© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Instead Of Solving a Problem – Form a Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Barofsky @neilbarofsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Captive Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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


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Charade Ends For Pseudo-Populists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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

duffolonious says:

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

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

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

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

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

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

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

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