is related to our Great Recession and budget issues.  I don’t believe that Chicago is alone in its budget problems.  If new patterns in Recession-related-violence have not yet affected other major cities in the U.S. the way they have affected Chicago, they may affect them soon.  It is also likely that crime is being underreported as crime-fighting budgets are cut.

Given the current momentum for deficit hawkishness, the Senate’s break before the vote on this bill could be advantageous.  After all, the bill barely passed in the House.  Our Senators need to carefully consider the consequences of the failure to pass this bill.  David Leonhardt of The New York Times presented a reasoned argument to his readers from the Senate on June 1, recommending passage of the Jobs Bill:

It would still add about $54 billion to the deficit over the next decade. On the other hand, it could also do some good.  Among other things, it would cut taxes for businesses, expand summer jobs programs and temporarily extend jobless benefits for some of today’s 15 million unemployed workers.

*   *   *

Including the jobs bill, the deficit is projected to grow to about $1.3 trillion next year (and that’s assuming the White House can persuade Congress to make some proposed spending cuts and repeal the Bush tax cuts for the affluent).  To be at a level that economists consider sustainable, the deficit needs to be closer to $400 billion.  Only then would normal economic growth be able to pay it off.

So Congress would need to find almost $900 billion in savings.  By voting down the jobs bill, it would save more than $50 billion by 2015 and get 7 percent of the way to the goal.  That’s not nothing.  In a nutshell, it’s the case against the bill.

*   *   *

Of course, even if the bill is not very expensive, it is worth passing only if it will make a difference.  And economists say it will.

Last year’s big stimulus program certainly did.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.4 million to 3.4 million people now working would be unemployed were it not for the stimulus.  Private economists have made similar estimates.

There are two arguments for more stimulus today.  The first is that, however hopeful the economic signs, the risk of a double-dip recession remains. Financial crises often bring bumpy recoveries.  The recent troubles in Europe surely won’t help.

The second argument is that the economy has a terribly long way to go before it can be considered healthy.  Here is a sobering way to think about the situation:  If the next four years were to bring job growth as fast as the job growth during the best four years of the 1990s boom — which isn’t likely — the unemployment rate would still be higher in 2014 than when the recession began in late 2007.

Voters may not like deficits, but they really do not like unemployment.

Looking at the problem this way makes the jobs bill seem like less of a tough call.  Luckily, the country’s two big economic problems — the budget deficit and the job market — are not on the same timeline.  The unemployment rate is near a 27-year high right now.  Deficit reduction can wait a bit, given that lenders continue to show confidence in Washington’s ability to repay the debt.

Remember that by way of Maiden Lane III, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, as president of the New York Fed, gave away $30 billion of taxpayer money to the counterparties of AIG – even though most of them didn’t need it.  A “clawback” of that money from those banks (including Goldman Sachs – a $19 billion recipient) could pay for more than half the cost of the Jobs Bill.   If the $30 billion wasted on Maiden Lane III can be so easily forgotten – why not spend $54 billion to avoid a “double-dip” recession and a hellish increase in street crime?



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Geithner Goes Rogue

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April 2, 2009

Forget what you’ve heard about “oversight” and “transparency”.  What is really going on with the bank bailouts is beginning to scare some pretty level-headed people.

On March 31, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a/k/a the $700 billion bank bailout initiated last fall by former Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson).  The hearing featured testimony by Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel; Neil Barofsky, Speical Inspector General for TARP and Gene Dodaro of the General Accounting Office.  All three testified that the Treasury Department was not cooperating with their efforts to conduct oversight.  In other words:  They are being stonewalled.  Worse yet, Ms. Warren testified that she could not even get the Treasury Department to explain what the hell is its strategy for TARP.  As Chris Adams reported for the McClatchy Newspapers:

Noting that TARP passed Congress six months ago, Warren said that her group has repeatedly called on the Treasury Department to provide a clear strategy for the program – and that “the absence of such a vision hampers effective oversight.”

Although she has asked Treasury to explain its strategy, “Congress and the American public have no clear answer to that question.”

That article also included Warren’s testimony that she experienced similar difficulties in obtaining information about the TALF (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility):

TARP is one of several programs the government has launched in recent months to help ailing institutions and even bolster healthy banks.  Warren singled out one program, known as TALF, for involving “substantial downside risk and high costs for the American taxpayer” while offering big potential rewards for private interests.  She said the public information about that program was “contradictory, promoting substantial confusion.”

Matthew Jaffe of ABC News pointed out that Neil Barofsky, Speical Inspector General for TARP, voiced similar concerns during his testimony.  Not surprisingly, the prepared testimony of the GAO’s Gene Dodaro revealed that:

We continue to note the difficulty of measuring the effect of TARP’s activities.

*    *    *

. . .  Treasury has yet to develop a means of regularly and routinely communicating its activities to relevant Congressional committees, members, the public and other critical stakeholders.

The Treasury Department’s inability to account for what the banks have been doing with TARP funds is based on the simple fact that it hasn’t even bothered to ask the banks that question.  As Steve Aquino reported for Mother Jones:

Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General of TARP, testified that the Treasury has yet to require TARP recipients to deliver reports disclosing exactly how they are spending taxpayer money.  “[C]omplaints that it was impractical or impossible for banks to detail how they used TARP funds were unfounded,” Barofsky said.  “While some banks indicated that they had procedures for monitoring their use of TARP money, others did not but were still able to give information on their use of funds.”

Apparently, Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner has adopted a “Don’t Ask — Don’t Tell” policy on the subject of what banks and other financial institutions do with the TARP money they receive.  Steve Aquino’s article emphasized how Elizabeth Warren’s testimony raised suspicions about the relationship between the Treasury and AIG — along with its “counterparties” (such as Goldman Sachs):

Congressional Oversight Panel chair Elizabeth Warren — who made news last month when she reported the Treasury had received securities worth $78 billion less than it paid for through TARP — cast more doubt on the Treasury’s relationship with AIG, saying “the opaque nature of the relationship among AIG, its counterparties, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve Banks, particuarly the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has substantially hampered oversight of the TARP program by Congress.”

That quote is particularly damning of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, because Warren specifically mentions the New York Fed, which Geithner headed before coming to Washington, and who also organized the first bailout of AIG.

At this point, it is difficult to understand why anyone, especially President Obama, would trust Turbo Tim to solve the “toxic asset” problem, with the scam now known as the Public-Private Investment Program or PPIP (pee-pip).  John P. Hussman, PhD, President of Hussman Investment Trust, wrote a superb analysis demonstrating the futility of the PPIP.  Here’s his conclusion:

The misguided policy of defending bondholders against losses with public funds has increased uncertainty, crowded out private investment, harmed consumer confidence, and prompted defensive saving against possible adversity.  We observe this as a plunge in gross domestic investment that is much broader than just construction and real estate, and a corresponding but misleading “improvement” in the current account deficit as domestic investment plunges.

Aside from a few Nobel economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (who characterized the Treasury policy last week as “robbery of the American people”) and Paul Krugman (who called it “a plan to rearrange the deck chairs and hope that that keeps us from hitting the iceberg”), the recognition that this problem can be addressed without a massive waste of public funds (and that it is both dangerous and wrong to do so) is not even on the radar.

In short, attempting to avoid the need for debt restructuring by wasting trillions in public funds increases the likelihood that the current economic downturn will be prolonged, places a massive claim on our future production in order to transfer our nation’s wealth to the bondholders of mismanaged financial companies, and raises the likelihood that any nascent recovery will be cut short by inflation pressures.  We are nowhere near the completion of this deleveraging cycle.

Unfortunately, we are also nowhere near finding someone who has the will or the ability to pull the plug on Turbo Tim’s recipe for disaster.