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Here We Go Again

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Goldman Sachs is back in the spotlight.  This time, there is a chorus of disgust being expressed about how Goldman conducts its business.  Back in June of 2009, Matt Taibbi famously characterized Goldman Sachs in the following terms:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The latest episode of predation by the Vampire Squid concerns an August 16 report prepared by Alan Brazil, a member of Goldman’s trading team.  Brazil prepared the 54-page presentation for the firm’s institutional clients as a guide to the impending economic collapse with some trading strategies to benefit from that event.  Page 3 of the report starts with the headline:  “Here We Go Again”.  The statement was prescient in that the report itself initiated a renewed, consensual effort to condemn Goldman.  Page 4 has the headline:   “The Underlying Problem May Be Structural And Created By the Housing Bubble”.  The extent to which the underlying problem may have been caused by Goldman Sachs had been previously discussed by Matt Taibbi, who explained Goldman’s propensity to act the way it always has:  

If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain  .  .  .

Shah Gilani of Forbes reacted to the publication of Alan Brazil’s report with the following statement, which was used for the title of his own article:

In my opinion, Goldman isn’t just a travesty of a mockery of a sham, it is a criminal enterprise and worthy of being stepped on itself.

Susan Pulliam and Liz Rappaport broke the story on Goldman’s “Dark View” for The Wall Street Journal:

The report, released by the Hedge Fund Strategies group in Goldman’s securities division, provides a glimpse into the trading ideas that are generated for hedge funds through strategists, such as Mr. Brazil, who are part of Goldman’s trading operation rather than its research group.

Such strategists sit alongside the traders who are executing trades for their clients.  Unlike analysts in firms’ research divisions—who are supposed to be walled off from information about the activity of the firm’s clients—these desk strategists have a front-row seat for viewing the ebb and flow of clients’ investment plays.

They can see if there is a groundswell of interest among hedge funds in taking bearish bets in a certain sector, and they watch trading volumes dry up or explode.  Their point of view is informed by more, and often confidential, information about clients than analysts’ opinions, making their research and ideas highly prized by traders.

The report itself makes note that the information included isn’t considered research by Goldman.  “This material is not independent advice and is not a product of Global Investment Research,” the report notes.

The idea that such a gloomy assessment had not been shared with the general public has become a frequently-expressed complaint.  Michael T. Snyder wrote a piece for Seeking Alpha, which provided this explanation for the lack of candor:

As I wrote about the other day, the financial world is about to hit the panic button.  Things could start falling apart at any time. Most of these big banks will not publicly admit how bad things are, but privately there is a whole lot of freaking out going on.

*   *   *

You aren’t going to hear the truth from the media or from our politicians, because keeping people calm is much more of a priority to them than is telling the truth.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider dissuaded the “little people” from getting any grandiose ideas after reading Brazil’s briefing:

Unfortunately, lest you think your knowledge of this semi-secret report will finally allow you to out-trade hedge funds, it won’t. The hedge funds got the report on August 16th.  As usual, you’re the last to know.

Beyond that, there is Goldman’s longstanding reputation for “front running” its own clients, which must have inspired this remark in a critique of Alan Brazil’s report, appearing at the Minyanville website:

Coincidentally, he had some surefire trading strategies for clients interested in capitalizing on this trend.  Presumably, Goldman’s own traders began bidding the various recommended hedges up some time earlier, a possibility Goldman discloses up front.

So this is what the squid is down to these days:  peddling the obvious to the bottom-feeders below it in the financial food chain.

By now, those commentators who had criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.


 

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?



The Battle Over Bernanke

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January 25, 2010

Ben Bernanke’s four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve ends on January 31.  There is presently no vote scheduled to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Bernanke to that post because four Senators (Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C. and David Vitter, R-La.) have placed holds on Bernanke’s nomination.  In order for the Senate to proceed to a vote on the nomination, 60 votes will be required.  At this point, there is a serious question as to whether the pro-Bernanke faction can produce those 60 votes.  A number of commentators have described last week’s win by Scott Brown as a “chill factor” for those Senators considering whether to vote for confirmation.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post put it this way:

Opposition to the reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is growing in the Senate in the wake of a Republican Scott Brown’s victory, fueled by populist rage, in the Massachusetts Senate race.

James Pethokoukis of Reuters explained the situation in these terms:

Liberals in Congress want him gone.  Then again, they want pretty much the whole Obama economic team gone.  But Geithner and Summers aren’t up for a Senate vote.  Bernanke is.  And if Dems start bailing, don’t expect Republicans to save him.  No politician in America gains anything by voting for Bernanke.  A “no” vote is a free vote.  Wall Street still loves him, though.  Geithner, too.

At The Hill, Tony Romm reported:

Bernanke has taken heat as Wall Street’s profits have soared while unemployment has become stuck in double digits, and the wave of economic populism soaring through Washington in the wake of a stunning Democratic loss in the Massachusetts Senate races comes at a bad time for his confirmation.

If Bernanke is not confirmed, he will continue to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors because each Fed Governor is appointed to a 14-year term.  Donald Kohn, the vice chairman, would serve as the interim chairman until Bernanke’s successor is nominated and confirmed.

The forces pushing for Bernanke’s confirmation have now resorted to scare tactics, warning that dire consequences will result from a failure to re-confirm Bernanke.  Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd warned that if Bernanke is not confirmed, the economy will go into a “tailspin”.  An Associated Press report, written by Jennine Aversa and carried by The Washington Post, warned that a failure to confirm Bernanke could raise the risk of a double-dip recession.  At The Atlantic, Megan McArdle exploited widespread concern over already-depleted retirement savings:

Spiking his nomination may have grim effects on 401(k)s throughout the land.

Not to be outdone, Judge Richard Posner issued this warning from his perch at The Atlantic:

If he is not confirmed, the independence of the Fed will take a terrible hit, because the next nominee will have to make outright promises to Congress of bank bashing, and of keeping interest rates way down regardless of inflation risk, in order to be confirmed.

I guess that these people forgot to mention that if Bernanke is not confirmed:

A plague of locusts shall be visited upon us,

The earth will be struck by a Texas-sized asteroid,

An incurable venereal disease will be spread via toilet seats,

The Internet will vanish, and   . . .

Osama bin Laden will become the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

At the Think Progress website, Matthew Yglesias pondered the issue:

What happens if Ben Bernanke isn’t reconfirmed?  Well, some folks seem to think it will send markets into a tailspin.  But it’s worth emphasizing that in literal terms almost nothing will happen.

Beyond that, as Sudeep Reddy and Damian Paletta explained in The Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Open Market Committee — which consists of the presidentially appointed Fed governors in Washington and the presidents of the regional Fed banks — meets Jan. 26-27 and traditionally elects a chairman and vice chairman at its first meeting of the year.  The committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, is set to elect Mr. Bernanke as its chairman at that meeting, a move that doesn’t require approval of the White House or the Senate.

Min Zeng of The Wall Street Journal filled us in as to what else we can expect from the FOMC this week:

Next week, the two-day FOMC meeting will end Wednesday afternoon with a statement on an interest-rate decision and policymakers’ latest outlook on the economy and inflation.

The FOMC is widely expected by market participants to keep its main policy rate — the fed-funds target rate — at ultra-low levels near zero as recent data haven’t demonstrated a persistent and strong economic recovery, with a jobless rate still hovering around the highest level in more than two decades.

Fed policymakers are also likely to stick to their plan to end the $1.25 trillion mortgage-backed securities purchases program at the end of March.  The central bank should also reiterate its plan to let some emergency lending programs expire Feb. 1.

The Fed could soon hike the rate it charges on emergency loans, known as the discount rate, but that would largely be symbolic now that banks have been borrowing less and less from it as financial markets stabilized.

Meanwhile, the battle against the Bernanke confirmation continues.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has urged his readers to contact the “undecided” Senators and voice opposition to Bernanke.  Mish has also provided the names and contact information for those Senators, as well as the names of those Senators who are currently on record as either supporting or opposing Bernanke.

I’d like to see Bernanke lose, regardless of the consequences.  The rationale for this opinion was superbly articulated by Senator Jim Bunning during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  If you’re not familiar with it — give it a read.  Here is Senator Bunning’s conclusion to those remarks, delivered directly to Bernanke:

From monetary policy to regulation, consumer protection, transparency, and independence, your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.  You stated time and again during the housing bubble that there was no bubble.  After the bubble burst, you repeatedly claimed the fallout would be small.  And you clearly did not spot the systemic risks that you claim the Fed was supposed to be looking out for.  Where I come from we punish failure, not reward it.  That is certainly the way it was when I played baseball, and the way it is all across America.  Judging by the current Treasury Secretary, some may think Washington does reward failure, but that should not be the case.  I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible.  We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.

Amen.




More Bad Press For Goldman Sachs

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July 16, 2009

They can’t seem to get away from it, no matter how hard they try.  Goldman Sachs is finding itself confronted with bad publicity on a daily basis.

It all started with Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone.  As I pointed out on June 25, I liked the article as well as Matt’s other work.  His blog can be found here.  His article on Goldman Sachs employed a good deal of hyperbolic rhetoric which I enjoyed  –  especially the metaphor of Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  Nevertheless, many commentators took issue with the article, especially focusing on the subtitle’s claim that “Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression”.  I took that remark as hyperbole, since it would obviously require over 120 megabytes of space to document “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression” — so I wasn’t disappointed about being unable to read all that.  Some of Taibbi’s critics include Megan McArdle from The Atlantic and Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock.

On the other hand, Taibbi did get a show of support from Eliot “Socks” Spitzer during a July 14 interview on Bloomberg TV.  Mr. Spitzer made some important points about Goldman’s conduct that we are now hearing from a number of other sources.  Spitzer began by emphasizing that because of the bank bailouts “Goldman’s capital was driven to virtually nothing — because we as taxpayers gave them access to capital – they made a bloody fortune” (another vampire squid reference).  Spitzer voiced the concern that Goldman is simply going back to proprietary trading and taking advantage of spreads, following its old business model.  He argued that, a result of the bailouts:

. . . their job should be, from a macroeconomic perspective, to raise capital and put it into sectors that create jobs.  If they’re not getting that done, then why are we supporting them the way we have been?

This sentiment seems to be coming from all directions, in light of the fact that on July 14, Goldman reported second-quarter profits of 3.44 billion dollars — while on the following day, another TARP recipient, CIT Group disclosed that it would likely file for bankruptcy on July 17.  On July 16, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled:  “A Tale of Two Bailouts” comparing Goldman’s fate with that of CIT.  The article pointed out that since Goldman’s risk is subsidized by the taxpayers, the company might be more appropriately re-branded as “Goldie Mac”:

We like profits as much as the next capitalist.  But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business.  Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail.  But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future.  Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

If there is a lesson in this week’s tale of two banks, it’s that it won’t be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to “monitor” systemic risk.  Last fall’s bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share.  Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer’s dime.

Robert Reich voiced similar concern over the fact that “Goldman’s high-risk business model hasn’t changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street.”  He went on to explain:

Value-at-risk — a statistical measure of how much the firm’s trading operations could lose in a day — rose to an average of  $245 million in the second quarter from $240 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, VaR averaged $184 million.

Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman’s high-risk operations.

*   *   *

So the fact that Goldman has reverted to its old ways in the market suggests it has every reason to believe it can revert to its old ways in politics, should its market strategies backfire once again — leaving the rest of us once again to pick up the pieces.

At The Huffington Post, Mike Lux reminded Goldman that despite its repayment of $10 billion in TARP funds, we haven’t overlooked the fact that Goldman has not repaid the $13 billion it received for being a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper or the “unrevealed billions” it received from the Federal Reserve.  This raises a serious question as to whether Goldman should be allowed to pay record bonuses to its employees, as planned.  Didn’t we go through this once beforePaul Abrams is mindful of this, having issued a wake-up call to “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Congress.

As long as we keep reading the news, each passing day provides us with yet another reminder to feel outrage over the hubris of the people at Goldman Sachs.