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Transparency Gives Way To Cover-Ups

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It hasn’t been limited to the Obama administration and it’s really catching on.  Transparency just isn’t working out anymore.  Things run much more smoothly after a good, old-fashioned cover-up.  This attitude is becoming more popular all over the world.

President Obama’s transition from transparency to opacity became obvious last summer, in his discussion about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Corexit.  Here’s how I discussed this situation on August 26, 2010:

Consider what our President said on August 4th:

“A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water,” Obama said.

Beth Daley of the Boston Globe gave us another example of what our government told us about all that oil:

Earlier this month, Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief, declared that “at least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system, and most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.”

On August 20, we learned about the falsity of the government’s claims that the oil had magically disappeared.  The Washington Post put it this way:

Academic scientists are challenging the Obama administration’s assertion that most of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico is either gone or rapidly disappearing — with one group Thursday announcing the discovery of a 22-mile “plume” of oil that shows little sign of vanishing.

After the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster in March, I immediately became suspicious about the lack of transparency concerning that crisis:

A good deal of the frustration experienced by those attempting to ascertain the status of the potential nuclear hazards at Fukushima, was obviously due to the control over information flow exercised by the Japanese government.  I began to suspect that President Obama might have dispatched a team of Truth Suppressors from the Gulf of Corexit to assist the Japanese government with spin control.

More recently, Vivian Norris reported on what she has learned about the extent of radioactive contamination resulting from the Fukushima events in the Huffington Post.  In the middle of the piece, she took a step back and shared a reaction that many of us were experiencing:

Why is this not on the front page of every single newspaper in the world?  Why are official agencies not measuring from many places around the world and reporting on what is going on in terms of contamination every single day since this disaster happened?  Radioactivity has been being released now for almost two full months!  Even small amounts when released continuously, and in fact especially continuous exposure to small amounts of radioactivity, can cause all kinds of increases in cancers.

In the United States, the EPA has apparently become so concerned that the plume of radioactivity may have contaminated fish, which are being caught off the Pacific coast and served-up at our fine restaurants – that the agency has decided to cut back on radiation monitoring.  That’s right.  Thorough radiation testing of water and fish causes too much transparency – and that’s bad for business.  Susanne Rust of California Watch discussed the reaction this news elicited from a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Public Employees – uh-oh!):

The EPA and the Food and Drug Administration increased their radiation monitoring efforts after a massive earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan set off the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

But on May 3, the EPA announced [PDF] in a press release that it was falling back to a business-as-usual schedule of radiation monitoring, citing “consistently decreasing radiation levels.”

*   *   *

“With the Japanese nuclear situation still out of control and expected to continue that way for months and with elevated radioactivity continuing to show up in the U.S., it is inexplicable that EPA would shut down its Fukushima radiation monitoring effort,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group, in a statement.

*   *   *

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the EPA has proposed raising their guideline radiation limits, or Protection Action Guides.  These values are used to guide decision makers about when a clean up is needed after a nuclear incident.

According to Ruch, the new clean up standards are “thousands of times more lax than anything the EPA has ever before accepted.”

Documents obtained by the watchdog group [PDF] via the Freedom of Information Act indicate the EPA made a decision to approve the revised guidelines months ago, but has yet to make a formal announcement.

Meanwhile, aversion to transparency is now being discussed in Geneva.  John Heilprin is reporting for the Associated Press that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is considering a reversal of its policy of transparency regarding how it spends the billions of dollars contributed to it.  Mr. Heilprin’s report discusses the hostile reaction to this suggestion – which resulted from revelations (by the organization’s internal transparency program) that the fund lost millions of dollars as a result of fraud and mismanagement.  The proposed solution:  to hell with transparency!  Be sure to read Heilprin’s entire report.  It presents a fine example of the latest trend in coping with the “transparency problem”.


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Getting It Reich

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April 8, 2010

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has been hitting more than a few home runs lately.   At a time when too many commentators remain in lock-step with their favorite political party, Reich pulls no punches when pointing out the flaws in the Obama administration’s agenda.  I particularly enjoyed his reaction to the performance of Larry Summers on ABC television’s This Week on April 4:

I’m in the “green room” at ABC News, waiting to join a roundtable panel discussion on ABC’s weekly Sunday news program, This Week.

*   *   *

Larry Summers was interviewed just before Greenspan. He said the economy is expanding, that the Administration is doing everything it can to bring jobs back, and that the regulatory reform bills moving on the Hill will prevent another financial crisis.

What?

*   *   *

If any three people are most responsible for the failure of financial regulation, they are Greenspan, Larry Summers, and my former colleague, Bob Rubin.

*   *   *

I dislike singling out individuals for blame or praise in a political system as complex as that of the United States but I worry the nation is not on the right economic road, and that these individuals — one of whom advises the President directly and the others who continue to exert substantial influence among policy makers — still don’t get it.

The direction financial reform is taking is not encouraging.  Both the bill that emerged from the House and the one emerging from the Senate are filled with loopholes that continue to allow reckless trading of derivatives.  Neither bill adequately prevents banks from becoming insolvent because of their reckless trades.  Neither limits the size of banks or busts up the big ones.  Neither resurrects the Glass-Steagall Act. Neither adequately regulates hedge funds.

More fundamentally, neither bill begins to rectify the basic distortion in the national economy whose rewards and incentives are grotesquely tipped toward Wall Street and financial entrepreneurialism, and away from Main Street and real entrepreneurialism.

Is it because our elected officials just don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent another repeat of the financial crisis – or is the unwillingness to take preventative action the result of pressure from lobbyists?  I think they’re just playing dumb while they line their pockets with all of that legalized graft. Meanwhile, Professor Reich continued to function as the only adult in the room, with this follow-up piece:

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again.  In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks.  In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so.

*   *   *

But the only way to make sure no bank it too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big.  If Congress and the White House fail to do this, you have every reason to believe it’s because Wall Street has paid them not to.

Reich’s recent criticism of the Federal Reserve was another sorely-needed antidote to Ben Bernanke’s recent rise to media-designated sainthood.  In an essay quoting Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reich transcended the polarized political climate to focus on the fact that the mysterious Fed enjoys inappropriate authority:

The Fed has finally came clean.  It now admits it bailed out Bear Stearns – taking on tens of billions of dollars of the bank’s bad loans – in order to smooth Bear Stearns’ takeover by JP Morgan Chase.  The secret Fed bailout came months before Congress authorized the government to spend up to $700 billion of taxpayer dollars bailing out the banks, even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The Fed also took on billions of dollars worth of AIG securities, also before the official government-sanctioned bailout.

The losses from those deals still total tens of billions, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook.  But the public never knew.  There was no congressional oversight.  It was all done behind closed doors. And the New York Fed – then run by Tim Geithner – was very much in the center of the action.

*   *   *

The Fed has a big problem.  It acts in secret.  That makes it an odd duck in a democracy.  As long as it’s merely setting interest rates, its secrecy and political independence can be justified. But once it departs from that role and begins putting billions of dollars of taxpayer money at risk — choosing winners and losers in the capitalist system — its legitimacy is questionable.

You probably thought that Ron Paul was the only one who spoke that way about the Federal Reserve.  Fortunately, when people such as Robert Reich speak out concerning the huge economic and financial dysfunction afflicting America, there is a greater likelihood that those with the authority to implement the necessary reforms will do the right thing.  We can only hope.



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Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.



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Rethinking The Stimulus

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February 22, 2010

On the anniversary of the stimulus law (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — Public Law 111-5) there has been quite a bit of debate concerning the number of jobs actually created by the stimulus as opposed to the claims made by Democratic politicians.  For their part, the Democrats take pride in the fact that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, recently published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S.growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

A few months ago, I had a discussion with an old friend and the subject of the stimulus came up.  My beefs about the stimulus were that it did not offer the necessary degree of immediate relief and that a good chunk of it should have gone directly into the hands of the taxpayers.

I recently read a blog posting by Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, which expressed some opinions similar to my own on what the stimulus should have offered.  Although Mr. Hennessey preferred the traditional panacea of tax cuts as the primary means for economic stimulus, he made a number of other important points.  With so much fear being expressed about the possibility of a “double-dip” recession, our government could find itself in the uncomfortable position of considering another stimulus bill.  If that day comes, we have all the more reason to look back at what was right and what was wrong with the 2009 stimulus.

Keith Hennessy began with this statement:

Unlike many critics of the stimulus law, I think that fiscal policy can increase short-term economic growth, especially when the economy is in a deep recession.  In other words, I think that fiscal stimulus is a valid concept.  This does not mean that I think that every increase in government spending, or every tax cut, (a) increases short-term economic growth or (b) is good policy.

At the end of his second paragraph, he got to the part that was music to my ears:

If the Administration had instead put $862 B directly into people’s hands, you would have seen more immediate spending and economic growth than we did, even if people had saved most of it.

In contrast, government spending is powerful but painfully slow.  If the government spends $1 on building a road, eventually that entire $1 will enter the economy and increase GDP growth.  Your bang-for-the-deficit-buck is extremely high.  The problem is that bang-for-the-buck doesn’t help us if that bang occurs two or three or four years from now.

*   *   *

I would instead prefer that people be allowed to spend and save the money how they best see fit.  My preferred path also has less waste and bureaucracy.

A bit later in the piece, Hennessey said some things that probably caused a good number of the CPAC conventioneers reach for the Tums:

I agree with the Administration that last year’s stimulus law increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been.  I agree that employment is higher than it would have been without a stimulus.

Of course, Hennessey complained that “The law was poorly designed and inefficient” — in part because the money was funneled through federal and state bureaucracies — another valid point.  Then, he got to the important issue:

Given a decision last year to do a big fiscal stimulus, I would have preferred, in this order:

1.  putting all the money into a permanent reduction in income and capital taxes;

2.  putting all the money into a temporary reduction in income and capital taxes;

3.  putting all the money into transfer payments;

4.  what Congress and the President did.

Given the policy preferences of the President, his team’s big policy mistake last year was to let Congress turn a reasonable macroeconomic fiscal policy goal into a Congressional spending toga party.  Given his policy preferences, the President should have insisted that Congress put all the money into (2) and (3) above.  He would have had a bigger macro stimulus bang earlier.

In case you’re wondering what “transfer payments” are — you need to think in terms of “wealth transfer”.  In this case, it concerns situations where the government gives away money to people who aren’t rich.  A good example of this was the stimulus program that took place under President Bush.  Individuals with incomes of less than $75,000 received a $300 “stimulus check” and households with joint incomes under $150,000 got $600.

My own stimulus idea would involve a “tax rebate” program, wherein the taxpayers receive a number of $50 vouchers based on the amount of income tax they paid the previous year.  The recipients would then be instructed to go out and buy stuff with the vouchers.  So what if they spent it on imported merchandise?  The American retailers and shipping companies would still make money, finding it necessary to hire people.  The vouchers would display the person’s name and address.  In order to use the vouchers, identification would be needed, so as to prevent resale.  The maximum amount of cash change one could get back from a voucher-funded purchase would be $10.

Hopefully, we won’t need another stimulus program.  However, if we do, I suggest that the government simply give us vouchers and send us shopping.



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Senator Cantwell Stands Tough

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February 8, 2010

Back in June of 2008, when it became obvious that Hillary Clinton would not win the nomination as the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate, Clinton’s despondent female supporters lamented that they would never see a woman elected President within their own lifetimes.  At that point, I wrote a piece entitled, “Women To Watch”, reminding readers that “there are a number of women presently in the Senate, who got there without having been married to a former President (whose surname could be relied upon for recognition purposes).”  One of those women, whom I discussed in that essay, was Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.  Since that time, Senator Cantwell has proven herself as a defender of her constituents and an opponent of Wall Street.  Her bold criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis as well as her vocal opposition to the influence of lobbyists, motivated me to write a second piece about Senator Cantwell in November of 2009.  More recently, she voted against the confirmation of Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chair and on February 2, Reuters reported that she was taking a stand against loopholes in proposed financial reform legislation.

On February 7, Les Blumenthal of the McLatchy Newspapers saw fit to highlight Senator Cantwell’s efforts at backing-up with real action, her tough stand against Wall Street:

To hear Sen. Maria Cantwell talk, another economic bubble is building as Wall Street banks — backed by taxpayer bailouts — continue to play the high-risk derivatives markets rather than extend credit to struggling businesses on Main Street.

Cantwell says that Congress and the Obama administration are just watching it happen.

*   *   *

“We are trying to keep the focus on what needs to be done to get credit flowing and avoid another bubble,” Cantwell said in an interview.  “Do I wish the White House team was more attuned to these issues?  Yes.”

*   *   *

White House officials have, at least twice, backed off commitments they made to her that they’d push for tougher regulations, Cantwell said.

“Their economic team is not living up to what they said they would,” Cantwell said.

Her criticism of the financial regulatory reform bill passed by the House — as being “riddled with loopholes” — was reminiscent of the widespread reaction to the disappointing failure of the Democrats to pass any significant healthcare reform legislation:

If the bills emerging from committees aren’t tough enough, Cantwell vowed a floor fight.  She said she had support from half a dozen senators, including Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Carl Levin of Michigan.

“People are going to have to ask themselves what’s better — a weak bill or no bill?” she said.

At a time when her peers are busy selling out to lobbyists, Senator Cantwell is continuing to reinforce her image as a reformer.  Her February 4 exchange with “Turbo” Tim Geithner, during his appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, was an example of the type of challenge that other Democrats are afraid to publicly vocalize when addressing members of the administration.  Cantwell emphasized that the President has the authority to act on his own (by issuing an Executive Order) to make $30 billion available to community banks, rather than waiting for Congress to pass legislation for such a rescue.  Her home state’s Lake Stevens Journal discussed that moment:

“If we don’t implement change right now, we are going to lose more jobs,” Cantwell told Geithner.  “Do not wait for legislation.  Come to terms with the community banks on reasonable terms that they can agree to — and I think that that we will be well on our way to getting Americans back to work.”

Maria Cantwell continues to exhibit a (sadly) unique toughness in standing up to those forces bent on preserving the destructive status quo.  As disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton wonder whether her intention to step down as Secretary of State in 2012 could signal another opportunity to elect America’s first female President —  they would be well-advised to consider Senator Cantwell as their best hope for reaching that historic milestone.



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Beyond The Banks

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February 4, 2010

I recently saw the movie Food, Inc. and was struck by the idea that there are some fundamental problems that span just about every situation where government corruption and ineptitude have facilitated an industry’s efforts to crush the interests of consumers.  At approximately 36 minutes into the film, Michael Pollan explained how government efforts to prevent abuses in the food industry are undermined by the fact that the government always relies on the “quick fix” or “band-aid” approach, rather than a strategy addressed at solving a systemic problem.  In other words:  government prefers to treat the symptoms rather than the disease.

As I thought about Michael Pollan’s remark, I was immediately reminded of our financial crisis.  In that case, the solution was to bail out the “too big to fail” financial institutions.  As legislative proposals are introduced to address the systemic problems and prevent a recurrence of what happened in the fall of 2008, the lobbyists have stepped in to sabotage those efforts.

There were two other factors discussed in Food Inc. as presenting roadblocks to effective consumer-protective legislation:  the revolving door between the industry and Washington, as well as “regulatory capture” — a situation where government regulators are beholden to those whom they regulate.

We have seen the impact of these two factors in the financial area and they have been well-documented.  The “revolving door” was the subject of two recent essays by John Carney at The Business Insider website.  Carney discussed “The Banking Blob” as a secret club of Senate staffers and Wall Street lobbyists:

Staffers on the powerful Senate banking committee are part of what is known as “The Banking Blob,” a person familiar with the matter told us.  The Banking Blob is made up of current banking committee staffers and former staffers who are now bankers or lobbyists.  They frequently socialize together, often organizing happy hours and parties.

“They move in a pack.  They socialize together,” the person says.  “Hell.  They even inter-marry.”

The Blob is made up of both Republican and Democratic staffers.  Outsiders tend to think the Blob members view themselves as “cooler” than other Capitol Hill staff members.  Often a job on the banking committee leads to a well-paying job for a Wall Street firm or a position at a K-Street lobbyist law firm.

Carney had previously discussed the problem of Senate banking committee staffers who see their job as simply a stepping stone to a lucrative banking job:

The allure of banking is hardly a mystery.  The money is better.  Far better than the government wages paid to Capitol Hill staffers.  After years of toiling in government service, many staffers dream of a better life in one of the leafy neighborhoods that are so posh you cannot get there on DC’s Metro.     . . .

“Everyone talks about people going from Goldman to government.  But the problem is the other way.  Too many staffers go from Capitol Hill to banking.  And even more aspire to make that move.  It corrupts the process,” the staffer told us.

The third problem  — “regulatory capture” — is best epitomized in the person of “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Joshua Rosner recently dissected Turbo Tim’s often-repeated claim that he has always worked in “public service”.  Rosner demonstrated that the only sector that has been “serviced” by Geithner was the banking industry:

Secretary Geithner can keep repeating his assertion he has worked in public service his whole life.  Never mind that this calls into question his tangible market experience, this claim begs the question:  How does he define working in the public service?

Geithner’s last job, as the President of the New York Fed highlights that question.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is not government-owned.  Most people fail to recognize this fact.  Simply, the Federal Reserve Board (responsible for monetary policy, with a dual mandate of full employment and price stability) is an independent part of the federal government, while the New York Fed is a shareholder-owned or private corporation.  In other words, where the Federal Reserve Board is www.frb.gov, the District Bank is www.newyorkfed.org. Historically, the New York Fed has been among the most profitable shareholder-owned corporations in the world.  Yet it keeps the details of its shareholders’ ownership information private.  What we do know is that its owners include precisely those institutions it is tasked to regulate and supervise and those it has obviously failed to adequately supervise.  Unlike the other District Banks of the Federal Reserve system, which have overseen their banks quite well, the New York Fed’s concentration of the largest banks, coupled with its unique role of managing the market operations of the entire Fed system, has built a culture where it sees itself as a market participant and peer to those firms it regulates.

The President of the NY Fed is chosen by, paid by and reports to the private shareholders of that private institution.  Only three of the nine Directors of the Board of the New York Fed are chosen by the Federal Reserve Board and, until this year, the NY Fed’s Chair — chosen by the Federal Reserve Board in Washington — was a former Chairman of Goldman Sachs who still sits on Goldman’s Board.

*   *   *

In truth, Geithner’s ineffectiveness in his role as NY Fed President and his current political posturing — without any policy substance to directly address too-big-to-fail or the Fed’s flawed powers to bailout firms — seems to have resulted from design rather than accident.

*   *   *

If being a public servant is funneling unreasonable amounts of taxpayer capital, without market discipline, to the largest and most poorly managed banks, then Geithner’s selection as Secretary of Treasury makes sense.

One important lesson to be learned from our government’s inability to do its job regulating the financial sector, is that this failure is primarily caused by three problems:

  • An unwillingness to address a systemic problem by choosing, instead, to focus on “quick fixes”;
  • A revolving door between government and industry;
  • Regulatory capture.

Legislators, consumer advocates and commentators should focus on these three problem areas when addressing any situation where our government proves itself ineffective in preventing abuses by a particular industry.



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The Outrage Continues

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February 1, 2010

The news reports of the past few days have brought us enough fuel to keep us outraged for the next decade.  Let’s just hope that some of this lasts long enough for the November elections.  I will touch on just three of the latest stories that should get the pitchfork-wielding mobs off their asses and into the streets.  Nevertheless, we have to be realistic about these things.  With the Super Bowl coming up, it’s going to be tough to pry those butts off the couches.

The first effrontery should not come as too much of a surprise.  The Times of London has reported that Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein (a/k/a Lloyd Bankfiend) is expecting to receive a $100 million bonus this year:

Bankers in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) told The Times yesterday they understood that Lloyd Blankfein and other top Goldman bankers outside Britain were set to receive some of the bank’s biggest-ever payouts.  “This is Lloyd thumbing his nose at Obama,” said a banker at one of Goldman’s rivals.

Blankfein is also thumbing his nose at the American taxpayers.  Despite widespread media insistence that Goldman Sachs “paid back the government” there is a bit of unfinished business arising from something called Maiden Lane III — for which Goldman should owe us billions.

That matter brings us to our second item:  the recently-released Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  The report is 224 pages long, so I’ll refer you to the handy summary prepared by Michael Shedlock (“Mish”).  Mish’s headline drove home the point that there are currently 77 ongoing investigations of fraud, money laundering and insider trading as a result of the TARP bank bailout program.  Here are a few more of his points, used as introductions to numerous quoted passages from the SIGTARP report:

The Report Blasts Geithner and the NY Fed.  I seriously doubt Geithner survives this but the sad thing is Geithner will not end up in prison where he belongs.

*   *   *

Please consider a prime conflict of interest example in regards to PPIP, the Public-Private-Investment-Plan, specifically designed to allow banks to dump their worst assets onto the public (taxpayers) shielding banks from the risk.

*   *   *

Note the refutation of the preposterous claims that taxpayers will be made whole.

*   *   *

TARP Tutorial:  How Taxpayers Lose Money When Banks Fail

My favorite comment from Mish appears near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

Mish’s last remark (and his link to an earlier posting) brings us to the third disgrace to be covered in this piece:  The AIG bailout cover-up.  On January 29, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg News (and Business Week) concerning last Wednesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg/Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

This impenetrability comes in handy since the bank is the preferred vehicle for many of the Fed’s bailout programs.  It’s as though the New York Fed was a black-ops outfit for the nation’s central bank.

*   *   *

The New York Fed is one of 12 Federal Reserve Banks that operate under the supervision of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, chaired by Ben Bernanke.  Member-bank presidents are appointed by nine-member boards, who themselves are appointed largely by other bankers.

As Representative Marcy Kaptur told Geithner at the hearing:  “A lot of people think that the president of the New York Fed works for the U.S. government.  But in fact you work for the private banks that elected you.”

The “cover-up” aspect to this caper involved intervention by the New York Fed that included editing AIG’s communications to investors and pressuring the Securities and Exchange Commission to keep secret the details of the bailouts of AIG’s counterparties (Maiden Lane III).  The Fed’s opposition to disclosure of such documentation to Congress was the subject of a New York Times opinion piece in December.  The recent SIGTARP report emphasized the disingenuous nature of the Fed’s explanation for keeping this information hidden:

SIGTARP’s audit also noted that the now familiar argument from Government officials about the dire consequences of basic transparency, as advocated by the Federal Reserve in connection with Maiden Lane III, once again simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Federal Reserve officials initially refused to disclose the identities of the counterparties or the details of the payments, warning that disclosure of the names would undermine AIG’s stability, the privacy and business interests of the counterparties, and the stability of the markets.  After public and Congressional pressure, AIG disclosed the identities of its counterparties, including its eight largest:  Societe Generale, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, UBS, Calyon Corporate and Investment Banking (a subsidiary of Credit Agricole S.A.), Barclays PLC, and Bank of America.

Notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s warnings, the sky did not fall; there is no indication that AIG’s disclosure undermined the stability of AIG or the market or damaged legitimate interests of the counterparties.

The SIGTARP investigation has revealed some activity that most people would never have imagined possible given the enormous amounts of money involved in these bailouts and the degree of oversight (that should have been) in place.  The bigger question becomes:  Will any criminal charges be brought against those officials who breached the public trust by facilitating this monumental theft of taxpayer dollars?



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The Dishonesty Behind The Bernanke Vote

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January 28. 2010

While reading a recent Huffington Post piece by Jason Linkins, wherein he criticized President Obama’s proposed spending freeze, I was struck by Linkins’ emphasis on the notion that this proposal signaled a return to “institutionalized infantilism”:

One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people — deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults.

Linkins referred to a recent essay about the freeze, written by Ryan Avent of The Economist, which underscored the greater, underlying problem motivating politicians such as Obama to believe they can “slip one by” the gullible public:

This is yet another move toward the infantilisation of the electorate; whatever the gamesmanship behind the proposal, Mr. Obama has apparently concluded that the electorate can’t be expected to handle anything like a real description of the tough decisions which must be made.

Matt Taibbi made a similar observation about our President, while pondering whether the announced reliance on the wisdom of Paul Volcker meant an end to Tim Geithner’s days as Treasury Secretary:

Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict.  His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.

We are now witnessing another example of this “infantilisation of the electorate” as it takes place with the dishonest maneuvering to get Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term past a filibuster.  Here’s how this scam was exposed by Josh Rosner at The Big Picture website:

Sources have suggested that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) intends to vote “yes” on Chairman Bernanke’s cloture vote and “no” on the floor.  The cloture vote requires 60 “yes” votes to approve and really is THE vote to confirm.  The floor vote only requires a simple majority to pass and therefore is a less important vote requiring fewer “yes” votes.

Get it?  These Senators believe they can go back to their constituents with a straight face and tell the chumps that they voted against Bernanke’s confirmation when, in fact, they facilitated his confirmation by voting for cloture to give Bernanke a boost over the potentially insurmountable, 60-vote hurdle.  This sleight-of-hand comes along at the precise moment when we are learning about Bernanke’s true role in the AIG bailout.  As Ryan Grim reported for The Huffington Post:

A Republican senator said Tuesday that documents showing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernake covered up the fact that his staff recommended he not bailout AIG are being kept from the public.  And a House Republican charged that a whistleblower had alerted Congress to specific documents provide “troubling details” of Bernanke’s role in the AIG bailout.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Bernanke critic, said on CNBC that he has seen documents showing that Bernanke overruled such a recommendation.  If that’s the case, it raises questions about whether bailing out AIG was actually necessary, and what Bernanke’s motives were.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism disclosed that Congressman Darrell Issa, who has been investigating the AIG bailout in his role as ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “believes there is evidence that says Bernanke overruled his staff and authorized the rescue”.  Ms. Smith explained how Issa is pushing ahead to investigate:

Rep. Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee has asked to Committee Chairman Towns to subpoena more documents from the Fed regarding its decision-making process in the AIG bailout.

*   *   *

In addition, Issa has noted that the Fed had failed to comply in full with previous subpoenas, and has not released any documents relative to AIG prior to September 2008 or after May 2009, even though they fall within the scope of previous subpoenas.

Congressman Issa’s letter can be viewed in its entirety here.

You may recall that the fight against the Fed for release of the AIG bailout documents became the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose confirmation of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Fed chair.  Senator Jim Bunning did a fantastic job articulating many of those points during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  Beyond that, economist Randall Wray gave us “3 Reasons to Fear Bernanke’s Reappointment” at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 website.  Dr. Wray concluded his essay with this statement:

To be clear, I would prefer to replace Bernanke with someone who actually understands monetary policy and who advocates regulation and supervision of financial institutions.

The really pressing issue at this point is whether the withheld AIG bailout documents, which are the subject of Congressman Issa’s latest inquiry, might actually reveal some malefaction on the part of Bernanke himself.  A revelation of that magnitude would certainly kill the confirmation effort.  If Bernanke is confirmed prior to the release of documents indicating malfeasance on his part, I’ll be wishing I had a dollar for every time a Senator would say:  “I just voted for cloture –but I voted against confirmation.”



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The Battle Over Bernanke

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January 25, 2010

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

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

James Pethokoukis of Reuters explained the situation in these terms:

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

At The Hill, Tony Romm reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A plague of locusts shall be visited upon us,

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

An incurable venereal disease will be spread via toilet seats,

The Internet will vanish, and   . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.



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Taking The Suckers For Granted

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January 21. 2010

In the aftermath of Coakley Dokeley’s failed quest to replace Teddy Kennedy as Senator of Massachusetts, the airwaves and the blogosphere have been filled with an assortment of explanations for how and why the Bay State elected a Republican senator for the first time in 38 years.  I saw the reason as a simple formula:  One candidate made 66 campaign appearances while the other made 19.  The rationale behind the candidate’s lack of effort was simple:  she took the voters for granted.  This was the wrong moment to be taking the voters for chumps.  At a time when Democrats were vested with a “supermajority” in the Senate, an overwhelming majority in the House and with control over the Executive branch, they overtly sold out the interests of their constituents in favor of payoffs from lobbyists.  Obama’s centerpiece legislative effort, the healthcare bill, turned out to be another “crap sandwich” of loopholes, exceptions, escape clauses and an effective date after the Mayan-prophesized end of the world.  Obama’s giveaway to Big Pharma was outdone by Congressional giveaways to the healthcare lobby.

The Democrats’ efforts to bring about financial reform are now widely viewed as just another opportunity to rake in money and favors from lobbyists, leaving the suckers who voted for them to suffer worse than before.  Coakley Dokeley made the same mistake that Obama and most politicians of all stripes are making right now:  They’re taking the suckers for granted.  That narrative seems to be another important reason why the Massachusetts senatorial election has become such a big deal.  There is a lesson to be learned by the politicians, who are likely to ignore it.

Paul Farrell recently wrote an open letter to President Obama for MarketWatch, entitled:  “10 reasons Obama is now failing 95 million investors”.  In his discussion of reason number five, “Failing to pick a cast of characters that could have changed history”, Farrell made this point:

Last year many voted for you fearing McCain might pick Phil Gramm as Treasury secretary.  Unfortunately, Mr. President, your picks not only revived Reaganomics under the guise of Keynesian economics, you sidelined a real change-agent, Paul Volcker, and picked Paulson-clones like Geithner and Summers.  But worst of all, you’re reappointing Bernanke, a Greenspan clone, as Fed chairman, an economist who, as Taleb put it, “doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work.”  And with that pick, you proved you also don’t understand how things work.

Another former Obama supporter, Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News, wrote a piece for The Daily Beast, examining Obama’s leadership shortcomings:

In the campaign, he said he would change politics as usual.  He did change them.  It’s now worse than it was.  I’ve now seen the kind of buying off of politicians that I’ve never seen before.  It’s politically corrupt and it’s starting at the top.  It’s revolting.

*   *   *

I hope there are changes.  I think he’s already laid in huge problems for the country.  The fiscal program was a disaster.  You have to get the money as quickly as possible into the economy.  They didn’t do that.  By end of the first year, only one-third of the money was spent.  Why is that?

He should have jammed a stimulus plan into Congress and said, “This is it.  No changes.  Don’t give me that bullshit.  We have a national emergency.”  Instead they turned it over to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who can run circles around him.

As for the Democrats’ pre-sabotaged excuse for “financial reform”, the fate of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Elizabeth Warren, the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA, explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

Setting up the CFPA is largely a matter of stripping the Fed and other agencies of their consumer protection duties and relocating them into a new agency.

With all the coverage and expressed anticipation that the Massachusetts election will serve as a “wake-up call” to Obama and Congressional Democrats, not all of us are so convinced.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns put it this way:

But, I don’t think the President gets it.  He is holed up in the echo chamber called the White House.  If the catastrophic loss in Massachusetts’ Senate race and the likely defeat of his health care reform bill doesn’t wake Obama up to the realities that he is not in Roosevelt’s position but in Hoover’s, he will end as a failed one-term President.

I agree.  I also believe that the hubris will continue.  Why would any of these politicians change their behavior?  The “little people” never did matter.  They exist solely to be played as fools.  They are powerless against the plutocracy.  Right?



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