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License To Steal

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People are finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions.  Voters have seen so many politicians breach their campaign promises while providing new meaning to the expression “follow the money”, that there now seems to be a resigned acceptance that political payoffs are an uncomfortable fact of life.  Worse yet, most people aren’t aware of another loophole in the law allowing Congress-cretins to make real money.

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

Here is a summary of the most important provisions of the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act”:

Amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Commodities Exchange Act to direct both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prohibit purchase or sale of either securities or commodities for future delivery by a person in possession of material nonpublic information regarding pending or prospective legislative action if the information was obtained:  (1) knowingly from a Member or employee of Congress; (2) by reason of being a Member or employee of Congress; and (3) other federal employees.

Amends the Code of Official Conduct of the Rules of the House of Representatives to prohibit designated House personnel from disclosing material nonpublic information relating to any pending or prospective legislative action relating to either securities of a publicly-traded company or a commodity if such personnel has reason to believe that the information will be used to buy or sell the securities or commodity based on such information.

Back in September of 2009, a report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators in September of 2008, after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting then GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.    .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement.  Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group.  Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

Take a look at the list below from opensecrets.org concerning the wealthiest members of Congress.  In light of the fact that these knaves are able to trade on “inside information” you now have the answer to the following question from the opensecrets website:

Congressional members’ personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases.  The same cannot be said for most Americans.  Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

Here is the Top Ten List of the Richest Members of Congress from opensecrets.org:

NAME               MINIMUM NET WORTH    AVERAGE   MAXIMUM NET WORTH

Darrell Issa (R-Calif) $156,050,022      $303,575,011    $451,100,000

Jane Harman (D-Calif)  $151,480,522    $293,454,761   $435,429,001

John Kerry (D-Mass)    $182,755,534     $238,812,296   $294,869,059

Mark Warner (D-Va)     $65,692,210       $174,385,102   $283,077,995

Jared Polis (D-Colo)     $36,694,140        $160,909,068   $285,123,996

Herb Kohl (D-Wis)        $89,358,027           $160,302,011   $231,245,995

Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla)$-69,434,661    $148,373,160  $366,180,982

Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $73,685,086  $137,611,043  $201,537,000

Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)  $61,446,018      $98,832,010   $136,218,002

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) $46,055,250    $77,082,134   $108,109,018

Jay Rockefeller’s position on the list is easy to understand, given the fact that he is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  How the first eight people on the list were able to become more wealthy than Jay Rockefeller should be matter of interest to the voting public.  In the case of  #10 — California Senator Dianne Feinstein  — we have an interesting situation.  As chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  In an article for bohemian.com, Peter Byrne discussed how Senator Feinstein was routinely informed about specific federal projects coming before her in which one of her husband’s businesses had a stake.  As Byrne’s article explained, the inside information Feinstein received was intended to help the senator avoid conflicts of interest, although it had the effect of exacerbating such conflicts.

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest .   .   .


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Spinning Away From The Truth

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May 14, 2009

Wednesday was a rough day on Wall Street.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 184 points (just over two percent) to 8284; the Standard and Poor’s 500 index gave up over 24 points (2.69 percent) closing at 883.92 and the NASDAQ 100 index gave up 51.73 points (3.01 percent).  One didn’t have to look very far to find the reason.  At The Daily Beast website on Wednesday evening, item number 2 on the Cheat Sheet was a link to an article from The Wall Street Journal by Peter McKay, entitled:  “Signs of Consumer Strain Hit Stocks”.  The morning’s bad news was described by Mr. McKay in these terms:

The Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell 0.4% in April from the prior month, a steeper decline than the 0.1% gain economists expected.  Sales in March were revised down, falling 1.3% instead of 1.2% as previously reported.

The Wall Street Journal also ran an article on this subject by Justin Lahart:  “Retail Sales Stall on Consumer Caution”.  Mr. Lahart’s piece underscored the message reverberating through the evening’s financial reporting:

Indeed, retail sales rose in January and February after sliding for six straight months.  But those hopes were undermined by the 1.3% drop in retail sales in March as well as April’s decline.

The data suggest that a recovery won’t come until the second half of the year, and that when it does arrive it will be sluggish, said Michael Darda, an economist at MKM Partners in Stamford, Conn.

As I scanned through a number of websites to peruse the evening’s news stories, I was quite shocked to see the following headline on the Huffington Post blog, with screaming, bright red, upper-case, oversized font:  “BLOOMBERG NEWS:  CONSUMERS FEELING ‘INSPIRED’ TO SPEND MORE”.  Huh?   Just below the headline were three large photos.  The photo on the left featured a lineup of luxurious yachts, reminiscent of what can be found along Indian Creek during the Miami Beach Boat Show.  The middle picture showed that guy from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, raising a silver goblet in a toast to the photographer.  The photo on the right depicted a headless woman, adorned in enough jewelry to turn Ruth Madoff green with envy.  Had someone hacked into the HuffPo website and put this up as a gag?  (Later in the evening, I checked back at the site.  Although there was a new main headline relating to a different story, the link to the “inspired consumers” story was still there, although down the page.)

Clicking on the “inspired consumers” headline brought me to a story from Bloomberg News, entitled:  “‘Good Bad’ Economy Inspires Consumers As Slump Eases”.  “Good bad economy”?  I had trouble figuring out what that meant because I lost my George Orwell Decoder Ring.  Looking at this slice from the story told me enough about what they were trying to say:

Investor Exuberance

A Bloomberg survey of users on six continents showed that confidence in the global economy rose to the highest level in 19 months.

Antarctica and what five other continents?

The Huffington Post‘s BizarroWorld headline struck me as an attempt to imbue readers with a perception of Happy Days in Obamaland.  That headline and its incorporated story reminded me of a point recently made by one of my favorite bloggers, Jr. Deputy Accountant:

You know, there are times when I wonder just how difficult it is to keep the PR machine running at full speed and keep the market propped up artificially and massage Goldman’s nuts all at once.  Somehow, the powers-that-be are pulling it off, and I imagine that a large part of the dirty work, at least when it comes to PR, is taken care of by our moronic friends in mainstream media who feed up gems like this:  Citi using most of TARP capital to make loans.

(As an aside:  the reference to “Goldman” is Goldman Sachs, the second largest contributor to President Obama’s election campaign.)

Instead of relying on “the PR machine” to feed me propaganda about the economy, I rely on some of the sources included on this website’s blogroll.  Most of the writers for those sites are credentialed professionals, regarded as experts in their field (as opposed to the dilettantes, who cheerlead for Wall Street in the mainstream media).  One of these experts is Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.  If you want to keep up with what’s really happening in the financial world, I suggest that you read her blog.

The truth of what the economy has in store for us is not pretty.  If you are ready to have a look at it, read Jeremy Grantham’s most recent report.  His bottom line is that late this year or early next year there will be a stock market rally, bringing the Standard and Poor’s 500 index near the 1100 range.  After that, get ready for seven really lean years:

A large rally here is far more likely to prove a last hurrah — a codicil on the great bullishness we have had since the early 90s or, even in some respects, since the early 80s.  The rally, if it occurs, will set us up for a long, drawn-out disappointment not only in the economy, but also in the stock markets of the developed world.

Unfortunately, it’s already too late for President Obama to accept the following rationale from Mr. Grantham’s essay:

We should particularly not allow ourselves to be intimidated by the financial mafia into believing that all of the failing financial companies — or very nearly all — had to be defended at all costs.  To take the equivalent dough that was spent on propping up, say, Goldman or related entities like AIG (that were necessary to Goldman’s well being), as well as the many other incompetent banks and spending it instead on really useful, high return infrastructure and energy conservation and oil and coal replacement projects would seem like a real bargain for society.  Yes, we would certainly have had a very painful temporary economic hit from financial and other bankruptcies if we had decided to let them go, but given the proven resilience of economies, it would still have seemed a better long-term bet.

After reading Jeremy Grantham’s recent quarterly letter, ask yourself this:  Do you feel “inspired” to spend more?

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?