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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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Compare And Contrast

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November 26, 2009

We have seen and heard so much discussion during the past week concerning the dismal performance of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner while testifying before the Joint Economic Committee — I won’t repeat it.  At this point, there appears to be a consensus that Turbo Tim has to go.  The scary part comes when pundits start tossing around names for a possible replacement.  One would expect that President Obama might be wise enough to avoid the appointment of another “Wall Street insider” as Treasury Secretary.  Rumors are circulating that The Dimon Dog (Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase) is being considered for the post.  This buzz gained more traction when bank analyst, Dick Bove, recently voiced support for Dimon as Treasury Secretary.  The handful of Geithner supporters deny that Turbo Tim ever was a “Wall Street insider”.  This assertion is contradicted by the fact that Geithner was the President of the New York Federal Reserve at the time of the financial crisis, when he served as architect of the more-than-generous bailouts of those “too big to fail” financial institutions — at taxpayer expense.

These days, the most vilified beneficiary of government largesse resulting from the financial crisis is the widely-despised investment bank, Goldman Sachs — often referred to as the “giant vampire squid” — thanks to 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.”

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refutes the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

On November 21, one of my favorite reporters for The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner Gretchen Morgenson, wrote an informative piece concerning the recent SIGTARP Report.  Compare and contrast Ms. Morgenson’s discussion of the report’s disclosures, with the spin provided by James Stewart.  Here is some of what Ms. Morgenson had to say:

The Fed, under Mr. Geithner’s direction, caved in to A.I.G.’s counterparties, giving them 100 cents on the dollar for positions that would have been worth far less if A.I.G. had defaulted.  Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale and other banks were in the group that got full value for their contracts when many others were accepting fire-sale prices.

On the question of whether this payout was what the report describes as a “backdoor bailout” of A.I.G.’s counterparties, Mr. Barofsky concluded:  “The very design of the federal assistance to A.I.G. was that tens of billions of dollars of government money was funneled inexorably and directly to A.I.G.’s counterparties.”  The report noted that this was money the banks might not otherwise have received had A.I.G. gone belly-up.

*   *   *

Finally, Mr. Barofsky pokes holes in arguments made repeatedly over the past 14 months by Goldman Sachs, A.I.G.’s largest trading partner and recipient of $12.9 billion in taxpayer money in the bailout, that it had faced no material risk in an A.I.G. default — that, in effect, had A.I.G. cratered, Goldman wouldn’t have suffered damage.

*   *   *

Rather than forcing the banks to accept a steep discount, or “haircut,” the Fed gave the banks $27 billion in taxpayer cash and allowed them to keep an additional $35 billion in collateral already posted by A.I.G.  That amounted to about $62 billion for the contracts, which the report describes as “far above their market value at the time.”

*   *   *

As Goldman prepares to pay out nearly $17 billion in bonuses to its employees in one of its most profitable years ever, it is important that an authoritative, independent voice like Mr. Barofsky’s reminds us how the taxpayer bailout of A.I.G. benefited Goldman.

*   *   *

The inspector noted in his report that Goldman made several arguments for why it believed it was not materially at risk in an A.I.G. default, but he is skeptical of the firm’s reasoning.

So is Janet Tavakoli, an expert in derivatives at Tavakoli Structured Finance, a consulting firm.

*   *   *

Ms. Tavakoli argues that Goldman 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 — and to do so before it begins showering bonuses on its taxpayer-protected employees.

“A.I.G., a sophisticated investor, foolishly took this risk,” she said.  “But the U.S. taxpayer never agreed to be the victim of investments that should undergo a rigorous audit.”

After reading James Stewart’s November 19 blog posting and Gretchen Morgenson’s November 21 article from The New York Times, ask yourself this:  Are Gretchen Morgenson and Janet Tavakoli “conspiracy theorists”      . . .  or is James Stewart just a tool?



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Preparing For The Worst

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November 19, 2009

In the November 18 edition of The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard revealed that the French investment bank, Societe Generale “has advised its clients to be ready for a possible ‘global economic collapse’ over the next two years, mapping a strategy of defensive investments to avoid wealth destruction”.   That gloomy outlook was the theme of a report entitled:  “Worst-case Debt Scenario” in which the bank warned that a new set of problems had been created by government rescue programs, which simply transferred private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders”:

“As yet, nobody can say with any certainty whether we have in fact escaped the prospect of a global economic collapse,” said the 68-page report, headed by asset chief Daniel Fermon.  It is an exploration of the dangers, not a forecast.

Under the French bank’s “Bear Case” scenario, the dollar would slide further and global equities would retest the March lows.  Property prices would tumble again.  Oil would fall back to $50 in 2010.

*   *   *

The underlying debt burden is greater than it was after the Second World War, when nominal levels looked similar.  Ageing populations will make it harder to erode debt through growth.  “High public debt looks entirely unsustainable in the long run.  We have almost reached a point of no return for government debt,” it said.

Inflating debt away might be seen by some governments as a lesser of evils.

If so, gold would go “up, and up, and up” as the only safe haven from fiat paper money.  Private debt is also crippling.  Even if the US savings rate stabilises at 7pc, and all of it is used to pay down debt, it will still take nine years for households to reduce debt/income ratios to the safe levels of the 1980s.

To make matters worse, America still has an unemployment problem that just won’t abate.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith for The Business Insider took a view beyond the “happy talk” propaganda to the actual unpleasant statistics.  Mr. Smith also called our attention to what can be seen by anyone willing to face reality, while walking around in any urban area or airport:

The divergence between the reality easily observed in the real world and the heavily touted hype that “the recession is over because GDP rose 3.5%” is growing.  It’s obvious that another 7 million jobs which are currently hanging by threads will be slashed in the next year or two.

By this point, most Americans are painfully aware of the massive bailouts afforded to those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  The thought of transferring private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders” immediately reminds people of TARP and the as-yet-undisclosed assistance provided by the Federal Reserve to some of those same, TARP-enabled institutions.

As Kevin Drawbaugh reported for Reuters, the European Union has already taken action to break up those institutions whose failure could create a risk to the entire financial system:

EU regulators are set to turn the spotlight on 28 European banks bailed out by governments for possible mandated divestitures, officials said on Wednesday.

The EU executive has already approved restructuring plans for British lender Lloyds Banking (LLOY.L), Dutch financial group ING Groep NV (ING.AS) and Belgian group KBC (KBC.BR).

Giving break-up power to regulators would be “a good thing,” said Paul Miller, a policy analyst at investment firm FBR Capital Markets, on Wednesday.

Big banks in general are bad for the economy because they do not allocate credit well, especially to small businesses, he said. “Eventually the big banks get broken up in one way or another,” Miller said at the Reuters Global Finance Summit.

Meanwhile in the United States, the House Financial Services Committee approved a measure that would grant federal regulators the authority to break up financial institutions that would threaten the entire system if they were to fail.  Needless to say, this proposal does have its opponents, as the Reuters article pointed out:

In both the House and the Senate, “financial lobbyists will continue to try to water down this new and intrusive federal regulatory power,” said Joseph Engelhard, policy analyst at investment firm Capital Alpha Partners.

If a new break-up power does survive the legislative process, Engelhard said, it is unlikely a “council of numerous financial regulators would be able to agree on such a radical step as breaking up a large bank, except in the most unusual circumstances, and that the Treasury Secretary … would have the ability to veto any imprudent use of such power.”

When I first read this, I immediately realized that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner would consider any use of such power as imprudent and he would likely veto any attempt to break up a large bank.  Nevertheless, my concerns about the “Geithner factor” began to fade after I read some other encouraging news stories.  In The Huffington Post, Sam Stein disclosed that Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (a Democrat) had called for the firing of White House economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary “Timmy Geithner” during an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz.  Mr. Stein provided the following recap of that discussion:

“We think it is time, maybe, that we turn our focus to Main Street — we reclaim some of the unspent [TARP] funds, we reclaim some of the funds that are being paid back, which will not be paid back in full, and we use it to put people back to work.  Rebuilding America’s infrastructure is a tried and true way to put people back to work,” said DeFazio.

“Unfortunately, the President has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a Treasury Secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don’t like that idea,” he added.  “They want to keep the TARP money either to continue to bail out Wall Street  … or to pay down the deficit.  That’s absurd.”

Asked specifically whether Geithner should stay in his job, DeFazio replied:  “No.”

“Especially if you look back at the AIG scandal,” he added, “and Goldman and others who got their bets paid off in full … with taxpayer money through AIG.  We channeled the money through them.  Geithner would not answer my question when I said, ‘Were those naked credit default swaps by Goldman or were they a counter-party?’  He would not answer that question.”

DeFazio said that among he and others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, there was a growing consensus that Geithner needed to be removed.  He added that some lawmakers were “considering questions regarding him and other economic advisers” — though a petition calling for the Treasury Secretary’s removal had not been drafted, he said.

Another glimmer of hope for the possible removal of Turbo Tim came from Jeff Madrick at The Daily Beast.  Madrick’s piece provided us with a brief history of Geithner’s unusually fast rise to power (he was 42 when he was appointed president of the New York Federal Reserve) along with a reference to the fantastic discourse about Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, which appeared in The New York Times last April.  Mr. Madrick demonstrated that what we have learned about Geithner since April, has affirmed those early doubts:

Recall that few thought Geithner was seasoned enough to be Treasury secretary when Obama picked him.  Rubin wasn’t ready to be Treasury secretary when Clinton was elected and he had run Goldman Sachs.  Was Geithner’s main attraction that he could easily be controlled by Summers and the White House political advisers?  It’s a good bet.  A better strategy, some argued, would have been to name Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, for a year’s worth of service and give Geithner as his deputy time to grow.  But Volcker would have been far harder to control by the White House.

But now the president needs a Treasury Secretary who is respected enough to stand up to Wall Street, restabilize the world’s trade flows and currencies, and persuade Congress to join a battle to get the economic recovery on a strong path.  He also needs someone with enough economic understanding to be a counterweight to the White House advisers, led by Summers, who have consistently been behind the curve, except for the $800 billion stimulus.  And now that is looking like it was too little.  The best guess is that Geithner is not telling the president anything that the president does not know or doesn’t hear from someone down the hall.

The problem for Geithner and his boss, is that the stakes if anything are higher than ever.

As the rest of the world prepares for worsening economic conditions, the United States should do the same.  Keeping Tim Geithner in charge of the Treasury makes less sense than it did last April.



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Awareness Abounds

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November 12, 2009

When I started this blog in April of 2008, my focus was on that year’s political campaigns and the exciting Presidential primary season.  At the time, I expressed my concern that the most prominent centrist in the race, John McCain, would continue pandering to the televangelist lobby after winning the nomination, when those efforts were no longer necessary.  He unfortunately followed that strategy and went on to say dumb things about the most pressing issue facing America in decades: the economy.  During the Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, James Carville was credited with writing this statement on a sign in front of Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock:  “It’s the economy, stupid!”  That phrase quickly became the mantra of most politicians until the attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that our efforts at national security were inadequate.  Since that time, we have over-compensated in that area.  Nevertheless, with the demise of Rudy Giuliani’s political career, the American public is not as jumpy about terrorism as it had been — despite the suspicious connections of the deranged psychiatrist at Fort Hood.  As the recent editorials by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune and Vincent Carroll of The Denver Post demonstrate, the cerebral bat guano necessary to get the public fired-up for a vindictive rampage just isn’t there anymore.

President Obama’s failure to abide by the Carville maxim appears to be costing him points in the latest approval ratings.  The fact that the new President has surrounded himself with the same characters who helped create the financial crisis, has become a subject of criticism by commentators from across the political spectrum.  Since Obama’s Presidential campaign received nearly one million dollars in contributions from Goldman Sachs, he should have known we’d be watching.  CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino was recently interviewed by Aaron Task.  During that discussion, Gasparino explained that Jamie Dimon (the CEO of JP Morgan Chase and director of the New York Federal Reserve) has managed to dissuade the new President from paying serious attention to Paul Volcker (chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board) whose ideas for financial reform would prove inconvenient for those “too big to fail” financial institutions.  As long as JP Morgan’s “Dimon Dog” and Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs have such firm control over the puppet strings of “Turbo” Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, why pay attention to Paul Volcker?  The voting public (as well as most politicians) can’t understand most of these economic problems, anyway.  I seriously doubt that many of our elected officials could explain the difference between a credit default swap and a wife swap.

Once again, Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com has directed a water cannon of common sense on the malaise blaze that has been fueled by a plague of ignorance.  In his latest piece, Gerstein tossed aside that tattered, obsolete handbook referred to as “conventional wisdom” to take a hard look at the reality facing all incumbent, national politicians:

It’s the stupidity about the economy in Washington and on Wall Street that’s driving most voters berserk.  Indeed, the financial system is still out of whack and tens of millions of people are (or fear they soon could be) out of work, yet every day our political and economic leaders say and do knuckleheaded things that show they are unfailingly and imperviously out of touch with those realities.

Gerstein’s short essay is essential reading for a quick understanding of how and why America can’t seem to solve many of its pressing problems these days.  Gerstein has identified the responsible culprits as three groups:  the Democrats, the Republicans and the big banks — describing them as the “axis of cluelessness”:

We have gone long past “they don’t get it” territory.  It’s now unavoidably clear that they won’t get it — and we won’t get the responsible leadership and honest capitalism we want–until (as I have suggested before) we demand it.

Surprisingly, public awareness concerning the root cause of both the financial crisis and our ongoing economic predicament has escalated to a startling degree in recent weeks.  This past spring, if you wanted to find out about the nefarious activities transpiring at Goldman Sachs, you had to be familiar with Zero Hedge or GoldmanSachs666.com.  Today, you need look no further than Maureen Dowd’s column or the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live.  Everyone knows what the problem is.  Gordon Gekko’s 1987 proclamation that “greed is good” has not only become an acceptable fact of life, it has infected our laws and the opinions rendered by our highest courts.  We are now living with the consequences.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people in the American financial sector who are concerned about the well-being of our society.  A recent study by David Weild and Edward Kim (Capital Markets Advisors at Grant Thornton LLP) entitled “A wake-up call for America” has revealed the tragic consequences resulting from the fact that the United States, when compared with other developed countries, has fallen seriously behind in the number of companies listed on our stock exchanges.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

The United States has been engaged in a longstanding experiment to cut commission and trading costs.  What is lacking in this process is the understanding that higher transaction costs actually subsidized services that supported investors.  Lower transaction costs have ushered in the age of  “Casino Capitalism” by accommodating trading interests and enabling the growth of day traders and high-frequency trading.

The Great Depression in Listings was caused by a confluence of technological, legislative and regulatory events — termed The Great Delisting Machine — that started in 1996, before the 1997 peak year for U.S. listings.  We believe cost cutting advocates have gone overboard in a misguided attempt to benefit investors.  The result — investors, issuers and the economy have all been harmed.

The Grant Thornton study illustrates how and why “as many as 22 million” jobs have been lost since 1997, not to mention the destruction of retirement savings, forcing many people to come out of retirement and back to work.  Beyond that, smaller companies have found it more difficult to survive and business loans have become harder to obtain.

Aside from all the bad news, the report does offer solutions to this crisis:

The solutions offered will help get the U.S. back on track by creating high-quality jobs, driving economic growth, improving U.S. competitiveness, increasing the tax base, and decreasing the U.S. budget deficit — all while not costing the U.S. taxpayer a dime.

These solutions are easily adopted since they:

  • create new capital markets options while preserving current options,
  • expand choice for consumers and issuers,
  • preserve SEC oversight and disclosure, including Sarbanes-Oxley, in the public market solution, and
  • reserve private market participation only to “qualified” investors, thus protecting those investors that  need protection.

These solutions would refocus a significant portion of Wall Street on rebuilding the U.S. economy.

The Grant Thornton website also has a page containing links to the appropriate legislators and a prepared message you can send, urging those legislators to take action to resolve this crisis.

Now is your chance to do something that can help address the many problems with our economy and our financial system.  The people at Grant Thornton were thoughtful enough to facilitate your participation in the resolution of this crisis.  Let the officials in Washington know what their bosses — the people — expect from them.



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Sign This Petition

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May 25, 2009

For some reason, the Boston College School of Law invited Federal Reserve Chairman, B.S. Bernanke, to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2009 on May 22.  While reading the text of that oration, I found the candor of this remark at the beginning of his speech, to be quite refreshing:

Along those lines, last spring I was nearby in Cambridge, speaking at Harvard University’s Class Day.  The speaker at the main event, the Harvard graduation the next day, was J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.  Before my remarks, the student who introduced me took note of the fact that the senior class had chosen as their speakers Ben Bernanke and J. K. Rowling, or, as he put it, “two of the great masters of children’s fantasy fiction.”  I will say that I am perfectly happy to be associated, even in such a tenuous way, with Ms. Rowling, who has done more for children’s literacy than any government program I know of.

Meanwhile, that great master of children’s fantasy fiction (and money printing) is now faced with the possibility that someday, someone might actually start looking over his shoulder in attempt to get some vague idea of just what the hell is going on over at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve’s resistance to transparency has been a favorite topic of many commentators.  For example, once Ben Bernanke took over the Fed Chairmanship from Alan Greenspan in 2006, Ralph Nader expressed his high hopes that Bernanke might adopt Nader’s suggested “seven policies of openness”.  Dream on, Ralph!

Speaking of children’s fantasy fiction, one expert on that subject is Congressman Alan Grayson.  As the Representative of Florida’s Eighth Congressional District, his territory includes Disney World.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that back in January of 2009, as a new member of the House Financial Services Committee, he immediately set about cross-examining Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Donald Kohn about what had been done with the 1.2 trillion dollars in bank bailout money squandered by the Fed after September 1, 2008.  Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com provided a five-minute video clip of that testimony along with an audio recording of his 20-minute interview with Congressman Grayson, focusing on the complete lack of transparency at the Federal Reserve.

Better yet was Congressman Grayson’s questioning of Federal Reserve Board Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman on May 7.  In one of the classic “WTF Moments” of all time, Ms. Coleman admitted that she had no clue about the “off balance sheet transactions” by the Federal Reserve, reported by Bloomberg News as amounting to over nine trillion dollars in the previous eight months.  If you haven’t seen this yet, you can watch it here.  After reviewing this video clip, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism was of the opinion that Coleman was not stonewalling, but instead was “clearly completely clueless”.  Ms. Smith pointed out how opacity at the Federal Reserve may be by design, with the apparent motive being obfuscation:

But there is a possibly more important issue at stake.  The interview is with the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.  The programs are actually at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  For reasons I cannot fathom, the Board of Governors is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, while the Fed of New York has been able to rebuff them.

So I take Coleman’s inability to answer key questions to be a feature, not a bug.  The Fed of New York probably can answer Congressional questions, is taking care to limit what it conveys to the Board so as to keep the information from Congress and the public.  Note in the questioning the emphasis on “high level reviews”.

In order to shine a bright light on the Federal Reserve, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, (H.R. 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components, and require a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill.  Among the many interesting points made in his letter were the following:

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve has refused multiple inquiries from both the House and the Senate to disclose who is receiving trillions of dollars from the central banking system.  The Federal Reserve has redacted the central terms of the no-bid contracts it has issued to Wall Street firms like Blackrock and PIMCO, without disclosure required of the Treasury, and is participating in new and exotic programs like the trillion-dollar TALF to leverage the Treasury’s balance sheet.  With discussions of allocating even more power to the Federal Reserve as the “systemic risk regulator” of the credit markets, more oversight over the central bank’s operations is clearly necessary.

The net effect of recent actions has been to isolate financial policy-making entirely from democratic input, and allow the Treasury Department to leverage the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to spend money it cannot get appropriated from Congress.  The public does not know where trillions of its dollars are going, and so has no meaningful control over the currency or this unappropriated “budget”.  The extraordinary size of these lending facilities combined, the extreme secrecy, and the private influence is a dangerous seizure of Congress’s constitutional prerogative to appropriate public monies and control the currency.

You can do your part for this cause by signing the on-line petition.  Let Congress know that we will no longer tolerate “children’s fantasy fiction” from the Federal Reserve.  Demand an audit of the Federal Reserve as well as a report to the public of what that audit reveals.

A Consensus On Conspiracy

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May 21, 2009

I guess I can throw away my tinfoil hat.  I’m not so paranoid, after all.

Back on December 18, after discussing the bank bailout boondoggle, I made this observation about what had been taking place in the equities markets during that time:

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day, before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock.  This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.

Some people agreed with me, although others considered such a “conspiracy” too far-flung to be workable.

Thanks to Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, my earlier suspicions of market manipulation were confirmed.  On Tuesday, May 19, Mr. Durden posted a video clip from an interview with (among others) Dan Schaeffer, president of Schaeffer Asset Management, previously broadcast on the Fox Business Channel on May 14.  While discussing the latest “bear market rally”, Dan Schaeffer made this observation:

“Something strange happened during the last 7 or 8 weeks. Doreen, you probably can concur on this — there was a power underneath the market that kept holding it up and trading the futures.  I watch the futures every day and every tick, and a tremendous amount of volume came in at several points during the last few weeks, when the market was just about ready to break and shot right up again.  Usually toward the end of the day — it happened a week ago Friday, at 7 minutes to 4 o’clock, almost 100,000 S&P futures contracts were traded, and then in the last 5 minutes, up to 4 o’clock, another 100,000 contracts were traded, and lifted the Dow from being down 18 to up over 44 or 50 points in 7 minutes.  That is 10 to 20 billion dollars to be able to move the market in such a way. Who has that kind of money to move this market?

“On top of that, the market has rallied up during the stress test uncertainty and moved the bank stocks up, and the bank stocks issues secondary — they issue stock — they raised capital into this rally.  It was a perfect text book setup of controlling the markets — now that the stock has been issued …”

Mr. Schaeffer was then interrupted by panel member, Richard Suttmeier of ValuEngine.com.

My fellow foilhats likely had no trouble recognizing this market manipulation as the handiwork of the Plunge Protection Team (also known as the PPT).  Many commentators have considered the PPT as nothing more than a myth, with some believing that this “myth” stems from the actual existence of something called The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets.  For a good read on the history of the PPT, I recommend the article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph.  Bear in mind that Evans-Pritchard’s article was written in October of 2006, two years before the global economic meltdown:

Hank Paulson, the market-wise Treasury Secretary who built a $700m fortune at Goldman Sachs, is re-activating the ‘plunge protection team’ (PPT), a shadowy body with powers to support stock index, currency, and credit futures in a crash.

Otherwise known as the working group on financial markets, it was created by Ronald Reagan to prevent a repeat of the Wall Street meltdown in October 1987.

Mr Paulson says the group had been allowed to languish over the boom years.  Henceforth, it will have a command centre at the US Treasury that will track global markets and serve as an operations base in the next crisis.

*    *    *

The PPT was once the stuff of dark legends, its existence long denied.  But ex-White House strategist George Stephanopoulos admits openly that it was used to support the markets in the Russia/LTCM crisis under Bill Clinton, and almost certainly again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They have an informal agreement among major banks to come in and start to buy stock if there appears to be a problem,” he said.

“In 1998, there was the Long Term Capital crisis, a global currency crisis.  At the guidance of the Fed, all of the banks got together and propped up the currency markets. And they have plans in place to consider that if the stock markets start to fall,” he said.

The only question is whether it uses taxpayer money to bail out investors directly, or merely co-ordinates action by Wall Street banks as in 1929.  The level of moral hazard is subtly different.

John Crudele of the New York Post frequently discusses the PPT, although he is presently of the opinion that it either no longer exists or has gone underground.  He has recently considered the possibility that the PPT may have “outsourced” its mission to Goldman Sachs:

Let’s remember something.

First, Goldman Sachs accepted $10 billion in government money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), so it is gambling with taxpayer money.

But the bigger thing to remember is this:  The firm may be living up to its nickname – Government Sachs – and might be doing the government’s bidding.

The stock market rally these past seven weeks has certainly made it easier for the Obama administration to do its job.  That, plus a little fancy accounting during the first quarter, has calmed peoples’ nerves quite a bit.

Rallies on Wall Street, of course, are good things – unless it turns out that some people know the government is rigging the stock market and you don’t.

That brings me to something called The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, which is commonly referred to as the Plunge Protection Team.

As I wrote in last Thursday’s column, the Team has disappeared.

Try finding The President’s Working Group at the US Treasury and you won’t.

The guys and girls that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson relied on so heavily last year when he was forcing Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch and when he was waterboarding other firms into coming to Wall Street’s rescue has gone underground.

Anybody who has read this column for long enough knows what I think, that the President’s Working Group Plunge Protectors have, in the past, tinkered with the financial markets.

We’ll let interrogators in some future Congressional investigation decide whether or not they did so legally.

But right now, I smell a whiff of Goldman in this market. Breath in deeply, it’s intoxicating – and troubling.

Could Goldman Sachs be involved in a conspiracy to manipulate the stock markets?  Paul Farrell of MarketWatch has been writing about the “Goldman Conspiracy” for over a month.  You can read about it here and here.  In his May 4 article, he set out the plot line for a suggested, thirteen-episode television series called:  The Goldman Conspiracy.  I am particularly looking forward to the fourth episode in the proposed series:

Episode 4. ‘Goldman Conspiracy’ is manipulating stock market

“Something smells fishy in the market. And the aroma seems to be coming from Goldman Sachs,” says John Crudele in the New York Post.  Stocks prices soaring.  “So, who’s moving the market?”  Not the little guy.  “Professional traders, with Goldman Sachs leading the way.”   NYSE numbers show “Goldman did twice the number of so-called big program trades during the week of April 13,” over a billion shares, creating “a historic rally despite the fact that the economy continues to be in serious trouble.”   Then he tells us why: Because the “Goldman Conspiracy” is using TARP and Fed money, churning the markets.  They are “gambling with taxpayer money.”

It’s nice to know that other commentators share my suspicions … and better yet:   Some day I could be watching a television series, based on what I once considered my own, sensational conjecture.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

*    *    *

As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

*    *    *

Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?

Geithner In The Headlights

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April 30, 2009

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite targets for criticism is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  My beef with him concerns his implementation and execution of programs designed to bail out banks at avoidable taxpayer risk and expense.  Lately, we have seen a spate of wonderful articles vindicating my attitude about this man.  One of my favorites was written by Gary Weiss for what was apparently the final issue of Conde Nast Portfolio.  Mr. Weiss began the article discussing what people remember most about Geithner from the first time they saw him on television:

In his worst moments, when the camera lights are burning and the doubt, the contempt, in the Capitol Hill hearing rooms become palpable, Tim Geithner has a look in his eye — at once wary and alarmed, even as he speaks quickly, sometimes interrupting, sometimes repeating his talking points.  It has become a look that he owns.  It is his.  It has made him famous in all the wrong ways.  The Geithner Look.

A few paragraphs later, Weiss recalled Geithner’s disastrous February 10 speech, intended to describe what was then known as the Financial Stability Plan — now referred to as the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or pee-pip).  Mr. Weiss recalled one of the reviews of that speech, wherein Geithner was described as having “the eyes of a shoplifter”.  I later learned that it was MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle, who came up with that gem.

The most revealing story about Geithner appeared in the April 26 edition of The New York Times.  This article, written by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, provided an understanding of Geithner’s background and how that has impacted his decisions and activities as Treasury Secretary.  This piece has received plenty of attention from a variety of commentators, most notably for the in-depth investigation into Geithner’s “roots”.  Becker and Morgenson summed-up their findings this way:

An examination of Mr. Geithner’s five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.

After a thorough explanation of how Geithner’s social and professional ties have influenced his thinking, the motivation behind Turbo Tim’s creation of the PPIP became clear:

According to a recent report by the inspector general monitoring the bailout, Neil M. Barofsky, Mr. Geithner’s plan to underwrite investors willing to buy the risky mortgage-backed securities still weighing down banks’ books is a boon for private equity and hedge funds but exposes taxpayers to “potential unfairness” by shifting the burden to them.

Becker and Morgenson apparently went to great lengths to avoid characterizing Geithner as venal or corrupt.  Nicholas von Hoffman said it best while discussing the Times article in The Nation:

The authors did not have to spell it out for readers to conclude that Geithner, while honest in the narrow sense of the word, has been extremely helpful to his billionaire mentors and protectors.

Mr. von Hoffman was not so restrained while discussing the behavior of the bailed-out banks in an earlier piece he wrote for The Nation.  In attempting to figure out why those banks did not get back into the business of lending money after the government-provided capital infusions, von Hoffman pondered over some possible reasons.  First, he wondered whether the banks still lacked enough capital to back-up new loans.  I liked his second idea better:

Another possibility is that the banks may have found new ways to steal money, which is more profitable than lending it.  The banks’ conduct has been so devious, so mendacious, so shifty and so dishonorable that you cannot rule out any kind of sharp practice.  You just can’t trust the bastards.

In recent days, some banks have enhanced their reputations by announcing quarterly profits achieved not by business enterprise but by bookkeeping legerdemain.

Renowned journalist Robert Scheer saw fit to praise Becker and Morgenson’s article in a piece he wrote for the Truthdig website (where he serves as editor).  His analysis focused on how Geithner’s views were shaped while working for his mentors in the Clinton administration:   Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.  Scheer reminded us that these are the people who created “the policies that Clinton put in place and George W. Bush accelerated”:

The seeds of the current economic chaos were planted in those years, in which Wall Street lobbyists were given everything they wanted in the way of radical deregulation, and hence was born the madcap world of credit swaps and other unregulated derivatives.

Scheer noted how Turbo Tim has kept alive, what President Obama has often described as “the failed policies of the past eight years”:

Geithner has since pushed the Obama administration to approach the banking crisis not in response to the needs of destitute homeowners but rather from the side of the bankers who are seizing their homes.  Instead of keeping people in their homes with a freeze on foreclosures, he has rewarded the unscrupulous lenders who conned ordinary folks.

He still wants to give more money to Citigroup, which has just been found woefully short of cash by Treasury’s auditors, and has not stopped Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and some other big banks ostensibly under government influence, and indeed sometimes ownership, from recently ending their temporary moratoriums on housing foreclosures.  Geithner has been in the forefront of coddling the banks in the hopes that welfare for the rich will trickle down to suffering homeowners, but that has not happened.

Rather than just complaining about the problem, Mr. Scheer has suggested a solution:

What is involved here is an extreme case of government-condoned “moral hazard” offering outrageous compensation to the superrich for screwing up royally.  Where is the socially conscious Obama we voted for?   E-mail him and ask.