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Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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Psychopaths Caused The Financial Crisis

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Two months ago, Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post in rebuttal to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s parroting of what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

Ritholtz then proceeded to list and discuss the true causes of the financial crisis.  Among those causes were Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve monetary policy – wherein interest rates were reduced to 1 percent; the deregulation of derivatives trading by way of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Bear Stearns exemption” – allowing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns to boost their leverage as high as 40-to-1; as well as the “bundling” of sub-prime mortgages with higher-quality mortgages into sleazy “investment” products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Purveyors of The Big Lie are also big on advancing the claim that the “too big to fail” beneficiaries of the TARP bailout repaid the money they were loaned, at a profit to the taxpayers.  Immediately after her arrival at CNN, former Goldman Sachs employee, Erin Burnett made a point of interviewing a young, Occupy Wall Street protester, asking him if he was aware that the government actually made a profit on the TARP.  Unfortunately, the fiancée of Citigroup executive David Rubulotta didn’t direct her question to Steve Randy Waldman – who debunked that propaganda at his Interfluidity website:

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants.  Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses.  So there really was no bailout, right?  The banks took loans and paid them back.

Bullshit.

*   *   *

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest.  Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran).  The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion).  The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps.  Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars.  We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers.  Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out.  Big time.

Another overlooked cause of the financial crisis was the fact that there were too many psychopaths managing the most privileged Wall Street institutions.  Not only had the lunatics taken over the asylum – they had taken control of the world’s largest, government-backed casino, as well.  William D. Cohan of Bloomberg News gave us a peek at the recent work of Clive R. Boddy:

It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along:  The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Professor Boddy wrote a book on the subject – entitled, Corporate Psychopaths.  The book’s publisher, Macmillan, provided this description of the $90 opus:

Psychopaths are little understood outside of the criminal image.  However, as the recent global financial crisis highlighted, the behavior of a small group of managers can potentially bring down the entire western system of business.  This book investigates who they are, why they do what they do and what the consequences of their presence are.

Matt Taibbi provided a less-expensive explanation of this mindset in a recent article for Rolling Stone:

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors.  It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here.  Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India.  They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets.  They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest.  Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Do you think that Mayor Bloomberg learned his lesson  .  .  .  that spreading pro-bankster propaganda can provoke the infusion of an overwhelming dose of truth into the mainstream news?   Nawwww  .  .  .


 

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Hillary Throws A Tupperware Party

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While reading through Saturday’s Links at the Naked Capitalism website, I came across a posting by Jane Hamsher entitled, “Hillary Clinton Hosts ‘Iraq Opportunities’ Party For War Profiteers”.  I was reminded that a war, initiated under the pretext of finding Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”, was really all about creating “Iraq Opportunities”.  Using the “good cop / bad cop” routine, the “bad cops” of our One-Party System (the “Republican” branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party) promoted a war, which the “good cop” Democrat branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party claimed it was “forced” to support.  Just because Saddam wasn’t really stockpiling any weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t mean we can’t find any “Iraq Opportunities”.

Sure, there’s been a “changing of the guard” since the Iraq war began, but a look at the guest list for Hillary’s “Iraq Opportunities Party” will reveal the identities of some corporations, which expect to benefit from the expenditure of human lives and trillions of taxpayer dollars on the Iraq war effort.  Of course, Halliburton and KBR were invited to send some partygoers to the fete.  But don’t forget – the Obama Administration has been in charge for over two years  . . . so Alex von Sponek of Goldman Sachs was on the guest list.  As you can imagine, a Tupperware Party just wouldn’t be a Tupperware Party without a representative from Tupperware in attendance.  Accordingly, Rick Goins, the company’s CEO, received an invitation.

News of this event confirmed my worst suspicions about the Iraq war.  I wasn’t simply reacting to what Jane Hamsher had to say about Hillary’s Tupperware Party:

As Congress launches a bipartisan PR campaign to stay in Iraq forever, the White House throws a corporate looting party.

Ben White of Politico described the event as an expansion of Wall Street’s tentacles:

FIRST LOOK:  WALL STREET IN IRAQ? – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides (formerly chief administrative officer at Morgan Stanley) will host a group of corporate executives at State this morning as part of the Iraq Business Roundtable.  Corporate executives from approximately 30 major U.S. companies – including financial firms Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Goldman Sachs – will join U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss economic opportunities in the new Iraq.

While most of us have been conditioned to think of the Iraq War as a product of the neoconservative agenda, several commentators have discussed the role of neoliberalism as a motivator for the invasion of Iraq.  In a great essay entitled, “On Neoliberalism”, Sherry Ortner of the Anthropology Of This Century website, discussed the role of what Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, called “disaster capitalism” in bringing us to that moment of “shock and awe”:

If social or natural disasters do not offer themselves up, Klein shows convincingly that they will be manufactured, the war in Iraq being the latest case in point.  Let us follow the Iraq war thread into David Harvey’s 2007 book, A Short History of Neo-Liberalism, where it is his opening example.   Like Klein, Harvey sees “the management and manipulation of crises” (p. 162), whether floods, wars, or financial melt-downs, as part and parcel of establishing the neoliberal agenda.  And like Klein, he provides abundant evidence to show that the war in Iraq was a crisis manufactured to “impose by main force on Iraq… a state apparatus whose fundamental mission was to facilitate conditions for profitable capital accumulation”(p. 7).

Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars:  1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth (159-164 passim).

Harvey places particular emphasis on the last point, the upward redistribution of wealth.  He takes issue with other writers who argue that the enormous growth of social inequality since the beginnings of neoliberalization in the 1970s is an unfortunate by-product of what is otherwise a sound economic theory.  Instead Harvey sees the vast enrichment of an upper class of capital owners and managers at the expense of everyone else as an intrinsic part of the neoliberal agenda:  “Redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalization as to be regarded as structural to the whole project.” (p. 16).

The only real surprise to me was the revelation that the elite “upper class of capital owners and managers” likes to attend Tupperware parties.


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Federal Reserve Bailout Records Provoke Limited Outrage

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On December 3, 2009 I wrote a piece entitled, “The Legacy of Mark Pittman”.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.

The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling in August of 2009 by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions (which sought loans at the Fed’s discount window) to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve appealed Judge Preska’s decision, taking the matter before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Fed’s appeal was based on Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts trade secrets and confidential business information from mandatory disclosure.  The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Preska’s decision on the basis that the records sought were neither trade secrets nor confidential business information because Bloomberg requested only records generated by the Fed concerning loans that were actually made, rather than applications or confidential information provided by persons, firms or other organizations in attempt to obtain loans.  Although the Fed did not attempt to appeal the Second Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court by Clearing House Association LLC, a coalition of banks that received bailout funds.  The petition was denied by the Supreme Court on March 21.

Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News had this to say about the documents produced by the Fed as a result of the suit:

The 29,000 pages of documents, which the Fed released in pdf format on a CD-ROM, revealed that foreign banks accounted for at least 70 percent of the Fed’s lending at its October, 2008 peak of $110.7 billion.  Arab Banking Corp., a lender part- owned by the Central Bank of Libya, used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the window in the 18 months after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.

As government officials and news reporters continue to review the documents, a restrained degree of outrage is developing.  Ron Paul is the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy.  He is also a longtime adversary of the Federal Reserve, and author of the book, End The Fed.  A recent report by Peter Barnes of FoxBusiness.com said this about Congressman Paul:

.   .   .   he plans to hold hearings in May on disclosures that the Fed made billions — perhaps trillions — in secret emergency loans to almost every major bank in the U.S. and overseas during the financial crisis.

*   *   *

“I am, even with all my cynicism, still shocked at the amount this is and of course shocked, but not completely surprised, [that] much [of] this money went to help foreign banks,” said Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX),   .   .   .  “I don’t have [any] plan [for] legislation …  It will take awhile to dissect that out, to find out exactly who benefitted and why.”

In light of the fact that Congressman Paul is considering another run for the Presidency, we can expect some exciting hearings starring Ben Bernanke.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont became an unlikely ally of Ron Paul in their battle to include an “Audit the Fed” provision in the financial reform bill.  Senator Sanders was among the many Americans who were stunned to learn that Arab Banking Corporation used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the Fed during the 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  The infuriating factoid in this scenario is apparent in the following passage from the Bloomberg report by Bob Ivry and Donal Griffin:

The bank, then 29 percent-owned by the Libyan state, had aggregate borrowings in that period of $35 billion — while the largest single loan amount outstanding was $1.2 billion in July 2009, according to Fed data released yesterday.  In October 2008, when lending to financial institutions by the central bank’s so- called discount window peaked at $111 billion, Arab Banking took repeated loans totaling more than $2 billion.

Ivry and Griffin provided this reaction from Bernie Sanders:

“It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans, the Federal Reserve was providing tens of billions of dollars in credit to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya,” Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, wrote in a letter to Fed and U.S. officials.

The best critique of the Fed’s bailout antics came from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.  He began his report this way:

After the financial crash of 2008, it grew to monstrous dimensions, as the government attempted to unfreeze the credit markets by handing out trillions to banks and hedge funds.  And thanks to a whole galaxy of obscure, acronym-laden bailout programs, it eventually rivaled the “official” budget in size – a huge roaring river of cash flowing out of the Federal Reserve to destinations neither chosen by the president nor reviewed by Congress, but instead handed out by fiat by unelected Fed officials using a seemingly nonsensical and apparently unknowable methodology.

As Matt Taibbi began discussing what the documents produced by the Fed revealed, he shared this reaction from a staffer, tasked to review the records for Senator Sanders:

“Our jaws are literally dropping as we’re reading this,” says Warren Gunnels, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  “Every one of these transactions is outrageous.”

In case you are wondering just how “outrageous” these transactions were, Mr. Taibbi provided an outrageously entertaining chronicle of a venture named “Waterfall TALF Opportunity”, whose principal investors were Christy Mack and Susan Karches.  Susan Karches is the widow of Peter Karches, former president of Morgan Stanley’s investment banking operations.  Christy Mack is the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley.  Matt Taibbi described Christy Mack as “thin, blond and rich – a sort of still-awake Sunny von Bulow with hobbies”.  Here is how he described Waterfall TALF:

The technical name of the program that Mack and Karches took advantage of is TALF, short for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility.  But the federal aid they received actually falls under a broader category of bailout initiatives, designed and perfected by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called “giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all.”  If you want to learn how the shadow budget works, follow along.  This is what welfare for the rich looks like.

The venture would have been more aptly-named, “TALF Exploitation Windfall Opportunity”.  Think about it:  the Mack-Karches entity was contrived for the specific purpose of cashing-in on a bailout program, which was ostensibly created for the purpose of preventing a consumer credit freeze.

I was anticipating that the documents withheld by the Federal Reserve were being suppressed because – if the public ever saw them – they would provoke an uncontrollable degree of public outrage.  So far, the amount of attention these revelations have received from the mainstream media has been surprisingly minimal.  When one compares the massive amounts squandered by the Fed on Crony Corporate Welfare Queens such as Christy Mack and Susan Karches ($220 million loaned at a fraction of a percentage point) along with the multibillion-dollar giveaways (e.g. $13 billion to Goldman Sachs by way of Maiden Lane III) the fighting over items in the 2012 budget seems trivial.

The Fed’s defense of its lending to foreign banks was explained on the New York Fed’s spiffy new Liberty Street blog:

Discount window lending to U.S. branches of foreign banks and dollar funding by branches to parent banks helped to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis in the United States and abroad by containing financial market disruptions, supporting loan availability for companies, and maintaining foreign investment flows into U.S. companies and assets.

Without the backstop liquidity provided by the discount window, foreign banks that faced large and fluctuating demand for dollar funding would have further driven up the level and volatility of money market interest rates, including the critical federal funds rate, the Eurodollar rate, and Libor (the London interbank offered rate).  Higher rates and volatility would have increased distress for U.S. financial firms and U.S. businesses that depend on money market funding.  These pressures would have been reflected in higher interest rates and reduced bank lending, bank credit lines, and commercial paper in the United States.  Moreover, further volatility in dollar funding markets could have disrupted the Federal Reserve’s ability to implement monetary policy, which requires stabilizing the federal funds rate at the policy target set by the Federal Open Market Committee.

In other words:  Failure by the Fed to provide loans to foreign banks would have made quantitative easing impossible.  There would have been no POMO auctions.  As a result, there would have been no supply of freshly printed-up money to be used by the proprietary trading desks of the primary dealers to ramp-up the stock market for those “late-day rallies”.  This process was described as the “POMO effect” in a 2009 paper by Precision Capital Management entitled, “A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation”.

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Dudley.


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Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

Although the cartoon above appeared in my local paper, it came to my attention only because Barry Ritholtz posted it on his website, The Big Picture.  Congratulations to Jim Morin of The Miami Herald for creating one of those pictures that’s worth well over a thousand words.

Forget about all that oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama, Harry Reid and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd are too busy indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation over the Senate’s passage of a so-called “financial reform” bill (S. 3217) to be bothered with “the fishermen’s buzzkill”.  Meanwhile, many commentators are expressing their disappointment and disgust at the fact that the banking lobby has succeeded in making sure that the taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab when the banks go broke trading unregulated derivatives.

Matt Taibbi has written a fantastic essay for Rolling Stone, documenting the creepy battle over financial reform in the Senate.  The folks at Rolling Stone are sure getting their money’s worth out of Taibbi, after his landmark smackdown of Goldman Sachs and his revealing article exposing the way banks such as JP Morgan Chase fleeced Jefferson County, Alabama.  In his latest “must read” essay, Taibbi provides his readers with an understandable discussion of what is wrong with derivatives trading and Wall Street’s efforts to preserve the status quo:

Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei:  no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark.  Nobody has a clue how much a share of  IBM costs or how many of them are being traded.  In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists.  It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.  If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation:  Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of  jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.  Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008.  Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform.  Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson de-mystified how both the Senate’s “financial reform” bill and the bill passed by the House require standardized derivatives to be traded on an exchange or a “swap execution facility”.  Although these proposals create the illusion of reform – it’s important to keep in mind that old maxim about gambling:  “The house always wins.”  In this case, the ability to “front-run” the chumps gives the house the power to keep winning:

But the devil is always in the details — hence, two 1,500-page bills — and problems arise in how the proposals define what constitutes a swap execution facility, and who can own one.

Big banks want to create and own the venues where swaps are traded, because such control has many benefits.  First, it gives the dealers extremely valuable pretrade information from customers wishing to buy or sell these instruments.  Second, depending on how these facilities are designed, they may let dealers limit information about pricing when transactions take place — and if an array of prices is not readily available, customers can’t comparison-shop and the banks get to keep prices much higher than they might be on an exchange.

*   *   *

Finally, lawmakers who are charged with consolidating the two bills are talking about eliminating language that would bar derivatives facilities from receiving taxpayer bailouts if they get into trouble.  That means a federal rescue of an imperiled derivatives trading facility could occur.  (Again, think A.I.G.)

Surely, we beleaguered taxpayers do not need to backstop any more institutions than we do now.  According to Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., only 18 percent of the nation’s financial sector was covered by implied federal guarantees in 1999.  By the end of 2008, his bank’s research shows, the federal safety net covered 59 percent of the financial sector.

In a speech last week, Mr. Lacker said that he feared we were going to perpetuate the cycle of financial crises followed by taxpayer bailouts, in spite of Congressional reform efforts.

“Arguably, we will not break the cycle of regulation, bypass, crisis and rescue,”  Mr. Lacker said, “until we are willing to clarify the limits to government support, and incur the short-term costs of confirming those limits, in the interest of building a stronger and durable foundation for our financial system.  Measured against this gauge, my early assessment is that progress thus far has been negligible.”

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

When one considers what this legislation was intended to address, the dangers posed by failing to extinguish those systemic threats to the economy and what the Senate bill is being claimed to remedy  —  it’s actually just a huge, sleazy disgrace.  Matt Taibbi’s concluding words on the subject underscore the fact that not only do we still need real financial reform, we also need campaign finance reform:

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of  the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth.  “They’re working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill,” one Democratic aid eexplained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed.  But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won’t happen in any meaningful way.  The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash.  The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.  In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight.  In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice.  In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

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






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Head For The Hills

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March 12, 2010

When a stranger in a tinfoil hat tells me that the sky is falling, I don’t pay attention to him.  On the other hand, when credible sources warn of an upcoming economic collapse as a result of our government’s financial ignorance — I listen.

Simon Johnson is a professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  From 2007-2008, he was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.  He recently co-authored an article for CenterPiece with Peter Boone entitled, “The Doomsday Cycle”.  Their essay began with this observation:

Each time the system runs into problems, the Federal Reserve quickly lowers interest rates to revive it.  These crises appear to be getting worse and worse — and their impact is increasingly global.  Not only are interest rates near zero around the world, but many countries are on fiscal trajectories that require major changes to avoid eventual financial collapse.

What will happen when the next shock hits?  We believe we may be nearing the stage where the answer will be — just as it was in the Great Depression — a calamitous global collapse.  The root problem is that we have let a “doomsday cycle” infiltrate our economic system  . . .

The essay contains a number of proposals for correcting this problem.  One of them involves tripling the requirement for core capital at major banks to 15-20% of assets.  They concluded with this warning:

Last year, we came remarkably close to collapse.  Next time, it may be worse.  The threat of the doomsday cycle remains strong and growing.

Of course, the fact that scares me is that our government doesn’t give a damn.  We aren’t likely to see any changes in capital requirements or anything else that was suggested in that article.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of economic history at Harvard.  He recently wrote an article entitled, “Complexity and Collapse — Empires on the Edge of Chaos”.  It was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.  The piece began with this summary:

Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine.  A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice.

Niall Ferguson’s essay inspired Paul Farrell of MarketWatch to write a commentary on Ferguson’s piece, summarizing the highlights, while driving home this message:

Dismiss his warning at your peril.  Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving our political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history.  The American Empire is at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse.

*   *   *

His message negates all the happy talk you’re hearing in today’s news — about economic recovery and new bull markets, about “hope,” about a return to “American greatness” — from Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers.

*   *   *

“The Consummation of Empire” focuses us on Ferguson’s core message:  At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation.  They have it all.

Fortunately, Mr. Farrell included some advice for those of us who are wondering about how to survive an economic collapse:  Head for the hills.  Here’s what he had to say:

At this point, investors are asking themselves:  How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire?  There is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history’s inevitable cycles.

But there is one in “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, Morgan Stanley’s former chief global strategist who warns us of the “possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure,” advising us to buy a farm in the mountains.

“Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food … well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc.  Think Swiss Family Robinson.”  And when they come looting, fire “a few rounds over the approaching brigands’ heads.”

A reading of Paul Farrell’s article about Barton Biggs from July of 2009, reveals a more comfortable assessment of a crisis which may be 40 or 50 years in the future.  Professor Ferguson’s essay has apparently given Mr. Farrell a greater sense of urgency about the disaster ahead.  Here’s the assessment Mr. Farrell gave last summer:

But how to invest for the “End of Civilization” coming around 2050?  The next 40 years will be confusing: Accelerating struggles between aging populations and disenchanted youth, soaring commodity prices, global warming, peak oil, food shortages, famine, blackouts, rationing, civil disorder, increasing crime, worldwide jihads, riots, anarchy and other dark scenarios of a tomorrow with “warfare defining human life.”

Compare and contrast that view with the concluding remark from Mr. Farrell’s recent piece:

You are forewarned:  If the peak of America’s glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush, then we have already triggered the countdown to collapse, the decade from 2010 until 2020 … tick … tick … tick …

You have just read the views of some intelligent men who are warning us that a huge disaster may lie just around the corner.  Yikes!



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Lev Is The Drug

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January 14, 2010

The first day of hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was as entertaining as I expected.  The stars of the show:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, “The Dimon Dog” of JP Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan from Bank of America presented themselves as likeable guys.  However, in the case of Blankfein, whenever he wasn’t talking he would sit there with that squinting, perplexed look on his face that seemed to mime the question:  “WTF?”  A large segment of the viewing public has already been primed to view these gentlemen as “The Four Horsemen of The Financial Apocalypse”.  Nevertheless, there were four more Horsemen absent from the “stage” on Wednesday:  Messrs. Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner.  Beyond that, Brian Moynihan didn’t really belong there, since he was not such a significant “player” as the other panel members, in events of 2008.  In fact, history may yet view his predecessor, Ken Lewis, as more of a victim in this drama, due to the fact that he was apparently coerced by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke into buying Merrill Lynch with instructions to remain silent about Merrill’s shabby financial status.  I would have preferred to see Vikram Pandit of Citigroup in that seat.

As I watched the show, I tried to imagine what actors would be cast to play which characters on the panel in a movie about the financial crisis.  Mike Myers would be the obvious choice to portray Lloyd Blankfein.  Myers could simply don his Dr. Evil regalia and it would be an easy gig.  The Dimon Dog should be played by George Clooney because he came off as a “regular guy”, lacking the highly-polished, slick presentation one might expect from someone in that position.  Brian Moynihan could be portrayed by Robin Williams, in one of his rare, serious roles.  John Mack should be portrayed by Nicholas Cage, if only because Cage needs the money.

Although many reports have described their demeanor as “contrite”, the four members of the first panel gave largely self-serving presentations, characterizing their firms in the most favorable light.  Blankfein emphasized that Goldman Sachs still believes in marking its assets to market.  As expected, his theme of  “if we knew then what we knew now  . . .” got heavier rotation than a Donna Summer record at a party for Richard Simmons.  John Mack, who was more candid and perhaps the most contrite panel member, made a point of mentioning that some assets cannot be “marked to market” because there really is no market for them.  Excuse me   . . .  but isn’t that the definition of the term, “worthless”?

Throughout the session, the panel discussed the myriad causes that contributed to the onset of the financial crisis.  Despite that, nobody seemed interested in implicating the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as a factor.  “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the order of the day.  All four panelists described the primary cause of the crisis as excessive leverage.  They acted as a chorus, singing “Lev Is The Drug”.  Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a 23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.  Dimon went on to make the specious claim that overleveraging by consumers was a contributing element in causing the crisis.  Although many commentators whom I respect have made the same point, I just don’t buy it.  Why blame people who were led to believe that their homes would continue to print money for them until they died?  Dimon himself admitted at the hearing that no consideration was ever given to the possibility that home values would slump.  Worse yet, for a producer or purveyor of the so-called “financial weapons of mass-destruction” to implicate overleveraged consumers as sharing a role in precipitating this mess is simply absurd.

The second panel from Wednesday’s hearing was equally, if not more entertaining.  Michael Mayo of Calyon Securities seemed awfully proud of himself.  After all, he did a great job on his opening statement and he knew it.  Later on, he refocused his pride with an homage to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.  Nevertheless, the star witness from the second panel was Kyle Bass of Hayman Advisors, who gave the most impressive performance of the day.  Bass made a point of emphasizing (in so many words) that Lloyd Blankfein’s 23-to-1 leverage ratio was nearly 100 percent higher than what prudence should allow.  If you choose to watch the testimony of just one witness from Wednesday’s hearing, make sure it’s Kyle Bass.

I didn’t bother to watch the third panel for much longer than a few minutes.  The first two acts were tough to follow.  Shortly into the opening statement by Mark Zandy of Moody’s, I decided that I had seen enough for the day.  Besides, Thursday’s show would hold the promise of some excitement with the testimony of Sheila Bair of the FDIC.  I wondered whether someone might ask her:  “Any hints as to what banks are going to fail tomorrow?”  On the other hand, I had been expecting the testimony of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to help cure me of the insomnia caused by too much Cuban coffee.

The Commissioners themselves have done great work with all of the witnesses.  Phil Angelides has a great style, combining a pleasant affect with incisive questioning and good witness control.  Doug Holtz-Eakin and Brooksley Born have been batting 1000.  Heather Murren is more than a little easy on the eyes, bringing another element of “star quality” to the show.

Who knows?  This commission could really end up making a difference in effectuating financial reform.  They’re certainly headed in that direction.



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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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



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This Fight Is Far From Over

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December 24, 2009

On November 26, I mentioned how apologists for controversial Wall Street giant, Goldman Sachs, were attempting to characterize Goldman’s critics as “conspiracy theorists” in the apparent hope that the use of such a term would discourage continued scrutiny of that firm’s role in causing the financial crisis.  The name-calling tactic didn’t work.  Since that time, my favorite reporter for The New York Times — Pulitzer Prize winner, Gretchen Morgenson — has continued to dig down into a dirty, sickening story about how Goldman Sachs (as well as some other firms) through their deliberate bets against their own financial products, known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) caused the financial crisis and ruined the lives of most Americans.  Ms. Morgenson had previously discussed the opinion of derivatives expert, Janet Tavakoli, who argued that Goldman Sachs “should refund the money it received in the bailout and take back the toxic C.D.O.’s now residing on the Fed’s books”.  Although the Goldman apologists have been quick to point out that the firm repaid the bailout money it received under TARP, the $13 billion received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, has not been repaid.

On December 23, The New York Times published the latest report written by Gretchen Morgenson and Louise Story revealing how Goldman and other firms created those Collateralized Debt Obligations, sold them to their own customers and then used a new Wall Street index, called the ABX (a way to invest in the direction of mortgage securities) to bet that those same CDOs would fail.  Here’s a passage from the beginning of that superb Morgenson/Story article:

Goldman was not the only firm that peddled these complex securities — known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s — and then made financial bets against them, called selling short in Wall Street parlance.  Others that created similar securities and then bet they would fail, according to Wall Street traders, include Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, as well as smaller firms like Tricadia Inc., an investment company whose parent firm was overseen by Lewis A. Sachs, who this year became a special counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

Wait a minute!  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner has retained a “special counselor” whose responsibilities included oversight of Tricadia’s parent company.  Tricadia has the dubious honor of having helped cause the financial crisis by creating CDOs and then betting against them.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Our President apparently sees nothing wrong with it.  At this point, that’s not too surprising.

Anyway  . . .  Let’s get back to the Times article:

How these disastrously performing securities were devised is now the subject of scrutiny by investigators in Congress, at the Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s self-regulatory organization, according to people briefed on the investigations.  Those involved with the inquiries declined to comment.

While the investigations are in the early phases, authorities appear to be looking at whether securities laws or rules of fair dealing were violated by firms that created and sold these mortgage-linked debt instruments and then bet against the clients who purchased them, people briefed on the matter say.

We can only hope that the investigations by Congress, the SEC and FINRA might result in some type of sanctions.  At this juncture, that sort of accountability just seems like a wild fantasy.

Janet Tavakoli did a follow-up piece of her own for The Huffington Post on December 22.  She is now more critical of the November 17 report prepared by the Special Inspector General of Tarp (SIGTARP) and she continues to demand that Goldman should pay back the billions it received as an AIG counterparty:

The TARP Inspector General’s November 17 report missed the most damaging facts.  Intentionally or otherwise, it was evasive action or just plain whitewash.  The report failed to clarify Goldman’s role in AIG’s near collapse, and that of all the settlement deals, the U.S.taxpayers’ was by far the worst.

*   *   *

Goldman paid mega bonuses in past years subsidized by selling hot air.  Now it proposes to again pay billions in bonuses based on earnings made possible by taxpayer dollars.

Now that the crisis is over, we should ask Goldman Sachs — and all of AIG’s other trading partners involved in these trades — to buy back these mortgage assets at full price.  Alternatively, we can impose a special tax.  Instead of calling it a windfall profits tax, we might label it a “hot air” profits tax.

It was refreshing to read the opinion of someone who felt that Janet Tavakoli was holding back on her criticism of Goldman Sachs in the above-quoted piece.  Thomas Adams is a banking law attorney at Paykin, Kreig and Adams, LLP as well a former managing director of Ambac Financial Group, a bond insurer that is managing to crawl its way out from under the rubble of the CDO catastrophe.  Mr. Adams obviously has no warm spot in his heart for Goldman Sachs.  I continue to take delight in the visual image of a Goldman apologist, blue-faced with smoke coming out of his ears while reading the essay Mr. Adams wrote for Naked Capitalism:

. . .  Ms. Tavakoli stops short of telling the whole story.  While she is very knowledgeable of this market, perhaps she is unaware of the full extent of the wrongdoings Goldman committed by getting themselves paid on the AIG bailout.  The Federal Reserve and the Treasury aided and abetted Goldman Sachs in committing financial and ethical crimes at an astounding level.

*   *   *

But Ms. Tavakoli fails to note that the collapse of the CDO bonds and the collapse of AIG were a deliberate strategy by Goldman.  To realize on their bet against the housing market, Goldman needed the CDO bonds to collapse in value, which would cause AIG to be downgraded and lead to AIG posting collateral and Goldman getting paid for their bet.  I am confident that Goldman Sachs did not reveal to AIG that they were betting on the housing market collapse.

*   *   *

Goldman goes quite a few steps further into despicable territory with their other actions and the body count from Goldman’s actions is so enormous that it crosses over into criminal territory, morally and legally, by getting taxpayer money for their predation.

Goldman made a huge bet that the housing market would collapse.  They profited, on paper, from the tremendous pain suffered by homeowners, investors and taxpayers across the country, they helped make it worse.  Their bet only succeeded because they were able to force the government into bailing out AIG.

In addition, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, by helping Goldman Sachs to profit from homeowner and investor losses, conceal their misrepresentations to shareholders, destroy insurers by stuffing them with toxic bonds that they marketed as AAA, and escape from the consequences of making a risky bet, committed a grave injustice and, very likely, financial crimes.  Since the bailout, they have actively concealed their actions and mislead the public.  Goldman, the Fed and the Treasury should be investigated for fraud, securities law violations and misappropriation of taxpayer funds.  Based on what I have laid out here, I am confident that they will find ample evidence.

The backlash against the repugnant activities of Goldman Sachs has come a long way from Matt Taibbi’s metaphor describing Goldman as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  With three investigations underway, the widely-despised icon of Wall Street greed might have more to worry about than its public image.





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