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More Favorable Reviews For Huntsman

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In my last posting, I focused on how Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate to present responsible ideas for regulating the financial industry (Obama included).  Since that time, I have read a number of similarly favorable reactions from respected authorities and commentators who reviewed Huntsman’s proposals .

Simon Johnson is the former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2007-2008.  He is currently the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  At his Baseline Scenario blog, Professor Johnson posted the following comments in reaction to Jon Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform and Huntsman’s October 19 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal:

More bailouts and the reinforcement of moral hazard – protecting bankers and other creditors against the downside of their mistakes – is the last thing that the world’s financial system needs.   Yet this is also the main idea of the Obama administration.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Fiscal Times this week that European leaders “are going to have to move more quickly to put in place a strong firewall to help protect countries that are undertaking reforms,” meaning more bailouts.  And this week we learned more about the underhand and undemocratic ways in which the Federal Reserve saved big banks last time around.  (You should read Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, to understand Mr. Geithner’s philosophy of unconditional bailouts; remember that he was president of the New York Fed before become treasury secretary.)

Is there really no alternative to pouring good money after bad?

In a policy statement released this week, Governor Jon Huntsman articulates a coherent alternative approach to the financial sector, which begins with a diagnosis of our current problem:  Too Big To Fail banks,

“To protect taxpayers from future bailouts and stabilize America’s economic foundation, Jon Huntsman will end too-big-to-fail. Today we can already begin to see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts. More than three years after the crisis and the accompanying bailouts, the six largest U.S. financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were before the crisis, having been encouraged by regulators to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices”

Mr. Geithner feared the collapse of big banks in 2008-09 – but his policies have made them bigger.  This makes no sense.  Every opportunity should be taken to make the megabanks smaller and there are plenty of tools available, including hard size caps and a punitive tax on excessive size and leverage (with any proceeds from this tax being used to reduce the tax burden on the nonfinancial sector, which will otherwise be crushed by the big banks’ continued dangerous behavior).

The goal is simple, as Mr. Huntsman said in his recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece: make the banks small enough and simple enough to fail, “Hedge funds and private equity funds go out of business all the time when they make big mistakes, to the notice of few, because they are not too big to fail.  There is no reason why banks cannot live with the same reality.”

The quoted passage from Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal essay went on to say this:

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product—at least $9.4 trillion, up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.  There is no evidence that institutions of this size add sufficient value to offset the systemic risk they pose.

The major banks’ too-big-to-fail status gives them a comparative advantage in borrowing over their competitors thanks to the federal bailout backstop.

Far be it from President Obama to make such an observation.

Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform included a discussion of repealing the Dodd-Frank law:

More specifically, real reform means repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which perpetuates too-big-to-fail and imposes costly and mostly useless regulations on innocent smaller banks without addressing the root causes of the crisis or anticipating future crises.  But the overregulation cannot be addressed without ending the bailout subsidies, so that is where reform must begin.

Beyond that, Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal piece gave us a chance to watch the candidate step in shit:

Once too-big-to-fail is fixed, we could then more easily repeal the law’s unguided regulatory missiles, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  American banks provide advice and access to capital to the entrepreneurs and small business owners who have always been our economic center of gravity.  We need a banking sector that is able to serve that critical role again.

American banks also do a lot to screw their “personal banking” customers (the “little people”) and sleazy “payday loan”-type operations earn windfall profits exploiting those workers whose incomes aren’t enough for them to make it from paycheck-to-paycheck.  The American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  American consumers have always been “our economic center of gravity” and the CFPB was designed to protect them.  Huntsman would do well to jettison his anti-CFPB agenda if he wants to become President.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, exhibited a similarly “hot and cold” reaction to Huntsman’s proposals for financial reform.  What follows is a passage from a recent posting at his Rortybomb blog, entitled “Huntsman Wants to Repeal Dodd-Frank so he can Pass Title VII of Dodd-Frank”:

So we need to get serious about derivatives regulation by bringing transparency to the over-the-counter derivatives market, with serious collateral requirements.  This was turned into law as the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of 2010, or Title VII of Dodd-Frank.

So we need to eliminate Dodd-Frank in order to pass Dodd-Frank’s resolution authority and derivative regulations – two of the biggest parts of the bill – but call it something else.

You can argue that Dodd-Frank’s derivative rules have too many loopholes with too much of the market exempted from the process and too much power staying with the largest banks.  But those are arguments that Dodd-Frank doesn’t go far enough, where Huntsman’s critique of Dodd-Frank is that it goes way too far.

Huntsman should be required to explain the issues here – is he against Dodd-Frank before being for it?  Is his Too Big To Fail policy and derivatives policy the same as Dodd-Frank, and if not how do they differ?  It isn’t clear from the materials he has provided so far how the policies would be different, and if it is a problem with the regulations in practice how he would get stronger ones through Congress.

I do applaud this from Huntsman:

RESTORING RULE OF LAW

President Huntsman’s administration will direct the Department of Justice to take the lead in investigating and brokering an agreement to resolve the widespread legal abuses such as the robo-signing scandal that unfolded in the aftermath of the housing bubble.  This is a basic question of rule of law; in this country no one is above the law. There are also serious issues involving potential violations of the securities laws, particularly with regard to fair and accurate disclosure of the underlying loan contracts and property titles in mortgage-backed securities that were sold.  If investors’ rights were abused, this needs to be addressed fully.  We need a comprehensive settlement that puts all these issues behind us, but any such settlement must include full redress of all legal violations.

*   *   *

And I will note that the dog-whistles hidden inside the proposal are towards strong reforms (things like derivatives reform “will also allow end-users to negotiate better terms with Wall Street and in turn lower trading costs” – implicitly arguing that the dealer banks have too much market power and it is the role of the government to create a fair playing field).  Someone knows what they are doing.  His part on bringing down the GSEs doesn’t mention the hobbyhorse of the Right that the CRA and the GSEs caused the crisis, which is refreshing to see.

If Republican voters are smart, they will vote for Jon Huntsman in their state primary elections.  As I said last time:  If Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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Some Quick Takes On The Financial Crisis Inquiry Report

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The official Financial Crisis Inquiry Report by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has become the subject of many turgid commentaries since its January 27 release date.  The Report itself is 633 pages long.  Nevertheless, if you hope to avoid all that reading by relying on reviews of the document, you could easily end up reading 633 pages of commentary about it.  By that point, you might be left with enough questions or curiosity to give up and actually read the whole, damned thing.  (Here it is.)  If you are content with reading the 14 pages of the Commission’s Conclusions, you can find those here.  What follows is my favorite passage from that section:

We conclude widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets. The sentries were not at their posts, in no small part due to the widely accepted faith in the self-correcting nature of the markets and the ability of financial institutions to effectively police themselves.  More than 30 years of deregulation and reliance on self-regulation by financial institutions, championed by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and others, supported by successive administrations and Congresses, and actively pushed by the powerful financial industry at every turn, had stripped away key safeguards, which could have helped avoid catastrophe.  This approach had opened up gaps in oversight of critical areas with trillions of dollars at risk, such as the shadow banking system and over-the-counter derivatives markets.  In addition, the government permitted financial firms to pick their preferred regulators in what became a race to the weakest supervisor.

In order to help save you some time and trouble, I will provide you with a brief roadmap to some of the commentary that is readily available:

Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times introduced her own 1,257-word discourse in this way:

For those who might find the report’s 633 pages a bit daunting for a weekend read, we offer a Cliffs Notes version.

Let’s begin with the Federal Reserve, the most powerful of financial regulators.  The report’s most important public service comes in its recitation of how top Fed officials, both in Washington and in New York, fiddled while the financial system smoldered and then burned.  It is disturbing indeed that this institution, defiantly inert and uninterested in reining in the mortgage mania, received even greater regulatory powers under the Dodd-Frank law that was supposed to reform our system.

(I find it disturbing that Ms. Morgenson is still fixated on “mortgage mania” as a cause of the crisis after having been upbraided by Barry Ritholtztwice – for “pushing the Fannie-Freddie CRA meme”.)

At her Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith focused more intently on what the FCIC Report didn’t say, as opposed to what it actually said:

The FCIC has also been unduly close-lipped about their criminal referrals, refusing to say how many they made or giving a high-level description of the type of activities they encouraged prosecutors to investigate.  By contrast, the Valukas report on the Lehman bankruptcy discussed in some detail whether it thought civil or criminal charges could be brought against Lehman CEO Richard Fuld and chief financial officers chiefs Chris O’Meara, Erin Callan and Ian I Lowitt, and accounting firm Ernst & Young.  If a report prepared in a private sector action can discuss liability and name names, why is the public not entitled to at least some general disclosure on possible criminal actions coming out of a taxpayer funded effort?  Or is it that the referrals were merely to burnish the image of the report, and are expected to die a speedy death?

At his Calculated Risk blog, Bill McBride corroborated one of the Report’s Conclusions, by recounting his own experience.  After quoting some of the language supporting the point that the crisis could have been avoided if the warning signs had not been ignored, due to the “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, McBride recalled a specific example:

This is absolutely correct.  In 2005 I was calling regulators and I was told they were very concerned – and several people told me confidentially that the political appointees were blocking all efforts to tighten standards – and one person told me “Greenspan is throwing his body in front of all efforts to tighten standards”.

The dissenting views that discount this willful lack of regulation are absurd and an embarrassment for the authors.

William Black wrote an essay criticizing the dissenters themselves – based on their experience in developing the climate of financial deregulation that facilitated the crisis:

The Commission is correct.  Absent the crisis was avoidable.  The scandal of the Republican commissioners’ apologia for their failed anti-regulatory policies was also avoidable.  The Republican Congressional leadership should have ensured that it did not appoint individuals who would be in the impossible position of judging themselves.  Even if the leadership failed to do so and proposed such appointments, the appointees to the Commission should have recognized the inherent conflict of interest and displayed the integrity to decline appointment.  There were many Republicans available with expertise in, for example, investigating elite white-collar criminals regardless of party affiliation.  That was the most relevant expertise needed on the Commission.

At this point, the important question is whether the efforts of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any changes that could help us avoid another disaster.  I’m not feeling too hopeful.


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The Poisonous Bailout

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June 10, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Strong, Vibrant Company’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Doctor Doom Writes A Prescription

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May 6, 2010

As I discussed on April 26, expectations for serious financial reform are pretty low.  Worse yet, Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) felt confident enough to make this announcement, during a conference call with private wealth management clients:

“We will be among the biggest beneficiaries of reform.”

So how effective could “financial reform” possibly be if Lloyd Bankfiend expects to benefit from it?  Allan Sloan of Fortune suggested following the old Wall Street maxim of “what they promise you isn’t necessarily what you get” when examining the plans to reform Wall Street:

President Obama talks about “a common sense, reasonable, nonideological approach to target the root problems that led to the turmoil in our financial sector and ultimately in our entire economy.”  But what we’ll get from the actual legislation isn’t necessarily what we hear from the Salesman-in-Chief.

Sloan offered an alternative by providing “Six Simple Steps” to help fix the financial system.  He wasn’t alone in providing suggestions overlooked by our legislators.

Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis) has written a new book with Stephen Mihm entitled, Crisis Economics:  A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.  (Mihm is a professor of economic history and a New York Times Magazine writer.)  An excerpt from the book recently appeared in The Telegraph.  The idea of fixing our “sub-prime financial system” was introduced this way:

Even though they have suffered the worst financial crisis in generations, many countries have shown a remarkable reluctance to inaugurate the sort of wholesale reform necessary to bring the financial system to heel.  Instead, people talk of tinkering with the financial system, as if what just happened was caused by a few bad mortgages.

*   *   *

Since its founding, the United States has suffered from brutal banking crises and other financial disasters on a regular basis.  Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, crippling panics and depressions hit the nation again and again.  The crisis was less a function of sub-prime mortgages than of a sub-prime financial system.  Thanks to everything from warped compensation structures to corrupt ratings agencies, the global financial system rotted from the inside out.  The financial crisis merely ripped the sleek and shiny skin off what had become, over the years, a gangrenous mess.

Roubini and Mihm had nothing favorable to say about CDOs, which they referred to as “Chernobyl Death Obligations”.  Beyond that, the authors called for more transparency in derivatives trading:

Equally comprehensive reforms must be imposed on the kinds of deadly derivatives that blew up in the recent crisis.  So-called over-the-counter derivatives — better described as under-the-table — must be hauled into the light of day, put on central clearing houses and exchanges and registered in databases; their use must be appropriately restricted.  Moreover, the regulation of derivatives should be consolidated under a single regulator.

Although derivatives trading reform has been advanced by Senators Maria Cantwell and Blanche Lincoln, inclusion of such a proposal in the financial reform bill faces an uphill battle.  As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post reported:

The administration, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and even the FDIC are lockstep against it.

The administration, Treasury and the Fed are also fighting hard against a bipartisan effort to include an amendment in the financial reform bill that would compel a full audit of the Federal Reserve.  I’m intrigued by the possibility that President Obama could veto the financial reform bill if it includes a provision to audit the Fed.

Jordan Fabian of The Hill discussed Congressman Alan Grayson’s theory about why Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes a Fed audit:

But Grayson, who is known for his tough broadsides against opponents, indicated Geithner may have had a role in enacting “secret bailouts and loan guarantees” to large corporations, while New York Fed chairman during the Bush administration.

“It’s one of the biggest conflict of interests I have ever seen,” he said.

With the Senate and the administration resisting various elements of financial reform, the recent tragedy in Nashville provides us with a reminder of how history often repeats itself.  The concluding remarks from the Roubini – Mihm piece in The Telegraph include this timely warning:

If we strengthen the levees that surround our financial system, we can weather crises in the coming years. Though the waters may rise, we will remain dry.  But if we fail to prepare for the inevitable hurricanes — if we delude ourselves, thinking that our antiquated defences will never be breached again — we face the prospect of many future floods.

The issue of whether our government will take the necessary steps to prevent another financial crisis continues to remain in doubt.



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