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A Shocking Decision

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September 23, 2010

Nobody seems too surprised about the resignation of Larry Summers from his position as Director of the National Economic Council.  Although each commentator seems to have a unique theory for Summers’ departure, the event is unanimously described as “expected”.

When Peter Orszag resigned from his post as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the gossip mill focused on his rather complicated love life.  According to The New York Post, the nerdy-looking number cruncher announced his engagement to Bianna Golodryga of ABC News just six weeks after his ex-girlfriend, shipping heiress Claire Milonas, gave birth to their love child, Tatiana.  That news was so surprising, few publications could resist having some fun with it.  Politics Daily ran a story entitled, “Peter Orszag:  Good with Budgets, Good with Babes”.  Mark Leibovich of The New York Times pointed out that the event “gave birth” to a fan blog called Orszagasm.com.  Mr. Leibovich posed a rhetorical question at the end of the piece that was apparently answered with Orszag’s resignation:

This goes to another obvious — and recurring — question:  whether someone whose personal life has become so complicated is really fit to tackle one of the most demanding, important and stressful jobs in the universe. “Frankly I don’t see how Orszag can balance three families and the national budget,” wrote Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

The shocking nature of the Orszag love triangle was dwarfed by President Obama’s nomination of Orszag’s replacement:  Jacob “Jack” Lew.  Lew is a retread from the Clinton administration, at which point (May 1998 – January 2001) he held that same position:  OMB Director.  That crucial time frame brought us two important laws that deregulated the financial industry:  the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which legalized proprietary trading by the Wall Street banks) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which completely deregulated derivatives trading, eventually giving rise to such “financial weapons of mass destruction” as naked credit default swaps.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Lew does not believe that deregulation of the financial industry was a proximate cause of  the 2008 financial crisis.  Lew’s testimony at his September 16 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee was discussed by Shahien Nasiripour  of The Huffington Post:

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that “the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation,” and after discussing those issues, added that he didn’t “personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.”

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

During 2009, Lew was working for Citigroup, a TARP beneficiary.  Between the TARP bailout and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities from that zombie bank, Citi was able to give Mr. Lew a fat bonus of $950,000 – in addition to the other millions he made there from 2006 until January of 2009 (at which point Hillary Clinton found a place for him in her State Department).

The sabotage capabilities Lew will enjoy as OMB Director become apparent when revisiting my June 28 piece, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax”:

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

You have one guess as to what agency will be authorized to make sure those new rules comport with the intent of the financial “reform” bill   .   .   .   Yep:  the OMB (see OIRA).

President Obama’s nomination of Jacob Lew is just the latest example of a decision-making process that seems incomprehensible to his former supporters as well as his critics.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism refuses to let Obama’s antics go unnoticed:

The Obama Administration, again and again, has taken the side of the financial services industry, with the occasional sops to unhappy taxpayers and some infrequent scolding of the industry to improve the optics.

Ms. Smith has developed some keen insight about the leadership style of our President:

The last thing Obama, who has been astonishingly accommodating to corporate interests, needs to do is signal weakness.  But he has made the cardinal mistake of trying to please everyone and has succeeded in having no one happy with his policies.  Past Presidents whose policies rankled special interests, such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan, were tenacious and not ruffled by noise.  Obama, by contrast, announces bold-sounding initiatives, and any real change will break eggs and alienate some parties, then retreats.  So he creates opponents, yet fails to deliver for his allies.

Yes, the Disappointer-In-Chief has failed to deliver for his allies once again – reinforcing my belief that he has no intention of running for a second term.




The Poisonous Bailout

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June 10, 2010

The adults in the room have spoken.  The Congressional Oversight Panel – headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren – created to oversee the TARP program, has just issued a report disclosing the ugly truth about the bailout of AIG:

The government’s actions in rescuing AIG continue to have a poisonous effect on the marketplace.

Note the present tense in that statement.  Not only did the bailout have a poisonous effect on the marketplace at the time –it continues to have a poisonous effect on the marketplace.  The 300-page report includes the reason why the AIG bailout continues to have this poisonous effect:

The AIG rescue demonstrated that Treasury and the Federal Reserve would commit taxpayers to pay any price and bear any burden to prevent the collapse of America‘s largest financial institutions and to assure repayment to the creditors doing business with them.

And that, dear readers, is precisely what the concept of “moral hazard” is all about.  It is the reason why we should not continue to allow financial institutions to be “too big to fail”.  Bad behavior by financial institutions is encouraged by the Federal Reserve and Treasury with assurance that any losses incurred as a result of that risky activity will be borne by the taxpayers rather than the reckless institutions.  You might remember the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009:

.  .  .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out.  In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

With particular emphasis on the AIG bailout, this is what Senator Bunning said to Bernanke:

Even if all that were not true, the A.I.G. bailout alone is reason enough to send you back to Princeton.  First you told us A.I.G. and its creditors had to be bailed out because they posed a systemic risk, largely because of the credit default swaps portfolio.  Those credit default swaps, by the way, are over the counter derivatives that the Fed did not want regulated.  Well, according to the TARP Inspector General, it turns out the Fed was not concerned about the financial condition of the credit default swaps partners when you decided to pay them off at par.  In fact, the Inspector General makes it clear that no serious efforts were made to get the partners to take haircuts, and one bank’s offer to take a haircut was declined.  I can only think of two possible reasons you would not make then-New York Fed President Geithner try to save the taxpayers some money by seriously negotiating or at least take up U.B.S. on their offer of a haircut.  Sadly, those two reasons are incompetence or a desire to secretly funnel more money to a few select firms, most notably Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and a handful of large European banks.

Hugh Son of Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained how the Congressional Oversight Panel’s latest report does not have a particularly optimistic view of AIG’s ability to repay the bailout:

The bailout includes a $60 billion Fed credit line, an investment of as much as $69.8 billion from the Treasury Department and up to $52.5 billion to buy mortgage-linked assets owned or backed by the insurer through swaps or securities lending.

AIG owes about $26.6 billion on the credit line and $49 billion to the Treasury.  The company returned to profit in the first quarter, posting net income of $1.45 billion.

‘Strong, Vibrant Company’

“I’m confident you’ll get your money, plus a profit,” AIG Chief Executive Officer Robert Benmosche told the panel in Washington on May 26.  “We are a strong, vibrant company.”

The panel said in the report that the government’s prospects for recovering funds depends partly on the ability of AIG to find buyers for its units and on investors’ willingness to purchase shares if the Treasury Department sells its holdings.  AIG turned over a stake of almost 80 percent as part of the bailout and the Treasury holds additional preferred shares from subsequent investments.

“While the potential for the Treasury to realize a positive return on its significant assistance to AIG has improved over the past 12 months, it still appears more likely than not that some loss is inevitable,” the panel said.

Simmi Aujla of the Politico reported on Elizabeth Warren’s contention that Treasury and Federal Reserve officials should have attempted to save AIG without using taxpayer money:

“The negotiations would have been difficult and they might have failed,” she said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters.  “But the benefits of crafting a private or even a joint public-private solution were so superior to the cost of a complete government bailout that they should have been pursued as vigorously as humanly possible.”

The Treasury and Federal Reserve are now in “damage control” mode, issuing statements that basically reiterate Bernanke’s “panic” excuse referenced in the above-quoted remarks by Jim Bunning.

The release of this report is well-timed, considering the fact that the toothless, so-called “financial reform” bill is now going through the reconciliation stage.  Now that Blanche Lincoln is officially the Democratic candidate to retain her Senate seat representing Arkansas – will the derivatives reform provisions disappear from the bill?  In light of the information contained in the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, a responsible – honest – government would not only crack down on derivatives trading but would also ban the trading of “naked” swaps.  In other words:  No betting on defaults if you don’t have a potential loss you are hedging – or as Phil Angelides explained it:  No buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house.  Of course, we will probably never see such regulation enacted – until after he next financial crisis.



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